Oliver Ekman-Larsson

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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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Injury pauses start of Antti Raanta era in Arizona

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With Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler headlining a dizzying list of injured Ducks, Anaheim won’t open its season at full-strength. On the other hand, the Arizona Coyotes won’t dress their would-be new starting goalie in Antti Raanta.

The team announced that Raanta is sidelined with a “minor lower-body injury,” so Louis Domingue gets the nod, instead.

The holding pattern lingers

At 28, Raanta’s been waiting for a chance to be a top guy for a long time – excelling as a backup for both the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers – so this really has to sting.

And, really, it likely stings quite a bit more than it would for, say, Scott Darling.

Both backups were traded into intriguing opportunities, but while Darling signed a four-year, $16.6 million deal, Raanta didn’t get a new contract with the Coyotes. Instead, he’s in a high-pressure contract year; the Coyotes could easily decide that he’s not the goalie of the future. Meanwhile, goalies like Darling and Frederik Andersen got their money before they stopped a single puck for new teams.

(Raanta probably relates more to fellow former Rangers backup Cam Talbot, who didn’t receive an extension with the Edmonton Oilers until midway through his first season.)

The Coyotes deserve kudos for taking their potential new goalie for a test drive rather than splurging on an extension right away. That said, there’s the potential for an especially cruel turn for Raanta.

Prove it (again)

Consider this: Domingue ($1.05M) actually carries a slightly larger cap hit than Raanta ($1M). There’s at least a chance that he might outplay Raanta, especially if this is the type of issue that lingers.

In the bigger picture, this remains a golden opportunity. Just check out Raanta’s sparkling stats from the past three seasons:

2014-15 (Chicago): 12-7-4, .936 save percentage, .936 GAA

2015-16 (Rangers): 18-11-6, .919 save percentage, 2.25 GAA

2016-17 (Rangers): 26-16-8, .922 save percentage, 2.26 GAA

With what could be a stout Coyotes defense, it’s perfectly realistic to picture Raanta transitioning from a backup with strong starter numbers to a proven number one.

Can you blame Raanta if there’s at least a slight fear that this opportunity will split through his fingers, though?

* – Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a little banged-up but playing, so the Coyotes have their own injury challenges. Just nowhere near as many as the Ducks are facing.

Looks like Coyotes dodged a bullet with Oliver Ekman-Larsson

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The Arizona Coyotes’ defense really rose up the NHL ranks during this summer, but how impressive would that group look with star Oliver Ekman-Larsson out of the lineup?

There was fear that another Coyotes young blueliner would face a setback as far as knee injuries go, yet the news seems positive for “OEL.”

Coyotes GM John Chayka considers him day-to-day with a knee injury, and it doesn’t sound like there’s any structural damage.

No kidding.

In other Coyotes news, the team made Pierre-Olivier Joseph (the 23rd pick of the 2017 NHL Draft) one of their training camp cuts. So not all good news for prominent Coyotes with hyphenated names, although you could argue that POJ(?) might be better off receiving additional seasoning.

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.