Derek Stepan

Associated Press

The Arizona Coyotes’ season is only getting worse

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WINNIPEG — The Arizona Coyotes’ start to the 2017-18 season — a complete tire fire by all accounts — managed to burn a little brighter on Tuesday.

After dropping a 4-1 decision to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the Coyotes, now 2-15-3, became the first team in National Hockey League history to play their first 20 games and not register a regulation win.

It’s not the first time the Coyotes have flirted with the unfortunate side of the history books through the first quarter of the season.

Arizona’s first win came just in time to partially save their own blushes after ending an 11-game slide to start the year (partially, because they still tied a league record set back during the 1943-43 season for most games without a win to start a season) and prevented them from becoming the sole owners of a piece of history coveted by no one.

“I’ve been saying it all year: You can’t complain, you can’t moan,” Coyotes forward Brandon Perlini said on Tuesday after the loss. “Like, just go play, work hard. There’s no other special secret or special juice. You just have to work your way out of it everyone shift after shift … and eventually I believe it will turn.”

Perlini’s frustration, despite trying to remain positive, was evident, and while the results for the Coyotes are borderline shocking, to say the least, they might not be all that surprising.

The Coyotes have been bleeding for a while now, missing the playoffs in their past five seasons since their remarkable run to the Western Conference finals in 2012.

They lost veteran captain Shane Doan to retirement over the offseason and traded away Mike Smith, who had backstopped the ‘Yotes for six seasons as they entered full-fledged rebuild mode.

They gained Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta via trade with the New York Rangers and have watched Clayton Keller blossom into the league’s best rookie early this season, although he’s been held off the scoresheet in four straight games.

Adding three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson didn’t hurt either, but he hasn’t played since Halloween due to an upper-body injury.

Arizona is in the middle of the pack in terms of goals for but last in goals against. They’re second last in expected goals for and have the second-worst team save percentage.

None of that equates to wins and the Coyotes aren’t even getting lucky from time to time.

“It’s been a rough start,” said Raanta, who got the yank in Tuesday’s game. “When you have a young team and lots of new things going on, you need that confidence that comes from those wins. We haven’t gotten that early on in the season. But we’re still working hard. It’s the only way we can get over it.”

Raanta, who was arguably considered the best goalie without a starting role in the NHL over the past couple of seasons, said he’s had to battle his own demons this year amid all the losing.

“It’s tough when you’re a goalie and you lose a couple games in a row, you start looking at yourself and wondering what is going on,” said Raanta, who missed nine games with a lower-body ailment earlier this year. “For me, I just have to give us a chance to win. If I can look in the mirror after the game and say that I did whatever I could, of course, you can’t be satisfied, but you can find a positive.”

The land where the Coyotes are a contending team in the Western Conference seems like its far, far away at this point.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

New York Rangers ’15-16 Outlook

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If you’re fascinated by athletes chasing big numbers in contract years, then the New York Rangers have been a go-to source of entertainment in recent years.

It’s difficult (if not nebulous) to try to quantify the impact of “greed is good,” but the Rangers are a hungry team with plenty of motivation in 2015-16. That’s what happens when you mortgage bits of your future via trades and employ some players chasing their next checks.

You never really know how wide open a Stanley Cup window might be.

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault saw that in action in Vancouver, as the franchise declined from a huge contender to a bubble team in little time.

We’ve asked more than once if Henrik Lundqist’s elite days are numbered. It’s also worth noting that at 31, Rick Nash is in the middle of that age in which snipers see a slide in production.

The contract year situations aren’t of “uh oh, we better re-sign Henrik Lundqvist/our current captain/Derek Stepan” enormity, but they’re still intriguing.

On defense, you have veteran Keith Yandle and fading graybeard (literally) Dan Boyle. Antti Raanta also enters a pivotal year as an NHL backup.

The forward group might be the most intriguing.

Just look at the pending RFAs alone: Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T Miller and Emerson Etem. There’s some fascinating potential for all four of those players.

Even with Boyle’s $4.5 million cap hit set to expire, salary cap gymnastic may be required once again in the summer of 2016.

***

Paying players after strong years – and learning to let some of the less essential ones go – has been a pretty rewarding process for the Rangers, even if there’s been the occasional miss (see: Anton Stralman).

Under pressure: Derek Stepan

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It’s conceivable that Derek Stepan wanted even more than he received from the New York Rangers, but a six-year extension with a $6.5 million cap hit still stands as an enormous deal.

The 25-year-old’s contract is worth a total of $39 million, and he’ll see his highest salary in 2015-16 and 2016-17, as the Rangers will pay him $8 million (and a $1 million signing bonus) each year.

When the deal went down, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton explained that the team wanted to lock up a big-time player.

“[You] want players who can play big in the big moments on the biggest stage — and there is no bigger stage than New York City,” Gorton said, via Blueshirts United. “Derek has proven he can do that.”

Well, now Stepan will face a different kind of pressure: proving that he’s worth the money.

Rangers history is littered with the shattered expectations of Rangers who ended up being cap catastrophes, something that once defined the tenure of long-time GM Glen Sather. On the bright side, the team’s had better luck when they shell out big cash to homegrown talent, most obviously with Henrik Lundqvist.

Stepan’s scoring continues to come along each season. Despite being limited to 68 games in 2014-15, Stepan generated 55 points, nearly matching his 2013-14 output (57 points in 82 games).

Stepan’s been a strong playoff performer, as well, and that will need to continue after some key personnel losses this summer.

One of those changes came in the retirement of Martin St. Louis, a situation that could be quite interesting for Stepan, his frequent linemate.

Stepan’s possession numbers were downright ghastly in 2014-15, but it’s plausible that some of those struggles may be attributed to his veteran partner’s decline.

The American forward is in the prime of his career, so he’s in a solid position to live up to expectations. That’s good, because they’ll rise in a big way with that big contract.

It’s New York Rangers Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The New York Rangers.

The New York Rangers earned their third Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history with a 53-22-7 record last season.

New York then eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games of the first round and edged the Washington Capitals in seven games in the conference semifinals. However, Tampa Bay cut New York’s bid for a second straight Stanley Cup Final appearance short defeating the Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final.

Rick Nash led the way offensively for the Rangers scoring a career-high 42 goals and 69 points in 79 games. Center Derick Brassard also had a career year notching a personal best for goals (19) and points (60).

In what was his final NHL season, Martin St. Louis reached the 20-goal plateau for the 10th time in his career. The 40-year-old announced his retirement in July.

In goal, Henrik Lundqvist went 30-13-3 while posting a 2.25 G.A.A. and a .922 save percentage in 46 appearances. Despite missing 25 games due to a vascular injury, the 33-year-old finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting.

Cam Talbot took over in Lundqvist’s absence. The 28-year-old finished the season with a 21-9-4 record to go along with a 2.21 G.A.A. and a .926 save percentage.

Off-season recap

It was a busy off-season for the Rangers.

After 15 years as the general manager of the Rangers, Glen Sather stepped down in July and handed the duties to Jeff Gorton.

On the ice, the Rangers dealt Talbot to the Edmonton Oilers and filled his spot with Antti Raanta.

New York also acquired Emerson Etem from the Ducks for Carl Hagelin on the second day of the NHL Draft.

Earlier this month the Rangers added depth at center inking free agent Jarret Stoll to a one-year deal.

The Rangers also took care of their own.

Restricted free agents J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast got new deals and Derek Stepan avoided arbitration signing a new six-year $39 million contract.

James Sheppard, who scored two goals and registered nine penalty minutes in 14 games after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks, remains unsigned.

Several Rangers are still recovering from injuries suffered last season.

Brassard had wrist surgery in late June and was expected to require four-to-six weeks of recovery time. Captain Ryan McDonagh, who led all Rangers’ blue liners with 33 points in 71 games last season, is still recovering from a broken foot suffered in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Mats Zuccarello has been cleared to resume skating and have contact after taking a shot to the head from McDonagh in Game 5 of the Rangers’ first round series against the Penguins.

Mackenzie Skapski is still recovering from off-season hip surgery.

Rangers rewarded Stepan for playing ‘big in the big moments on the biggest stage’

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The New York Rangers made Derek Stepan their third highest-paid player on Monday and, to hear GM Jeff Gorton explain it, a major reason why was Stepan’s ability to perform under pressure.

“[You] want players who can play big in the big moments on the biggest stage — and there is no bigger stage than New York City,” Gorton said, per Blueshirts United. “Derek has proven he can do that.”

It’s a telling statement for a team in the midst of a Stanley Cup window.

Having been to the Final in 2014 and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final last season, the Rangers are clearly in win-now mode; Stepan has been a major part of that, and will continue to be moving forward.

The only difference now?

He’s got a contract to live up to.

The 25-year-old more than doubled his annual average value — from $3.075M to $6.5M — and, as mentioned above, trails only Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist in terms of New York’s highest cap hits. Gorton said Stepan was rewarded for “success he’s had, the leadership qualities he has,” adding the Rangers identified him as “one of the guys we want to build around.”

With this new contract, Stepan will receive an increase not just in dollars, but also responsibilities and pressure. He’s now getting paid like a true No. 1 center.

And to be fair, Stepan earned his pay bump. His 55 points in 68 games last season resulted in a 0.81 PPG average, on par with the likes of Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar. He also finished third on the team in scoring in each of the last two playoffs and, quite memorably, scored the OT winner in Game 7 of New York’s second-round victory over Washington in May:

The hope now, of course, is that the best of Stepan is yet to come. It’s easy to forget this is still a relatively young player; thanks to an early debut (at 20) and his durability (he’s played 362 of a possible 376 games), Stepan has a wealth of experience for someone that only turned 25 last month.

It’s something Gorton banked on by shelling out $39 million over the next six years.

“We’re really happy to get Derek locked up,” he explained. “It’s a really good thing for the Rangers and for Ranger fans.

“This is a 25-year-old player, who has played well for us already, and who now will play his prime years for us moving forward.”