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The Arizona Coyotes should not be this bad

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On Tuesday night the Arizona Coyotes will play their 20th game of the season when they take on the Winnipeg Jets, winners of five of their past seven games.

The Coyotes will enter the game with just two wins on the season.

None of those wins have come in regulation, only defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime back on October 30 and the Carolina Hurricanes in a shootout on November 4.

In total, they have collected just seven out of a possible 38 points.

This is not only the worst start in the NHL this season (they are five points behind the second worst team at the moment, a Florida Panthers team that has played in three fewer games than the Coyotes) it is the worst start any team has had in the NHL over the past 10 years.

Only one other team during that stretch has failed to reach at least the 10-point mark through its first 19 games, the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres, also with seven. That was one of the Sabres teams that was going through the scorched earth rebuild that saw the team get torn down to its most basic foundation in the front office’s efforts to tank for draft position.

Even that Sabres team won three of its first 19 games and one in regulation.

The Coyotes are still a team going through a rebuild and with an extremely young roster. They have seven players that have appeared in at least seven games (including six that have appeared in at least 14 games) that are age 22 or younger. A roster that young is almost certain to experience a lot of growing pains and the playoffs were probably not a realistic goal at the start of this season anyway.

It still should not be this bad because there is some real talent on this roster.

Right now they have the leading front-runner for the NHL’s rookie of the year in Clayton Keller, currently one of the top-five goal-scorers in the NHL. They added a number of established veterans (good ones!) this summer including Derek Stepan (a true top-six center), Niklas Hjalmarsson (a strong defensive defenseman), Antti Raanta and Jason Demers. They have a top-tier defenseman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. There was already a respectable core of young players in Max Domi, Christian Dvorak and Tobias Rieder in place.

It is not a totally hopeless situation on paper.

So what is happening here, and why are they off to such a terrible start?

For one, goaltending has been a pretty significant issue due to an injury to Raanta and a revolving door of backups behind him.

Louis Domingue (traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday), Adin Hill, and Scott Wedgewood are a combined 1-10-1 this season and as a trio have managed just an .876 save percentage.

No team has a chance to win with that level of goaltending.

The Coyotes scored at least three goals (including two games with four goals) in five of those 10 regulation losses that the Domingue, Hill, Wedgewood trio has started.

Three or four goals in regulation is usually enough a hockey game, or at least get a point. Teams that score either three or four goals in a game this season have a points percentage of .646. A team with a .646 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 106 point team in the standings.

When the Coyotes score three or four goals in a game this season (including the eight games started by Raanta)?

They are only at .142 in those games.

With even slightly better goaltending in those games there might have been a couple of extra wins right there. Even just plain bad goaltending would have probably made a difference as a .900 save percentage from those goalies would have sliced nine to 10 goals off of their goals against total for the season.

There is also an element of some bad shooting luck from some of their top forwards, including Stepan.

Prior to this season Stepan has been a remarkably consistent point producer that has always been a lock for at least 55 points and around 20 goals.

Four of the Coyotes’ top-six forwards in terms of shots on goal (Stepan, Domi, Dvorak, Brad Richardson, and Jordan Martinook) currently own a shooting percentage under 5 percent. As a group that quintet  has scored on just six of their 187 shots on goal.

That is a shooting percentage of just 3.2 percent from a group of, mostly, their top forwards.

Prior to this season that group had a career shooting percentage of 9.9 percent.

If they were shooting at their normal career averages on the same number of shots that would be an additional 12 goals from that group alone.

Put all of that together with a young, inexperienced team that still has some holes to fill and you have the worst start in the NHL in more than a decade.

So what are the Coyotes at this point?

They are a rebuilding team that has been hurt by two big injuries to key veterans (Raanta, Hjalmarsson), crushed by bad goaltending, and has had a few of  itstop players start the year on a cold streak shooting.

They should not be an historically bad team like their early season record would seem to indicate. They also are not because there is a chance a lot of these early trends from a percentage perspective reverse.

When that happens the results should start to improve too.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the New York Rangers host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:00 p.m. ET.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller – Vinni Lettieri
Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey
Michael Grabner – Peter Holland – Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden
Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalSteven Kampfer

Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

[Flyers look to push winning streak to five games against Rangers]

Flyers

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Michael RafflValtteri FilppulaJakub Voracek
Jordan WealNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds
Taylor LeierScott LaughtonJori Lehtera

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald
Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Startling goalie: Brian Elliott

 

Golden Knights’ defense coming into focus with signings

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As the Vegas Golden Knights’ success gradually goes from shocking to accepted, there’s still the question of what this team might look like next season and beyond. Such questions are only natural when you consider all the key players who still need contract extensions.

Golden Knights management is chipping away at those questions regarding their defense in 2018-19, particularly this week.

On Monday, the Golden Knights signed local favorite and rugged defenseman Deryk Engelland to a one-year extension worth $1.5 million. (That deal includes $1M in potential performance bonuses, according to Cap Friendly.)

One day later, the team announced a two-year extension for Jon Merrill (pictured). The deal is for $2.75M overall, so it will make for a $1.375M cap hit in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The Golden Knights now have five defensemen on their current roster who are signed through 2018-19, if not longer: Engelland, Merrill, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, and Brad Hunt. McNabb is locked up the longest, with a $2.5M cap hit kicking in next season and expiring after 2020-21.

The most interesting remaining defensemen to sort out are Colin Miller and Shea Theodore, both pending RFAs. The Golden Knights have been buying up blueliners at bargain rates, but Theodore and Miller could be tougher nuts to crack contracts-wise. (Two UFA defensemen Luca Sbisa and Clayton Stoner on IR.)

Quick look at Engelland and Merrill

Engelland, 35, has been one of the Golden Knights’ ice time leaders with 19:39 per night, collecting 13 points while limiting his time in the penalty box (16 PIM in 41 games) compared to his usual numbers. He’s not perfect, but it’s conceivable that he’ll be worth that minimal cost to Vegas, especially since he’s an ambassador for the still-new franchise.

While Vegas hopes Engelland can bring that veteran presence for another year, they’re likely banking on Merrill to be more effective at a cheap rate.

The 25-year-old has been dealing with injuries and other issues, limiting him to 14 games played.

***

These defensive signings aren’t as important as locking up Jonathan Marchessault, nor is it as crucial as making the right call with the likes of James Neal and David Perron. With Malcolm Subban and Marc-Andre Fleury seeing their deals expire after 2018-19, management will need to make some goaltending decisions not that long from now.

A little bit of greed can inspire players to go that extra mile and stay that much hungrier, yet it’s also comforting to sometimes have some answers. After this week, there’s some clarity on the blueline, even if some decisions still need to be made.

And, hey, the Golden Knights haven’t really locked themselves into bad contracts yet. Old teams could probably learn a thing or two from these new kids.

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.

Johnny Gaudreau is playing best hockey of NHL career

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Maybe it’s because Johnny Gaudreau has been a productive scorer since day one. Almost literally.

Gaudreau scored a goal in his first NHL game with the Calgary Flames, his only appearance in 2013-14. The slick, undersized forward then generated 24 goals and 64 points as a rookie in 2014-15, and really hasn’t missed a beat.

While there were plenty of questions heading into 2017-18 for Calgary – goaltending, Jaromir Jagr, depth on defense and offense – everyone just assumed Gaudreau would keep scoring. So perhaps that explains why people aren’t making much of a deal about Gaudreau scoring even more than usual.

As of Tuesday, Gaudreau is in a four-way tie for second in NHL scoring with 54 points.

After scoring two goals and six assists for eight points in four games, the Flames forward was named NHL’s first star of the week, ahead of teammate Mike Smith (also red-hot). His point streak actually extends into 2017, a stretch of seven games, five of which were multi-point (two goals, 11 assists for 13 points).

Gaudreau set career-highs in goals (30) and points (78) in 79 games back in 2015-16. While he’s at a solid goal-scoring clip of 15 so far this season, his playmaking is what might make this his best work. Gaudreau is averaging 1.2 points-per game, a pace of about 98 points during an 82-game season.

Upon hearing about Gaudreau’s All-Star nod about a week ago, Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan did a great job summarizing what makes him so effective.

“I think he gets the best looks in the National Hockey League,” Gulutzan said, via the Calgary Sun. “He puts himself into position every game to create and shoot. Just the way he navigates himself on the ice and can handle the puck, it’s pretty amazing. For not a big guy, he can strip guys of pucks and get those kind of opportunities, too. It’s a combination of speed, agility and high hockey I.Q. that allows him to do it. He’s our engine for generating offense.”

This goal Gaudreau scored against the Stars on Nov. 24 is a great example of his ability to “strip guys of pucks,” and why he’s such a nightmare to defend.

Gaudreau and the Flames are currently resting up on a bye week, and hopefully not getting too rusty, as Calgary owns the longest active winning streak in the NHL at seven games. Beginning on Saturday, the Flames will play six of their next seven games at home, so there’s a solid chance that they’ll keep their strong play going.

If so, the Flames – and Gaudreau – will be difficult to ignore.

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.

Drouin or Galchenyuk at center? Habs may choose neither

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It’s been a weird season for the Montreal Canadiens, and Tuesday presented a new wrinkle.

With Phillip Danault sidelined (but resting at home) with a concussion after taking that scary Zdeno Chara shot, the Canadiens are dealing with some injuries at center. One would think that might inspire management to keep Drouin in the middle, or – dare we wonder – even give Galchenyuk another shot at center.

Instead, the plan for at least one day is to mark “none of the above,” with Galchenyuk at left wing and Drouin on the right on a line with Jacob De La Rose. This seems like a good time to break out that blinking gif, eh?

To review, Bergevin explained about a week ago that Drouin was better suited to play at wing “in an ideal world.” It was startling to hear Bergevin say that much after dismissing Galchenyuk as a center – to some controversy – back in September.

Maybe this ends up being a short-term experiment; maybe this is what Bergevin and/or Julien wanted all along. But yes, it’s a little odd.

Now, not a lot has changed since PHT did this study of how Drouin was doing heading into a reunion in Tampa Bay.

Despite being 60.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, Drouin’s been a poor possession player. He’s also regressed from an already weak place on faceoffs, winning a pitiful 40.4 percent of his draws this season. With just six goals and 21 points in 39 games, Drouin hasn’t been explosive enough to excuse his other failings. (Numbers via Hockey Reference.)

To that extent, it’s almost surprising the Canadiens waited so long, but it’s still frustrating for many to see them so easily dismiss Galchenyuk’s acumen while seemingly letting Drouin’s shortcomings slide.

Much of that frustration comes from the feeling that they’re essentially mirror images: offensive players who can thrive in the right situations, but can also frustrate their coaches. During Drouin’s Lightning days, Jon Cooper essentially said the same things about his two-way struggles as the Habs have about Galchenyuk. Remember that “two nets” comment?

So, yes, on many levels it’s baffling that the Canadiens are rolling Paul Byron out at center and putting De La Rose in the middle rather than allowing Galchenyuk to get another shot.

The real key might be about a different kind of opportunity: if this is how they get the best players on the ice more often, it may all be worth the headaches and snickers. Because when you line up with Drouin, there’s a solid chance you’ll be getting more reps.

Just look at Alex Galchenyuk’s split stats. It’s a small sample size, but so far in January, his average time on ice is 18:37, a mark that towers over his season average of 15:25. The way Julien sees it, De La Rose can do the heavy lifting while those two (ideally) light up the scoreboard.

“At the end of the day, you have a center who might be a little more defensive when you’re in your own end and I want them to play in the other end. The quicker you can kill the play, the better,” Julien said, via PHT’s Joey Alfieri. “Let those two other guys use their offense to their advantage.”

There are quite a few hockey people who envision a future in which you rarely look at the five skaters on the ice as five different positions, instead letting the situation dictate and transition flow organically. Such a way of thinking would probably be the most positive way to look at this situation. At least beyond the previously stated very-bright-side of getting Galchenyuk on the ice more often, without being to Drouin’s detriment.

If nothing else, Drouin and Galchenyuk are finding some chemistry and rhythm together, and that could end up being a beautiful pairing to watch.

It’s so zany it might just work.

That doesn’t keep it from being zany, though.

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.