Adrian Aucoin: “I’d love to know that there’s going to be hockey in the desert”

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Ever since May of 2009, there has been a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the Phoenix Coyotes. Since the day Jerry Moyes put the team into bankruptcy and tried to sell the team to Jim Balsillie, the Coyotes have had two of the most impressive seasons in franchise history (yes, we’re still including the Winnipeg Jets seasons). In 2009-10, they surprised the entire NHL by finishing 4th in the Western Conference with 107 points. They followed up their Cinderella season with a 99 point effort (good for 6th in the West) and another trip to the playoffs. For a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2002, back-to-back appearances have shown that the team was on the right track.

Unfortunately, fans and those within the organization haven’t been able to enjoy this period of success due to the insecure state of the franchise as a whole. Will they stay? Will they go? Will this owner be the one? These are the questions that have dominated Coyotes headlines across the national landscape much more than “Is Shane Doan the most underrated captain?” or “How good is Dave Tippett?” Until an owner has signed on the dotted line and the Goldwater Institute has given its tacit blessing to any sale, the ownership questions are going to continue to steal the headlines from the actual play on the ice.

Defenseman Adrian Aucoin admitted that doubts off the ice can be concerning—but once the players are on the ice, all of the peripheral issues concerning the sale fade away:

“The luxury we have is as soon as you step on the ice, none of that stuff really matters because we’re there for one reason. It doesn’t matter who owns the team we’re going to be playing as hard as we can.”

(snip)

“As far as family and everything goes, it would be really nice to get it settled just so knowing that where everything’s situated and especially in my case with young kids. And if I’m hoping to retire in Phoenix I’d love to know that there’s going to be hockey in the desert. That’s a huge factor.”

He’s not the only one who would love to know if there’s going to be hockey in the desert. There hasn’t been any new news surrounding the ownership situation, nor any news of potential owners throwing their hat into the ring. Since Matthew Hulsizer publically pulled his bid at the end of June, there haven’t been many investment groups jumping to fill the void. Jerry Reinsdorf’s name has been pulled off of mothballs, but any interest from that side is minimal at best at this point. All the while, Hulsizer has shown interest in purchasing (at least a portion) of the St. Louis Blues.

Wouldn’t it be a kick in the gut if the guy who tried to buy the team for seven months ended up purchasing another team only few months later?

The good news for the Coyotes and their fans is they are guaranteed at least one more season of hockey. Despite operating on a shoestring budget, only the Canucks, Sharks, and Blackhawks have had a better record in the Western Conference than the Coyotes over the last two seasons. This season they’ll have Norris Trophy candidate Keith Yandle returning for the first year of his new 5-year contract. They’ll get to watch youngsters Martin Hanzal and Oliver Ekman-Larsson this season; and once they get restricted free agents Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker under contract, fans will get to watch the two young forwards blossom at the NHL level as well.  An increase in season ticket sales shows that the fans are ready to believe.

Just like any other team in the league, the Coyotes will have a few questions to answer throughout the course of the season if they want to make the playoffs. They’ll have to find a legitimate answer between the pipes to replace Ilya Bryzgalov. They’ll need to replace forwards like Eric Belanger and Vern Fiddler who gave the Coyotes strong depth. They’ll need to find someone to replace Ed Jovanovski’s 20 minutes per game. If they can quickly find answers for all three of these questions, they’ll be well on their way towards yet another playoff berth. After surprising people for two years in a row, it wouldn’t be fair to call it “surprising” anymore.

Whether they are able to succeed or not, we know they’ll be looking for the answers while they’re in Phoenix. Hopefully one day we can just look at the team during the offseason and not have to worry about an ownership dilemma. After all, questions about the team’s play on the ice would be a welcomed change from questions about the team’s ownership in a city council meeting.

Holtby has been lights out for Capitals

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Heading into this season, Braden Holtby‘s calling card was consistency. Maybe he didn’t churn out the absolute best campaign every time, but in winning at least 41 games and generating at least a .923 save percentage from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Holtby put in elite work like clockwork for the Washington Capitals.

The 2017-18 season, meanwhile, has been more like a roller coaster ride.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division once again, but sometimes that success came despite Holtby. He managed 34 wins, yet Holtby struggled with a backup-level .907 save percentage, confessing to fatigue when things really slipped.

Things hit their lowest point toward the end of 2017-18, as impressive backup Philipp Grubauer outright won the Capitals’ starting job, suiting up as the top goalie for Washington’s first two playoff games against Columbus. Of course, both of those games ended in losses, and ultimately opened the door for Holtby to redeem himself.

So far, Holtby’s done more than that. Rather than merely grabbing the starting job, the 28-year-old is looking a lot like the elite goalie we’ve almost come to expect in a time when goalie output can be downright erratic.

Holtby stepped in for Grubauer in Game 2, giving up a goal on eight shots as the Blue Jackets won 5-4 in overtime. Things have picked up since Holtby was in net from the start, which really makes sense since the Capitals netminder is known for his focus.

The Capitals won three straight games to take their current 3-2 series lead, and Holtby’s been outstanding, holding up to the pressure of having little room for error. Two of the past three wins have been in overtime, while only one of Holtby’s appearances didn’t involve a game going beyond regulation (five of the series’ six games hit OT overall).

So far through four games and three starts, Holtby’s stopped 102 out of 109 shots for a splendid save percentage of .936.

Maybe the standout moments came during the third period of Game 5. While a deft Oliver Bjorkstrand deflection eluded Holtby early on in the third, Holtby was the reason Washington was able to survive into overtime, as the Blue Jackets generated an absurd 16-1 shots on goal advantage during that span.

It’s easy to consider the Capitals’ history of playoff disappointments and assume that Holtby’s failed to convert regular season brilliance to strong postseason goaltending, yet Holtby’s long been a dependable presence when the games matter the most.

Despite a 32-31 career playoff record, Holtby’s given the Capitals a chance to win on most nights, sporting a fantastic .932 save percentage so far during his playoff career. That’s the best mark for goalies who’ve played in at least 30 postseason games since 2011-12, and the gap widens when you zoom out to netminders who’ve played in at least 50 during that same span.

Playing at such a high level clearly takes its toll, and you wonder if recent setbacks might serve as a blessing in disguise for Holtby.

Most directly, he got a breather down the stretch, which is significant considering the workload he’s carried the past few seasons.

Beyond that, watching playoff games from the bench had to light a fire under him, possibly reminding him of the earlier days of his career when little was certain. After all, Holtby had to earn his spot as a fourth-round pick (93rd overall in 2008).

Goalies might be creatures of habit who prefer getting the most reps and knowing when their starts are coming, but perhaps it’s human nature to fall into a routine and not be at your very best, particularly when you’re serving as a workhorse goalie.

Whatever the case may be, Holtby’s playing some of his best hockey, and that’s making the Capitals a tough team to beat. If the Blue Jackets want to avoid elimination tonight, they’ll need to get the best of Holtby. That appears to be a far tougher task in April than it seemed to be mere months ago.

Game 6 airs on CNBC at 7:30 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Pittsburgh funeral home celebrates Flyers’ playoff exit with custom prayer cards

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Any time one of the Battle of Pennsylvania participants can get one up on the other, they celebrate having bragging rights loudly and proudly.

The Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday in six games in their first-round matchup and as you can imagine, the Steel City faithful have been enjoying it. On top of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, they’ve also been able to relish winning three of the last four series that these teams have played.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Adding to the chorus of chirps is the Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home and Crematory in East Pittsburgh, who said goodbye to the dearly departed Flyers in their own unique way with prayer cards.

Via Facebook:

Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home & Crematory

“Help us send our condolences to the Philadelphia Flyers and their fans, with these custom prayer cards memorializing their run in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Share for all of our friends in Philly!” read the caption of their Facebook post.

The Flyers have lost six times in the Stanley Cup Final since winning back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975. The Penguins, meanwhile, have won five championships in six Final appearances since 1991, something that’s certainly never been lost on the city in their battles with Philadelphia over the years.

Now Flyers fans can root for their second favorite hockey team: “Anyone playing the Penguins.”

Stick-tap Benstonium

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Can Bill Peters find NHL success with Flames?

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The search for a new head coach lasted less than a week with Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving having interest in hiring only one man — Bill Peters.

It was six days ago that Treliving canned Gulutzan and said his next head coach would have NHL experience. Peters would decide on Friday to opt-out of the final year of his deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, which also meant walking away from a guaranteed $1.6 million salary for 2018-19. He immediately became favorite and the only candidate for the job.

“This is an individual I’m familiar with. This is the individual at the time once we made a change I was focused upon,” Treliving said on Monday. “I was very familiar with the field that was out there. There’s some great candidates. I was focused on Bill.”

Peters, who is an Alberta native and worked with Treliving at the 2016 IIHF World Championships, comes with four seasons of experience as an NHL head coach having led the Carolina Hurricanes since 2014-15. Those four seasons weren’t very successful, however, as the team finished with a combined 137-138-53 record and zero playoff appearances.

That lack of success wasn’t enough to deter Treliving from making the hire. The decision was based more on their brief time together on Canada’s staff two years ago and intel the GM has gathered over the years.

“He’s prepared. I think he’s a student of the modern game. I think he’s relationship-driven with players,” Treliving said. “He’s honest and direct, and as you’ll quickly come to realize, he’s going to be a tremendous addition to our staff.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

With Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton locked up long-term, Peters arrives in Calgary with a roster that has plenty of talent on both ends of the rink. The Hurricanes were a good possession team under him, and that’s one thing the new head coach wants to continue to see with his new roster.

“We’re going to play a game that’s puck possession, ‘D’ active. Face-offs are important — that’s your first 50/50 battle of your shift is a face-off,” Peters said. “I want to have the puck, I want to possess the puck. I want to make sure we have value on the puck when we have it, make good plays, strong plays with it, be hard on it, be a hard team to play against, take advantage of playing on the good ice at the Saddledome.”

While Carolina’s offensive numbers were fine under Peters, the defensive side did not improve. Yeah, there was some terrible goaltending that was a hindrance but the shot suppression did not get better with the Hurricanes allowing an average of 2.02 even strength shots more per game from Year 1 to Year 4.

Peters takes over a Flames team that saw a second half swoon destroy their playoff hopes and lead to the dismissal of their head coach. In Carolina, there was hope in the early days for growth with a young roster, but after a lack of progress as expectations increased during his tenure, it was clear what he was implementing wasn’t working and he could not get through to his players.

Wanting to be a top-10 team in primary statisical categories, the expectations are even higher now for Peters to succeed with the Flames. Will he get a different response here in Calgary compared to Carolina?

“I want to be a team that gets off to a good start, sustains that quality start and has a playoff spot wrapped up and you’re fighting for home ice,” Peters said. “That’s what I would love to see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Wild fire GM Chuck Fletcher, who leaves behind a mess

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The Chuck Fletcher era is over for the Minnesota Wild. After employing Fletcher as their GM for about nine years, the Wild dismissed him on Monday.

“I feel it is time for a new approach,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said in the team’s official release.

The team added that they are immediately searching for a replacement.

For better or worse, the Wild have been generous when it comes to giving their general managers time to make their new approaches work.

Fletcher was GM since May 2009, while Doug Risebrough served as the first GM for about a decade (1999 to 2009). While some teams employ their top executives for multiple decades (see: David Poile in Nashville, Ken Holland with the Red Wings), there are also plenty of front offices who receive precious few opportunities to get things right. Fletcher received plenty of opportunities to break through, and ultimately, his run with the Wild ends with a whimper … and some problems for the next GM to sort out.

Let’s ponder the biggest decisions of the Fletcher days.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Decisions

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There’s simply no way to get around it: the dual signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were the defining moves of Fletcher’s tenure with the Wild. On July 4, 2012, Fletcher handed Parise and Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Just seeing the total cash and term on those deals is staggering, especially as each contract seems to look scarier every time you consider the implications for the Wild as a franchise. Both players are 33 – and showing their age at times, especially in the case of Parise’s unfortunate health – yet their $7.538M cap hits (with no-move clauses) won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

At the time, Parise and Suter linking up in Minnesota as free agents felt as close to the NHL would get to its version of LeBron James’ “Decision.” The biggest of many differences is that, while the Miami Heat won two titles and made multiple NBA Finals appearances with James & Co., the Wild have settled for modest gains. Sure, they’re riding six straight playoff appearances, but they’ve never gotten beyond the second round and haven’t won a division title since signing Suter and Parise.

Spending $15M in cap space on the two already seems dicey. It may only look worse going forward, and if a new GM gets the Wild out of one or both of the deals, it will come at a cost.

Mixed bag

The bad tends to outweigh the good when you consider how much Minnesota is spending on its team (a final cap hit above $75M this past season for a team that won one playoff game, according to Cap Friendly).

This is an aging group, which is disconcerting when you consider that this team doesn’t appear to have a ceiling as a true championship contender.

Eric Staal stands as one of the best additions of Fletcher’s tenure – and make no mistake about it, Fletcher’s had some nice hits along the way – and he’s already 33. Staal also will need a new contract after next season.

Staal, Parise, and Suter are all 33. Mikko Koivu is 35. Even Devan Dubnyk (another nice Fletcher find, and a guy on a team-friendly contract) is already 31.

Again, it’s not all bad. The Bruce Boudreau addition helped players old and young flourish. Fletcher fleeced Garth Snow in getting Nino Niederreiter. The franchise has done a nice job in certain drafting and developing situations, particularly with the likes of Mikael Granlund.

The whiffs have been pretty epic, though, with Parise and Suter already entering albatross territory.

Questions ahead

The next Wild GM faces a tough haul.

Do you try to move Parise and/or Suter, even if it means sweetening the deal by giving up picks? Should the Wild keep Boudreau or let him move on if the plan is a more concerted “rebuild” effort? Would the Wild be better off making difficult decisions, such as parting ways with underrated Selke-caliber center Koivu while he still has value (if he’ll waive his no-move clause, of course)? How much will useful RFAs Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker cost?

Those are some difficult riddles to answer. Fletcher faced tough calls of his own, and enough went wrong that he’ll no longer be running the show in Minnesota.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.