Oliver Ekman-Larsson

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Stepan feels ‘like a young guy,’ but will take leadership role with Coyotes

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The Arizona Coyotes have big plans for Derek Stepan — at least while prospects like Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller continue to develop — as the club’s No. 1 center next season.

He’ll begin training camp next month with a Coyotes team that has made some big moves this summer, but is still very young. How young? Stepan is 27 years old, with 515 career regular season games played, and he’s among the oldest forwards in Arizona.

Ten players on their roster are 24 years of age or younger, according to CapFriendly.

Given Stepan’s experience, especially on a playoff team in a big market like New York, is likely valued with an impressionable group of forwards, as well.

“I still feel like a young guy,” Stepan told NHL.com.

“But now I look at the lineup and I think there’s only going to be one guy that’s older than me up front (forward Jamie McGinn, 28), and maybe two or three guys on the back end (defensemen Zbynek Michalek, 34; Alex Goligoski, 32; Niklas Hjalmarsson, 30). It’s definitely a new experience, but something that certainly doesn’t worry me. I’ve been in a leadership role in New York and I’ll just transfer into a new one in Arizona. I couldn’t be more excited.”

The previous leader in their locker room, Shane Doan, was not brought back and is currently a free agent. It’s been reported that Oliver Ekman-Larsson will be named as the new Coyotes captain.

Ekman-Larsson counted on to carry Coyotes next season

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The Arizona Coyotes have completed significant moves this offseason.

They acquired a No. 1 center in Derek Stepan. They acquired goalie Antti Raanta, who was the back-up in New York but has shown signs he’s capable of transitioning into the starter’s role. They’ve brought in Niklas Hjalmarsson in a trade with Chicago, and general manager John Chayka expects he could be a top-pairing blue liner in Arizona.

For all of the youthful talent and the summer moves, Chayka believes the centerpiece for the Coyotes this season will be defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who just turned 26 years old a couple of weeks ago.

In Chayka’s mind, Ekman-Larsson is a “super star” for the Coyotes. The left-shooting defenseman has twice gone beyond the 20-goal plateau in a single season, while posting 12 goals and 39 points last season in Arizona.

“It’s a bit of a reboot here but I think we’ve got a good core, a young nucleus led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson,” Chayka told NHL Tonight. “He’s going to carry us. You only go as far as your top players can bring you.”

The Coyotes leaned heavily on Ekman-Larsson last season, as he played in every situation and averaged 24:36 of ice time per game, which led the team. Behind him in that category was Alex Goligoski at more than a full minute behind.

It was reported in June, when the Coyotes informed Shane Doan he would not be brought back next season, that Ekman-Larsson will be called on to be the club’s next captain. He has two more years remaining on his six-year, $33 million contract.

Raanta is ready for the No. 1 job with Coyotes

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Antti Raanta has spent the past four seasons backing up two of the NHL’s best goalies in Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks) and Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers). After handling those duties as well as just about any other backup in the league, not to mention performing better than a lot of the league’s starters, he is finally going to get an opportunity to get a No. 1 job with the Arizona Coyotes after the team acquired him, along with center Derek Stepan, in a blockbuster trade centered around the No. 7 overall pick.

It is a role that Raanta seems to be more than ready for.

He talked about that preparation, along with what he learned from playing behind Crawford and Lundqvist, with Dave Vest of the Coyotes’ official website.

“I have been privileged to play behind Corey Crawford in Chicago and Henrik Lundqvist in New York, and working with great goalie coaches in Chicago and New York,” Raanta said. “… It’s been kind of like a step-by-step process for me. Last year, I kind of felt that my game was finding the right way and my confidence level was going better and better all the time. I felt like I was giving the team the chance to win every night. There’s going to be other goalies and there’s going to be a battle for the No.1 spot (in Arizona), but I feel my game is going in the right direction … and I feel like I’m ready to take one more step and be playing more and get the No. 1 spot.”

He has certainly earned the opportunity to get a No. 1 spot.

Over the past three seasons his .924 save percentage ranks third (behind only the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray) among the 61 goalies that have appeared in at least 50 games during that stretch. His .931 even-strength save percentage is tied for fourth.

He even had a stretch last season where he was playing well enough to take a few starts away from Lundqvist. It’s probably not realistic to expect him to continue to maintain that sort of performance in a No. 1 role (bigger work load, not always getting the most favorable matchups, and all of those variables), but all he has done in the NHL is perform at a high level when given the opportunity.

Probably one of the best case scenarios for the Coyotes is that Raanta is able to duplicate what Cam Talbot has done since the Rangers traded him to the Edmonton Oilers two years ago. Talbot, Lundqvist’s backup before Raanta came along, was also 27 at the time he was traded and had performed extremely well in a limited backup role.

He has been an above average starter with the Oilers ever since.

The Coyotes have made some significant changes this offseason, parting ways with coach Dave Tippett, trading Smith, letting Shane Doan leave and bringing in Stepan, Raanta and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. Those veterans join a young core being built around Max Domi, Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and, of course, standout defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. It has been a rough few years for the Coyotes on the ice, but they have young talent to build around and added some outstanding veterans to that core this summer.

Hjalmarsson shocked by Blackhawks trade, but Coyotes could improve soon

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Who could blame Niklas Hjalmarsson for being surprised that the Chicago Blackhawks traded him? The move blindsided … well, just about everyone outside of the Blackhawks organization, after all.

“It’s going to take some time to get used to that thought,” Hjalmarsson said, according to the Arizona Republic. “At the same time, I’m trying to always be a positive guy.”

Indeed, the 30-year-old defenseman did his best to say all the right things about the Arizona Coyotes, praising a roster that includes “a lot of young and promising players.”

MORE on the trade here

Described by some as the NHL’s best pure defensive defenseman, Hjalmarsson also gives the Coyotes good reason to be excited by a blueline that’s suddenly quite competitive. Consider the quartet that GM John Chayka helped assemble:

Hjalmarsson: An often-underrated part of the Blackhawks’ run. Consider some of the praise he received even before this move was made.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: One of the league’s best-kept secrets, “OEL” ranks as one of the most dangerous scoring defensemen. At 25, he’s still deep in his prime.

Alex Goligoski: When you consider the Dallas Stars’ lost 2016-17 season, don’t dismiss the absence of “Gogo.” He might not be perfect, but the 31-year-old is the sort of puck-mover you need to excel in the modern game.

Jakob Chychrun: At 19, he’s already getting reps at the NHL level. The Coyotes could pair him with a veteran and watch him grow.

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When you look at those four, in particular, it’s easier to see Hjalmarsson’s excitement as more than just lip service. It probably doesn’t hurt that the Coyotes also added Derek Stepan, another sign that this franchise is taking the next step after absorbing other franchises’ problem contracts in the likes of Dave Bolland and Pavel Datsyuk’s last year.

Granted, it will still be an adjustment, as the Coyotes are likely aiming for “respectable” while anything less that a deep run was unacceptable for the Blackhawks.

Still, Hjalmarsson has plenty of power to make this move more palatable than it may have initially seemed.

And, hey, who would blame him for circling Oct. 21 on his calendar?

Coyotes part ways with Shane Doan

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Shane Doan‘s Arizona Coyotes career is over.

As first reported by TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, the Coyotes informed Doan over the weekend of their decision to part ways.

Shortly after the report, Coyotes owner Andrew Barroway released the following statement:

“After serious consideration, we have decided to not offer Shane Doan a contract for the upcoming season. The time has come for us to move on and to focus on our young, talented group of players and our very bright future. This was a very difficult decision given what Shane has done for the Coyotes and his unparalleled importance to the organization. With that said, this is necessary to move us forward as a franchise.

“On behalf of the entire organization, I would like to sincerely thank Shane for everything he’s done for the Coyotes on and off the ice the past 21 years. Shane is a Valley icon who had an incredible career and was one of the best captains to ever play in the NHL.

“Shane deserves an enormous amount of credit for keeping the Coyotes in the Valley and for growing the game of hockey in Arizona. He is beloved by our fans, corporate partners and the media and has been a tremendous leader for us in the community, and a great role model for kids. We wish him and his family all the best in the future. He will be a member of our Pack forever.”

What happens next for the 40-year-old forward remains to be seen.

Doan has been with the same franchise his entire NHL career. He was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1995, then moved with the team to Arizona in 1996. Over 21 seasons, he’s appeared in over 1,500 regular-season games, plus 55 more in the playoffs.

Earlier this month, his agent said he was  “leaning toward” playing another year. However, it wasn’t clear if that meant he’d be willing to do so with another team.

This past season, Doan had just six goals in 74 games for the Coyotes.

He can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

According to Craig Morgan of Arizona Sports, the Coyotes will name Oliver Ekman-Larsson as their next captain.

Doan has been the captain since 2003.