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Building off a breakthrough: Clayton Keller

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Even the most optimistic person in the Coyotes organization would admit that the team did not get off to a great start last season. There’s not much room for debate there, what with Arizona starting 2017-18 with a pitiful 0-10-1 record.

During that confidence-shattering time, Clayton Keller‘s stellar start was a balm for wounded Coyotes fans who expected a big leap after the team landed the likes of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta.

Keller scored nine goals and six assists for 15 points over 13 October games, becoming an early Calder frontrunner and earning Rookie of the Month honors for the opening month of the season. You tend to develop that sort of buzz when you make other great rookies like Nico Hischier look downright silly on plays like these:

The slick-yet-undersized scorer generated such a hot start, people wondered if anyone else could catch him for the Calder. It turns out that the answer was a resounding yes, as Mathew Barzal left everyone else in the dust, and Brock Boeser turned out to be even more of an oasis in a desert of bad hockey than Keller for a comparably abysmal Canucks team. Still, Keller enjoyed a strong enough season to become a finalist for the award, generating 23 goals and 65 points while essentially being a first-liner (with the ice time that goes with that, as he averaged a veteran-like 18:05 TOI).

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Back in November, PHT’s Joey Alfieri caught up with Coyotes head coach Rich Tocchet, who praised Keller as you’d expect. Tocchet, like others, came away impressed with just how beyond-his-years Keller ended up being.

” .. What marvels me is that he’s a 19-year-old kid,” Tocchet said of Keller, who turned 20 on July 29. “He’s only going to get stronger, and he’s going against top players against other teams and how he’s coming out of the corners with pucks. He’s got the puck on his stick and he’s making plays. That’s what’s really been surprising to me.”

Indeed, for a player who was arguably underestimated just a touch during the 2016 NHL Draft because of his size (Arizona selected him with the seventh pick), Keller distinguishes himself in part by having such a nose for the puck.

Sophomore slump approaching?

Keller might be in tough to top his brilliant breakthrough season, but context is key.

To some extent, he was “a big fish in a small pond” during this past campaign. Despite carrying just three games of NHL experience with him from 2016-17, Keller topped all Coyotes forwards when it came to power-play time, averaging three minutes and one second per contest. Only Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a more frequent fixture on the man advantage.

The power play pond could easily get a little more crowded next season.

While Max Domi was the fixture himself on the PP as the second-most frequently used forward, Alex Galchenyuk might eat up even more time. It’s also quite plausible that Dylan Strome may be used in such 5-on-4 situations, as that extra space might help him leverage his strengths (smarts, playmaking) while camouflaging concerns like his skating.

The Coyotes still seem likely to lean heavily on Keller, and being that he just turned 20, there’s a strong possibility that he’s merely scratching the surface of his prodigious skills. Consider that he didn’t really ride outrageous shooting luck last season, with a very repeatable 10.8 shooting percentage.

Let’s also acknowledge the chewy elephant in the room: much like fellow brilliant American scorer Patrick Kane, Keller loves gnawing on his mouthpiece. There’s quite a bit of photographic evidence of this, which seems crucial to note.

As you can see, he deploys such a strategy at home:

via Getty

On the road (main image) and possibly while playing defense/battling for the puck:

via Getty

Honestly, scouts must have been sleeping on this one. Did they not at least consider the undeniable correlation between mindless mouth-wear misuse and blistering talent? *Sigh*

Anyway, all (bad) joking aside, it sure seems like the Coyotes unearthed a gem in Keller. Even if his ceiling is as a 20-25 goal, 60+ point player, he ranks as the sort of scorer you need in the NHL. If 2017-18 ends up being a mere appetizer for a greater breakthrough next season or in the near future, then the future is so bright you might need shades.

Maybe don’t chew on those sunglasses, though.

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.

Russ Conway, writer who brought down hockey union boss, dies

NHL
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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Russ Conway, a hockey writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his stories about corruption in the NHL Players Association that helped bring down union head Alan Eagleson, has died. He was 70.

His death was reported by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he had started at the age of 18 and later served as sports editor.

A longtime Boston Bruins beat writer, Conway published a series of articles that exposed Eagleson’s lucrative conflicts of interest as the union boss, player agent and organizer of international tournaments. Conway’s reporting spawned investigations in both the United States and Canada that resulted in Eagleson serving six months in prison and forfeiting his Order of Canada.

The Hockey Hall of Fame kicked Eagleson out and gave Conway its Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for bringing honor to journalism and hockey.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers put Quinn under pressure to show spending was worth it

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are Broadway’s NHL team, so consider the 2018-19 season a “dress rehearsal” for head coach David Quinn.

Expectations were low for a team that telegraphed a rebuild to the point of sending out a press release, but you can take the training wheels off after the Rangers invested huge money and resources into the likes of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox.

If this was a video game or fantasy hockey, you’d seamlessly improve with seemingly more skilled players without much fuss. Actually making it all work in reality isn’t always so simple, though, putting Quinn under pressure to make it all come together in 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Let’s consider some of the challenges ahead.

Manufacturing a Bread Line, and managing young guns

The first question falls under “good problems to have,” as Quinn should ponder how to get the most out of Panarin.

As PHT’s Scott Billeck discussed here, one likely combination would involve Panarin lining up with top center Mika Zibanejad, and rookie Kakko. There are plenty of other ways to experiment with Panarin, though, and a lot of those possibilities hinge on which younger forwards can earn significant reps, or even spots on the roster at all.

One could imagine Panarin setting the table for someone like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, or Vitali Kravtsov, much like Panarin undoubtedly helped Pierre Luc-Dubois become a quick study in the NHL during Panarin’s days with the Blue Jackets. It could end up working out best if Panarin and Zibanejad power one line apiece, or it may be better to concentrate that high-end, more experienced NHL scoring talent on a first line.

Along with Kravtsov and others fighting for roster spots, there are also players with something to prove, from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to someone coming off of a rough stretch like Vladislav Namestnikov.

It’s up to Quinn to mold this intriguing, but somewhat unshapen group into something cohesive. Unlike last season, the raw materials are there for something, even if this group isn’t necessarily primed to be explosive out of the gate.

Getting some stops

The good and bad news is that the Rangers’ defense basically had nowhere to go but up. It won’t be easy to generate the sort of gains that can help the Rangers contend, though.

Jacob Trouba’s getting his wish: he’s the man on that New York defense, no question about it; we’ll see if this is a “careful what you wish for” situation, because if this unit’s going to be any good, it will probably come down to Trouba being the minutes-eating top guy.

Adam Fox has been drawing hype for a while, but what can he be right off the bat? Considering the Rangers’ personnel, they might not be able to ease the 21-year-old into the NHL fray as much as would normally be ideal.

Even with considerable gains, the Rangers will probably continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: ask a whole lot from Henrik Lundqvist.

The 37-year-old is coming off of the worst year of his NHL career, as he languished with a .907 save percentage behind that lousy defense. Lundqvist can’t be asked to patch up the same mistakes as he did during his prime, but if the Rangers are going to take a big step forward, they need King Henrik to return somewhere close to form.

If not, that presents another hurdle for Quinn. Can he manage Lundqvist’s ego — and placate those around him — while getting results in net, particularly if it becomes clear that Alexandar Georgiev would be the superior option most nights? That’s a potential instance where problems become as much political as tactical, and answers rarely come easily.

***

Change can come quickly in the NHL, yet even by those standards, the Rangers have undergone a dramatic makeover. Quinn is charged with making sure that things don’t end up looking ugly.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Grade the Hurricanes’ new road uniform

Carolina Hurricanes
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On Tuesday morning Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new road uniform for the 2019-20 NHL season, ditching their primary storm logo on the front for some diagonal lettering that spells out “Canes.”

It is a rather simplistic design, but it is clean and pretty sharp.

Along with the wording across the front, they also brought back the warning flags along the waistline of the jersey.

Have a look.

Other features as part of the new uniform: The new secondary logo (the hockey stick with the warning flags attached to it) appears on both shoulders, while the helmet will feature a raised 3-D sticker of the primary logo which you can see here.

You can check out all of the features at the Hurricanes’ website.

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look? Does the diagonal lettering work for a team that is not the New York Rangers? What is your grade for the Hurricanes’ new road uniform?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.