Antti Raanta

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Deep defense and lots of questions: Examining Arizona Coyotes’ cap situation

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A shift is happening with the Arizona Coyotes, and if this summer is any indication, this might not be a slow evolution.

Faces of the franchise such as Shane Doan, Mike Smith, and (former) head coach Dave Tippett are gone, but just as importantly, the Coyotes are beginning to use their cap space to add NHL-ready players, rather than absorbing other team’s mistakes or problem salaries in exchange for assets.

This post discusses how the acquisition of Jason Demers makes this Coyotes team one to take more seriously in 2017-18, but let’s go the extra mile and examine the team’s salary structure.

(For cap analysis on a growing number of NHL teams, click here.)

That defense

Let’s start with a unit that’s rising among the league’s best, though still a tier below, say, the Nashville Predators’ impressive group.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: 26, $5.5 million cap hit through 2018-19

You know a defenseman is a deadly scorer when a 12-goal year is a letdown. For “OEL,” 2016-17 probably qualified as much, and yet he’s still an off-the-charts guy. One of the potential bonuses of a competent Coyotes team would be Ekman-Larsson getting more attention as a true star on the blueline.

About the only problem with Ekman-Larsson is that, like fellow high-scoring Swede Erik Karlsson, that bargain deal won’t last much longer. OEL will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Coyotes snatched him up in the summer of 2018. Really, they’d do so if they’re as smart as they seem.

Alex Goligoski – 32, $5.475M through 2020-21

For all the excitement that surrounds the Dallas Stars seemingly every summer, it sure seems like they might have dropped the ball by letting “Gogo” go. He’s a transition gem and an underrated all-around player; hopefully his game will age well, but at the moment, Goligoski’s a very nice value for Arizona. With 36 points, he wasn’t far behind OEL last season.

Niklas Hjalmarsson – 30, $4.1M through 2018-19

Maybe Connor Murphy will pan out for Chicago, but the Coyotes were reasonable in trading some potential for a “sure thing.” It’s difficult to believe that Hjalmarsson is only 30, considering his remarkable achievements.

As one of the best examples of a modern “defensive defenseman” alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Coyotes can lean on Hjalmarsson for tough matchups, freeing more offensive-minded guys to focus on scoring.

The only bummer is that he, too, only has two years remaining on his resounding bargain of a contract.

Demers – 29, $3.938M through 2020-21

Personally, shaving off 12.5 percent of Demers’ cap hit makes it more palatable by an almost odd degree. He’s another Coyotes defenseman who subtly impresses, and at a reasonable price, one made even more reasonable in parting ways with an expendable piece in Jamie McGinn.

The Coyotes have room to either fill in gaps or, if they need to, replace players who get too expensive.

Jakob Chychrun suffered an injury setback, yet there’s still time to assess where he figures into the bigger picture. Adding some firepower also allows him to ease into the mix in a more organic fashion. GM John Chayka can determine if Luke Schenn, Kevin Connauton, and/or Adam Clendening figure into the equation, as all of those guys are on expiring contracts.

Few teams enjoy defense corps as promising as the Coyotes,’ which must be frustrating for other teams, considering that many of these players were available through trades or free agency (or falling a bit in the draft, in the case of Chychrun).

Flexibility but uncertainty in net

In many cases, you’ll see a team immediately sign an acquired goalie to a new deal or an extension. One fresh example is Frederik Andersen, who signed a five-year, $25M contract before he stopped a single puck for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Chayka didn’t do that, or at least hasn’t done so yet, after acquiring Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers.

That could cost the Coyotes some extra cash if Raanta converts his strong backup numbers to full-time expertise, yet it also gives Arizona room to maneuver if Raanta doesn’t pan out. This also opens the door for Louis Domingue to prove that he’s either a) more than a backup or b) a backup worthy of another contract.

Cheap, young forwards

The Coyotes’ forward group feels a bit like Derek Stepan, Dave Bolland‘s cap hit, and a bunch of potential.

Max Domi enters the final year of his rookie deal with considerable dollars to either gain or lose, especially if Arizona rides it out without an early extension. Anthony Duclair is just one of other forwards with something to prove.

Dylan Strome could be a nice little bargain if he finally works things out. The Coyotes managed to give him a look without burning a year off of his entry-level contract, so they could get three years at a bargain rate if it all starts to “click” at the NHL level.

Really, the Coyotes are counting on some ifs turning into an emphatic “Yes” or two. Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller, and Brendan Perlini all have at least two years left on their ELCs, opening the door for the Coyotes to at least fill out roster spots at a discount.

How effective can this group – which also includes some fledgling veterans – be as soon as 2017-18? If nothing else, they should get a real boost from defensemen who can move the puck.

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Overall, the Coyotes are in an intriguing spot, even if they’ll need to battle to make the playoffs.

From a long-term perspective, the real question might come down to the team’s internal budget. If this team starts to make serious gains, will ownership be able to pay up to keep OEL, Raanta, Domi, and other players?

If the answer isn’t positive, the Coyotes might find themselves in rebuild stages over and over.

At least the foundation looks sturdy this time around.

Yes, you can probably take the Arizona Coyotes seriously now

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Even if you assume that intriguing young defenseman Jakob Chychrun won’t really be healthy until late in 2017-18, the Arizona Coyotes suddenly boast a remarkably promising defense after acquiring Jason Demers.

(Read more about that significant trade here.)

Demers joins a group including stud blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson, underrated puck-mover Alex Goligoski, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, one of the best pure “defensive defenseman” in the game.

Jamie McGinn has quietly put together a solid career, yet his kind are easier to come by in the NHL, a league where competent top-four defensemen are at a serious premium. Just ask Coyotes GM John Chayka.

That top four has something for everyone, and generally boasts the sort of mobile, talented defensemen that are coveted in the NHL.

Ask yourself for a moment: how many teams, particularly in the Western Conference, can confidently say that they have a better defense corps than the Coyotes do right now? The Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames are immediate answers, while the St. Louis Blues likely boast a stronger group, too.

Things get a little fuzzier once you reach down the conference’s ranks.

The San Jose Sharks boast bigger strengths on the high-end with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, but the Coyotes might have them beat from a depth perspective. The Winnipeg Jets boast some interesting talent, yet you wonder if Paul Maurice is really harnessing that potential. And so on.

We can quibble over Arizona’s exact place among those groups, yet it’s difficult to dispute that, suddenly, the Coyotes seem respectable in that area.

They have the makings of a team that can make a surge in other areas, too.

If Antti Raanta can covert strong backup work to full-time difference-making (see: Cam Talbot, Martin Jones), suddenly the Coyotes are that much tougher to score against.

Stepan gives that forward group some credibility, while things could get interesting if Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, and Dylan Strome take steps forward. And, really, a signing like this might inspire the Coyotes to push to add a little more offense.

(Maybe older guys [who can be more than mere mentors] like Jaromir Jagr or Denis Zaripov deserve at least an exploratory phone call right now?)

There are a ton of “Ifs,” right down to how well Rick Tocchet can mold what, to many, looks like a roster that’s about as polished as a ball of clay.

Don’t be surprised if the Coyotes become a chic dark horse candidate as previews start trickling in, though, either.

Trade: Panthers send Jason Demers to Coyotes for Jamie McGinn

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The Florida Panthers continue to hit the “reset” button on their brief analytics era now that GM Dale Tallon is fully back in charge. Sometimes that means making some dramatic moves.

The Arizona Coyotes certainly seem analytics-leaning, too, so it makes sense that they’ll reportedly be the new home for defenseman Jason Demers. The Panthers recently confirmed that they will receive Jamie McGinn in the trade.

It should be a fairly even swap from a cap-hit-standpoint, at least thanks to this wrinkle, via Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

Two teams moving in opposite directions

Again, the Panthers are really doubling down on Tallon’s vision, which seems to mean jettisoning “fancy stats guys.”

The Panthers already parted ways with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith around the time of the expansion draft. There were rumors of Keith Yandle being floated, but perhaps his deal isn’t palatable for suitors.

Demers is very much along those same lines, and it makes sense that the Coyotes would have interest in him.

This continues a dramatic makeover for Arizona. As crucial as the additions of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta might be (not to mention the exits of Shane Doan and now-former-head-coach Dave Tippett), the Coyotes’ defense corps now look remarkably modern. They’re inching up the ranks thanks to trades for Demers and Niklas Hjalmarsson, along with the signing of Alex Goligoski. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has gone from feeling very alone on that blueline to being the leader of an increasingly formidable group.

On the other hand, these defensemen aren’t exactly cheap. The Coyotes have made some bold moves under progressive-minded GM John Chayka, yet that aggressiveness will also bring higher expectations.

And, if this ends up looking bad for the Coyotes, the analytics naysayers won’t hesitate to gloat.

McGinn is the kind of player Tallon might love

McGinn, 29, has two years remaining on a contract that carries a $3.33 million cap hit.

He’s a grinder with some skill, as he’s generated two 20+ goal seasons and managed 19 in another campaign. McGinn must be getting used to checking real estate listings, too, as this is the fourth time he’s been traded.

Demers has been around, too, as you can note from this interesting anecdote.

Will Antti Raanta be the answer in net for the Coyotes?

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This post is a part of Coyotes day at PHT…

The Arizona Coyotes made some pretty drastic changes to their roster this offseason saying goodbye to some major veteran players (Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, Mike Smith) and bringing in some fresh faces to replace them, including Derek Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson and goalie Antti Raanta.

Overall, the players coming in would seem to be — on paper anyway — upgrades over what they ended up letting go.

One of the more intriguing changes is going to be in net where Raanta is going to replace Smith, the Coyotes’ starting goalie for the past six years, and get his first opportunity to be a starting goalie in the NHL.

It is an opportunity he has earned over the past three years.

During that stretch Raanta has been one of the NHL’s top backups, playing behind Corey Crawford in Chicago and then Henrik Lundqvist in New York the past two years. There even came a point this past season where Raanta played so well (coinciding with one of the worst slumps of Lundqvist’s career) that he ended up getting the bulk of the playing time for nearly a month.

Over the past three years his save percentage has put him alongside some of the NHL’s elite goalies, but he has done that primarily as a backup where a goalie can get more favorable matchups and not have to deal with a starter’s workload.

How Raanta adjusts to being the No. 1 goalie will go a long way toward determining how good the Coyotes can be this season.

Shortly after he was acquired by the Coyotes I mentioned how a decent comparable for him and the Coyotes might be the player Cam Talbot has turned out to be for the Edmonton Oilers. Talbot was coming from a nearly identical situation (very good backup to Henrik Lundqvist in New York at a similar age) and has become an above average starter.

If the Coyotes can get that level of play from Raanta it would be a nice addition, and probably an upgrade over what they were going to get from Smith — not to mention at a better price.

The question is whether or not they can get that level of play.

In looking at goalies that have followed similar career paths in recent years the results have been somewhat mixed.

I went back over the past 15 years and looked at goalies that played between between 40 and 100 games through their age 27 season (an admittedly imperfect way of identifying “backups”) and how the most successful ones did when — and if — they became starters.

There were 45 goalies in the hockey-reference database that fit that criteria.

Twelve of them had a save percentage of .916 or better during that point in their career. The list includes Matt Murray, Cam Talbot, Anton Khudobin, Andrew Hammond, Dan Ellis, Philipp Grubauer, Scott Darling, Alex Stalock, Ben Scrivens, Eddie Lack, Vesa Toskala, and, of course, Raanta.

It is an interesting list.

Murray and Grubauer don’t really fit the mold of what we are looking for here because they are both young players that were top prospects. Murray has already taken a starting job and excelled with it, winning two Stanley Cups before his 23rd birthday.

Grubauer probably could be a starter if wasn’t playing behind one of the top-three goalies in the world.

Darling is entering into an identical situation as Raanta this season where he is getting a chance to go from successful backup to full-time starter.

But the rest of that group is exactly what we are looking for here, and the results are not exactly encouraging because other than Talbot none of them really went on to have much success as starters. Lack and Khudobin both continued Carolina’s goaltending struggles that led to them trying to find another top backup this offseason (Darling), while Ellis, Hammond, Stalock, Scrivens, and Toskala never really panned out.

The one thing that Raanta and the Coyotes have going in their favor is that he has a larger body of work to go by, having already already played in 94 games at the NHL level. A lot of the players on the aforementioned list had less than 50 games at a similar point.

We will find out if that extra playing will make a difference.

Scott Darling will be the key to the Hurricanes’ season

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

A few numbers to keep in mind about the Carolina Hurricanes as they prepare to enter the 2017-18 season:

  • Over the past three seasons only one team in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings — has allowed fewer shots on goal per game than the 27.3 allowed by the Hurricanes. An impressive number, especially given how young their defense has been during that stretch.
  • Despite those low shot totals the Hurricanes are only 19th in the NHL in goals against. The are the only team in the top-eight in shots against that finished outside of the top-12 in goals against and the only one that has not made the playoffs at least once. Two of those teams have made the Stanley Cup Final at least once. Four have made the the Conference Finals at least once.

So how is a team that is so good at suppressing shots so bad at preventing goals and winning games?

Goaltending.

They are hoping that newly acquired goalie Scott Darling, getting what will be his first chance at a full-time starting job, will be able to help fix that issue.

Over that same three-year stretch mentioned above, Hurricanes goalies — a revolving door made up of Cam Ward, Eddie Lack, and Anton Khudobin — have not managed a save percentage that placed them higher than 26th in the entire league in any one season. That is a pretty significant problem and it has been, perhaps, the single biggest factor in the team’s lack of success on the ice. No one position in hockey can impact the fortunes of a team more than a goalie. Carey Price has taken an average Canadiens team and made them a contender. The opposite has been happening in Carolina.

Let’s just look at this past season as an example, when the duo of Ward and Lack finished with a .904 mark, with Ward (playing in 61 of the games) leading the way at .905.

If the Hurricanes had been able to replace Ward’s performance with a league average number (in the .912 range) in his 61 starts the Hurricanes would have allowed 12-14 fewer goals right off the bat. A league average duo across the board would have cut close to 20 goals off the board over 82 games. That is a potentially significant swing and Darling is the newest goalie that will get a chance to make it happen.

Darling spent the past three seasons serving as Corey Crawford‘s backup in Chicago and playing at a level that made him one of the league’s best No. 2 goalies. Among the 58 goalies that have appeared in at least 60 games over the past three seasons Darling’s .923 save percentage has him sixth in the NHL behind only Carey Price, Matt Murray, Antti Raanta (another backup getting a chance to start this season), Devan Dubnyk and Braden Holtby.

The test for him is whether or not he can maintain that level of play — or anything close to it — when he is counted on to be the No. 1 goalie that gets the top teams every night.

If he can be, the Hurricanes are going to have a great shot to end that eight-year playoff drought given how good their defense already is and how many young, talented forwards they have in their lineup.

If he is not, it will probably be more of the same — a promising young team that just seems to keep falling short in the regular season.