Max Domi

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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.

When will Coyotes finally win a game?

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With a pitiful 0-8-1 opening record, the Arizona Coyotes smell a bit like the NHL’s answer to the Cleveland Browns right now.

Like the Browns, there’s logic to the way they’re being constructed, to the point where they duped some dummies into getting excited about the process. Each team is plagued by years of failings and is being steered by analytics-minded executives, making each shortcoming a catalyst for annoying debates, at least when discussions aren’t muted by the irrelevance of the matter.

In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t sound like Coyotes GM John Chayka is looking to hit the “self-destruct” button just yet.

This all brings a simple-yet-difficult question to the forefront: “When, exactly, will this team carve out a win?”

First, let’s break down their start

It’s probably helpful to sort out how bad this Coyotes team really is.

Looking at the fancy stats at places like Natural Stat Trick, the Coyotes aren’t hugely offensive. They’re basically middle-of-the-pack when it comes to the percentage of high-danger chances for vs. against, and their possession stats are reasonable enough.

There are certain numbers that should almost certainly rise for the team formerly labeled Phoenix, indicating that luck hasn’t been on this team’s side.

PDO (a team’s save percentage plus shooting percentage) is one of the go-to stats when considering if a team is lucky or unlucky, and the Coyotes have had it rough with a 95.4 percent mark. The Mason-Dixon line for a normal team is 100, and every percentage point is significant.

A big part of that problem is goaltending, and that’s where Chayka’s comment about health comes in. Antti Raanta hasn’t been healthy to start his Coyotes career, so the hope is that he’ll help normalize things alongside (ideally) Louis Domingue.

It’s not just that. The Coyotes’ penalty kill is abysmal (72 percent vs. a league average of 81.3) and their power play has been similarly punchless. Some of that will normalize, but this is where you wonder about personnel.

Simply put, their offense has paralleled the Jack Eichel-dependent Buffalo Sabres’ problems in lacking balance. There’s quite a drop-off from sensational rookie Clayton Keller, new center Derek Stepan, Max Domi, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson to everyone else. It all makes you wonder how troubled Dylan Strome‘s development really is … he couldn’t break into this mix?

Overall, this team should be more competent than its record indicates. They’ve already dug themselves a huge hole, though.

An unfriendly stretch

And the tough part is that their upcoming schedule does them few favors. Yesterday’s loss to John Tavares and the New York Islanders opened a five-game road trip:

Thu, Oct 26 @ NY Rangers
Sat, Oct 28 @ New Jersey
Mon, Oct 30 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 31 @ Detroit

While the Rangers are struggling, Alain Vigneault’s seat is going from hot to nuclear, so there should be some urgency there. Perhaps you could argue that all four of those teams has something to prove, but for a young and floundering Coyotes squad, a road trip might not be ideal.

(Then again, sometimes breakthroughs happen during the toughest stretches.)

It doesn’t get much easier for the Coyotes for some time, either. From Thursday through Nov. 20, the Coyotes play 11 games on the road and only three at home. That stretch also includes some congested sequences of contests, with two back-to-back sets standing out. Not good.

Not-so-great expectations

As mentioned before, the difficulty of the Coyotes’ schedule and morbidity of their start might at least have some psychological benefits for this group.

Being counted out can provide bulletin board material. Getting dealt a tough hand with a lot of road games stacks the deck, yet it also could help teammates bond; this seems like the time of year where young players will talk about their “Mario Kart” tournaments.

On paper, this could be flat-out disastrous, and it might not get much better in the standings even if things normalize from a “puck luck” standpoint.

Still, that’s what can be fun about sports: sometimes teams surprise you. So far, those surprises have been negative for the Coyotes. We’ll see if they can flip the script in the next month.

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.

Clayton Keller focused on helping Coyotes as Calder Trophy buzz grows

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Clayton Keller received a special kind of rookie treatment last season moments before his NHL debut with the Arizona Coyotes.

Like other young players around the league, Keller’s teammates stayed behind in the tunnel and the rookie ended up taking a solo lap during warmups before a game against the St. Louis Blues last March. The moment was extra special for Keller, who grew up playing youth hockey in area under the tutelage of former NHLers Jeff Brown and Keith Tkachuk.

As a kid, Keller would attend Blues games with his father and grandfather, and it was there that his NHL dreams began to develop. As those dreams came closer to reality, it was his late grandfather who played a huge role in Keller achieving his goal of becoming a professional.

“He was probably the reason that I’m here today. He took me to everything growing up — hockey camps, school, hockey practice, and just about everything,” Keller told Pro Hockey Talk on Monday. “I know he’d be pretty proud today.”

Keller, the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, spent most of last season at Boston University where he scored 21 times and recorded 45 points in 31 games. Two days after the Terriers were knocked out of the NCAA tournament, he was taking that lap around Scottrade Center as family and friends cheered from the other side of the glass. He would play three games for the Coyotes and get to experience that “Welcome to the NHL” moment every rookie remembers.

“It’s pretty cool to see [Vladimir] Tarasenko and Jamie Benn,” Keller said. “I lined up next to those guys. That’s pretty crazy because I grew up watching both of those guys.”

Those three games introduced Keller to the pace of the NHL, which he quickly adjusted to. After the season ended, he was invited to play for the United States at the World Championship where he’d finish with five goals, including a hat trick against Denmark.

“It really helped me out a lot. You never really know how hard the NHL is until you play in it,” Keller said. “I got lucky at the end of last year and got a nice taste and realized how hard I had to work. That was a huge advantage for me.”

The talent Keller showed as a youth player on the U.S. National Development Team and in his only year at Boston University has led to lots of Calder Trophy buzz for the 19-year-old forward. But that talk is not something he’s focused on.

“I try to block it out. I don’t really pay attention to it,” Keller said. “I just play my game and the rest will [come].”

At 5’10, Keller isn’t the biggest out on the ice, which is why he cites Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau as influences — players who don’t have the size, but are skillful and quick. That skill has been on display through five games this season. Playing alongside Derek Stepan and Max Domi, Keller had potted three goals, meshing well with new Coyotes linemates and head coach Rick Tocchet’s desired style of play.

“We want to play fast, in-your-face type hockey. But also with lots of skill and [a] good defensive zone. It’s a great system, and it’ll show,” Keller said.

Life as an NHL rookie can be a difficult. Adjusting to a faster pace, dealing with the physicality and just going through the highs and lows of a season with a team can be expected. For Keller, he’s fortunate that he has plenty of friends around the league in the same situation. Former BU teammate and current Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy is someone Keller frequently exchanges exepriences with.

“Charlie’s one of my best friends. I played with him last year. We definitely talked about how the season has been going so far,” Keller said. “It’s good to have a friend like that around the league. He’s an awesome person and an even better player.”

————

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.

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Coyotes coach was embarrassed by loss to Bruins; More trouble looms ahead

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Following a 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins, Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet apologized to fans for an “embarrassing” second period. That was the time that game got away from them, as a 1-1 tie swung to a 4-1 advantage for Boston.

Really, though, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tocchet was actually apologizing for the growing pains that come with an 0-4-1 start for a team that enjoyed what seemed like an excellent summer of moves.

Here’s the full presser, via the Coyotes:

Seeing Zdeno Chara come in all alone to put in a rebound probably didn’t make Tocchet very happy:

AZ Sports’ Craig Morgan caught up with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who explained what happened on the next goal, which came on a Brad Marchand breakaway.

“I was just trying to get the puck and that’s just the way it goes,” said Ekman-Larsson, who is a team-worst minus-9. “We’re down 3-1 so you kind of look for some good breaks and it goes that way instead. I was cheating a little bit. You have to give the guy credit. He knew I was going to do that.”

Morgan’s detail stands out; as reviled as plus/minus can be as a stat, and as potent as “OEL” can be on the power play, a -9 does indeed make you cringe.

As important as it is to point out that Louis Domingue, not newly acquired Antti Raanta, has been in the net for much of the Coyotes’ struggles, there are plenty of goals that come down to flat-out awful defense. To some extent, that might be systemic, as Tocchet & Co. will need to accept the good and the bad that comes with utilizing scoring defensemen to attack opponents. Much like with the struggling Buffalo Sabres, it may also take some time for a new coach to sort things out with a lot of young players.

On the bright side, there are some early returns for young players who could play a role in turning this around … eventually. Calder candidate Clayton Keller leads the Coyotes with three goals and ties Max Domi for the team lead with four points in five games.

Here’s the bad news: their schedule only gets tougher to close out October.

Tue, Oct 17 @ Dallas
Thu, Oct 19 vs Dallas
Sat, Oct 21 vs Chicago
Tue, Oct 24 @ NY Islanders
Thu, Oct 26 @ NY Rangers
Sat, Oct 28 @ New Jersey
Mon, Oct 30 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 31 @ Detroit

With the Blackhawks continuing to find ways to win and the Stars possibly getting back on track, the next three games stand as a serious challenge. After that, a five-game road trip could really test the mettle of a group that’s already likely dealing with shaken confidence.

Consider that the Coyotes have lost two: the Vegas Golden Knights twice, a banged-up Ducks team, a fast-starting but still doubted Red Wings group, and an up-and-down Bruins team.

There’s the scary possibility that the Coyotes may still see a zero at the beginning of their record come November.

Also scary: that November schedule, which includes a stretch with seven of eight road games from Nov. 6-20.

Yikes.

Then again, sometimes teams bond during tough stretches. Just about every NHL team needs to navigate big bumps in the road during a season, so the Coyotes can only explain things away so much before such reasons merely sound like excuses.

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.

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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.