Are the Coyotes in trouble on the ice this season?

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It seems like whenever we’re talking about the Phoenix Coyotes it’s always about what’s happening with their ownership situation. All the off-ice stuff gets the headlines for the lovable team in the desert that rolls onward without executive leadership while their efforts on the ice play second banana to all that. That might not be fair, but that’s life.

Going into this season, however, coach Dave Tippett is going to have his hands full in trying to keep the “Little Engine That Could” Coyotes rolling along and keeping them a playoff team. While the team is returning five of their six top scorers from last season, there’s a lot of doubt swirling about the team whether they can score enough while supporting starting goaltending that seems to be, at best, highly suspect.

Take a look at how their forwards stack up. Shane Doan (60 points), Ray Whitney (57 points), Radim Vrbata (48 points), and Lauri Korpikoski (40 points) make up part of that group of players that led the way in scoring for them last year. Doan is 35 years-old and has some hard miles on his body. Whitney turns 39 this season and has seen his production fall off in three of his last four seasons. Vrbata is 30 years-old and is one of their slicker forwards while Korpikoski put up good numbers while buried on the team’s third or fourth line on occasion.

The Coyotes offseason additions don’t bring a lot of hope to their situation up front. Raffi Torres will make them tougher to deal with and Tippett will like having his physical presence out there, but he’s not scoring goals for them. Taking a flyer on Patrick O’Sullivan in hopes he can find his old scoring touch is nice, but where the Coyotes could get their biggest push from is letting their youth run wild.

Players like Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Andy Miele, and Victor Tikhonov haven’t had the leash taken off of them to see what they can do offensively and the Coyotes are going to need a spark from them. The one young forward that has gotten a push is Martin Hanzal thanks to his ability to win faceoffs and play tougher defensively. Tippett demands solid play both ways, even bordering on being highly dull, but getting the lift and injection of life from those youngsters is what the team could use to be a playoff team once again in the West.

Even on defense there’s youth to be found. 2009 first round pick Oliver Ekman-Larsson spent most of last season in Phoenix but as a healthy scratch. His slick puck handling and offensive abilities from the blue line could help take the pressure off of Keith Yandle (59 points) who saw his great offensive work fall off the map in the second half of the year. Asking guys like Derek Morris or even David Schlemko to help support Yandle in that role on the power play is asking more out of those guys than necessary.

Ekman-Larsson will have a bright future in the NHL, and after getting to watch a lot of it up close and personal, perhaps he’ll have the “caged animal” effect in that he’ll go through walls to win a starting job.

One thing is for sure though in Phoenix, the team has a dearth of playmaking centers and it’s something that’s going to hamper their ability to score goals. Unless Turris has a breakout season and is allowed to do his thing creatively, there’s no one else there that is a bonafide set-up man. Hanzal? No. Alexandre Bolduc? Not a chance. Kyle Chipchura? Not even close. The Coyotes will be able to grind other centers’ faces off, but they won’t be able to outscore them.

With how Dave Tippett coaches his teams, perhaps that’s just what his plan is going to be by grinding other teams into submission and give his goalies Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera as much help as possible. It’s like the only way to ensure that Phoenix can win more games than how the roster seems like it should on paper, but it’s not the exciting brand of hockey that’s going to help keep the fans excited either. Obviously Tippett is a perennial Jack Adams Award finalist for a reason, but there’s a lot that stands out on the Coyotes roster that gives us plenty to worry about.

PHT Morning Skate: What’s holding the Islanders back?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• University of Alabama hockey player Jon Lovorn is dedicating this season to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School. (SECCountry.com)

• It’s time for the NHL to give all 31 teams an outdoor game next season. (Vice Sports)

• Philly.com takes a look at Sean Couturier‘s “well-balanced” life and how it got him to the NHL. (Philly.com)

• A strong end to 2017 could help the Predators land home ice advantage in the playoffs (Predlines)

• If/when Seattle makes it to the NHL, there might be too many teams in the Pacific Division. How would realignment look? (Five for Howling)

• One of the reasons the Oilers have struggled for so long is because of their inability to select solid players late in drafts. (OilersNation.com)

• The only thing that appears to be holding the Islanders back is goaltending. (The Hockey News)

• The Hershey Bears released their 2018 Outdoor Classic Jersey for their game against Lehigh Valley next month. (RussianMachineNeverBreaks.com)

• The Rangers’ recent struggles prove that they need to be sellers before the trade deadline. (NY Post)

• The Devils and Coyotes swapped minor-league forwards yesterday. New Jersey got Michael Latta while the Coyotes got Ryan Kujawinski. (NHL.com/Coyotes)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Saros, streaks, shutouts

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Player of the Night: Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

You can criticize the Edmonton Oilers for taking too many perimeter shots and/or having their defensemen fire the puck far too often, and you’d probably have a point.

Still, on nights like these, you also have to acknowledge that the Oilers have also run into some tough luck and even tougher goalies. When it came to Thursday, Saros was that tough goalie, and he reminded the NHL that’s he capable of being more than “just a backup.”

The Finnish goalie set a new Predators record by making 46 saves for a shutout, collecting the second goose egg of his blossoming career.

The Predators (specifically Kyle Turris‘ new second line, which might need to be called a 1B line at this rate) are on a roll, beating Edmonton 4-0 to grab at least one point (7-1-2) in nine of their last 10 games.

Highlights of the Night

Nice play finished by Patrick Kane, as the Blackhawks cooled the Jets:

Jakub Vrana‘s goal was pretty sweet, and a taste of the Capitals’ recent dominance of the Bruins.

Josh Bailey‘s hat trick is worth watching here, even if it wasn’t enough to propel the Islanders to a win against the Blue Jackets.

Scary moment

Here’s hoping that Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ryan Callahan are OK:

The Lightning kept their hot streak going with a W over the Coyotes.

Factoids

Brayden Point gets the Lightning their … well, you probably know. Their points.

The Wild are picking it up, and it’s not just the power of Bruce Boudreau. Probably.

The Flyers are weird, and so is hockey.

Scores

Capitals 5, Bruins 3
Flyers 2, Sabres 1
Blue Jackets 6, Islanders 4
Canadiens 2, Devils 1 (OT)
Ducks 3, Blues 1
Wild 2, Maple Leafs 0
Blackhawks 5, Jets 1
Avalanche 2, Panthers 1
Sharks 3, Flames 2
Predators 4, Oilers 0
Lightning 4, Coyotes 1
Golden Knights 2, Penguins 1

Fleury gets revenge against Penguins, Vegas grabs 20th win

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If you’re the fussy type, you might object to the word “revenge” in the headline.

It feels wrong to say that Marc-Andre Fleury got “the last laugh” against the Pittsburgh Penguins, being that this game happened in mid-December. So feel free to soften the verbiage; maybe you’d prefer to say that Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights merely “got the best” of the Penguins.

Either way, round one goes to “MAF.”

The instinct might be to ding this game because it came in Vegas instead of Pittsburgh, but you could say that there was a healthy offering of Penguins fans tonight:

Whatever way you slice it, there was reportedly a fascinating atmosphere in Vegas, even if the game was a bit “low-event” at times, at least when you consider sheer pucks on net; Fleury stopped 24 out of 25 shots on goal while Murray gave up two goals on 26.

This odd-angle goal by Ian Cole was the only puck to beat Fleury, who was lights out in a second straight victory since returning from concussion issues that … we thought might have been the end of the Golden Knights’ hot start.

If the scene wasn’t nostalgia-laced enough, consider that Fleury evoked the save he made against Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final:

Sheesh, some of this stuff almost seems on the nose, doesn’t it?

Remarkably, the Golden Knights improve to 20-9-2 while the Penguins fell to 16-14-3. Writing that almost made me pass out from the unlikelihood of it all; honestly, if someone told Golden Knights management that their record could be 16-14-3, they’d probably take it, right?

In case you’re wondering, yes, this marks another record.

So, the Golden Knights are 12-2-1 in Vegas so far. This doesn’t guarantee that there’s some sort of … sickness that comes from playing a team located in Sin City, yet it doesn’t exactly slam the door shut on such a conversation, either.

Now, Marc-Andre Fleury? He’s done quite a commendable job of shutting the door so far for the Golden Knights. His old buddies found out the hard way tonight.

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.

Now Flyers are on a five-game winning streak

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It wasn’t pretty, but every NHL coach prefers the aesthetic value of a “W” over an “L.”

After a bewildering 10-game losing streak, the Philadelphia Flyers are now on a very different run, as a 2-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres makes it five straight wins. Fans probably aren’t calling for Dave Hakstol’s head right now, not with his team a mere two points out of a playoff spot.

Interestingly, it seems like the Flyers may be approaching things in a way that would make Bill Parcells nod in approval: lifting themselves up when down (see GM Ron Hextall’s optimism during the losing streak) while keeping heads straight amid success.

Really, it might just come down to Thursday’s win being “no frills,” as the rest of their five-game run has been pretty impressive:

Dec. 4: 5-2 win at  Calgary
Dec. 6: 4-2 win at Edmonton
Dec. 7: 4-1 win at Vancouver
Dec 12: 4-2 home win vs Toronto
Tonight: 2-1 home win against Buffalo

A three-game road trip through Western Canada can sometimes be deadly; instead, the Flyers buckled up and turned things around, including winning games on back-to-back nights (and three victories in four evenings).

To some extent, the players who’ve been performing well all season are showing up during this winning streak. There have been strong outputs from Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and others who we’ve come to expect to produce.

The most interesting hot streak might be that of Brian Elliott.

Elliott is responsible for all five of the Flyers wins during this run, allowing eight goals in five contests. Early on, he had to put on a show at times (stopping 43 shots against the Flames), yet he’s only needed to turn aside 39 of 42 shots for his last two wins.

Overall, it’s been an up-and-down first season in Philly for Elliott, a goalie who teams seem almost strangely eager to give up on.

Last season, Elliott played a huge role in the Calgary Flames turning their season around to make the playoffs, including generating 10 wins in the month of March. Ultimately, the team saw enough between a tough start and some postseason struggles to cast the veteran netminder aside.

Perhaps Elliott is a lot like his still-new team in the Flyers: best when people leave you for dead.

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.