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Arizona Coyotes begin camp with hope of a turnaround

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Every team enters training camp with optimism. The slate is clean, no losses to tarnish the outlook, every NHL team starting at the same place.

A year ago, the Arizona Coyotes had the extra boost of playing under a new coach, system and overhauled roster, yet it didn’t work out.

Heading into the start of this year’s training camp Thursday, the Coyotes have a dash of expectations to go with the optimism.

They know what coach Rick Tocchet expects and his system. They have a boost of confidence after closing last season with a flourish. They locked down a key player to a long-term contract, named him captain and made a series of offseason moves that should boost scoring.

After six rebuilding seasons, this may finally be the season the Coyotes trend upward from the bottom of the NHL standings.

”Everything that we’re doing in terms of developing a fan base, putting the right people in place, the right coach, the right infrastructure, the right players, we really see this as a sleeping giant,” Coyotes President and CEO Ahron Cohen said. ”I think that’s starting to resonate with people. The last part of the season we really saw the steps we were taking moving forward.”

The Coyotes went into last season with a new-look roster after making major offseason moves and hiring a new coach in Tocchet, who won a pair of Stanley Cup titles as an assistant at Pittsburgh.

The optimism washed away like a desert flash flood as the Coyotes lost their first 10 games and were 9-26 through the end of December.

Some of it was adjusting to a new coach and new system. Youth also played a role. In preparing his players for the future, Tocchet put the young guys in tight spots early in the season and they didn’t initially handle it well. The Coyotes repeatedly gave up goals right after scoring and had trouble holding onto leads, often losing in the last five or six minutes of games.

But as the season wore on, Tocchet’s put-them-to-the-fire tactic paid off. Arizona’s defense tightened up and the Coyotes started winning those close games, finishing the season 17-9-3. They were still last in the Pacific Division, but the late run showed the potential of this young team and boosted their confidence heading into this season.

”Obviously, the last half of the season, everybody’s excited about that,” Tocchet said. ”Can you use last year’s success? Yeah, it helps, but we still picked fifth in the draft so we still have a long way to go.”

The Coyotes took steps this offseason to speed up that process.

One was to lock up defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the next eight years.

A four-time All-Star, Ekman-Larsson has taken on more of a leadership role since Shane Doan’s retirement prior to last season and is still one of the NHL’s most skilled defensemen. On Thursday, the Coyotes named him captain, the first to wear the ”C” since Doan retired.

Signing Ekman-Larsson to a deal that averages $8.25 million per year gives the Coyotes stability at the blue line and for the future.

”There’s a responsibility that he wants to lead this team into the next level,” Tocchet said. ”He’s also a quality person. Everyone looks at him as a hockey player, but he’s a quality person. You want quality people in the room who care and it obviously adds to your chance at success.”

So should the additions general manager John Chayka made during the offseason.

The Coyotes were busy this summer, trading Max Domi to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk and adding speedy winger Michael Grabner, among other deals.

The 24-year-old Galchenyuk scored 30 goals three seasons ago and has at least 44 points each of the past four seasons. The 30-year-old Grabner has scored 27 goals each of the past three seasons – with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils – and has a 34-goal season on his resume.

Scoring has always been a problem for the Coyotes, so they could use the boost.

”There’s balance of scoring. If you go down the list, you go, ‘Oh jeez, this guy can score 18 or this guy can score 24,”’ Tocchet said. ”If you look up and down the lineup, there are guys with the potential to score these amount of goals. And when you add it all up, is there enough goals to win? Yeah, I think so.”

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McDavid to have hearing for illegal check to head of Leddy

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Well, it looks like Connor McDavid is in some hot water.

On Friday, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced that the Oilers captain will have a hearing for the hit to the head he delivered on Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy.

McDavid was only given a two-minute penalty on the play. Leddy missed a good deal of time in the game, but he eventually passed concussion protocol.

To make matters even worse for the Isles, McDavid ended up scoring the game-winner in overtime.

McDavid isn’t a dirty player by any means, but the league definitely has to do something here. Even though Leddy has his head down, McDavid can’t just make contact with his head in the manner in which he did.

Like a lot of other leagues, the NHL tends to favor their star players when it comes to handing out discipline, which is totally understandable, too. So this should be an interesting decision.

Losing their franchise player for any amount of time would be devastating to Edmonton’s slim playoff hopes. They’re currently six points behind the Minnesota Wild for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

What do you think? Vote below.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Flyers deadline plans become clearer after ugly loss to Habs

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After digging themselves into a significant hole early on this season, the Philadelphia Flyers found a way to get themselves back in the playoff conversation thanks to an outstanding last few weeks.

Thanks to some steady goaltending from Carter Hart and a more aggressive approach overall, the Flyers were able to rattle off 12 victories in 14 games between Jan. 14 – Feb. 17. That’s very impressive. But last night’s loss to Montreal combined with Carolina’s win over the Florida Panthers was a serious blow to their chances of playing meaningful games in the spring.

If general manager Chuck Fletcher was using this final week before the trade deadline to decide whether or not he’d hold on to Wayne Simmonds, he got his answer.

Philadelphia dropped a 5-2 decision to the first-place Lightning, who were playing their second game in two nights when they went head-to-head against the Flyers. But anytime should be able to stomach a loss to Tampa Bay. Thursday’s no-show in Montreal, however, is a different story.

From the start of the game to the very end, they were dominated by a quicker, hungrier and better Canadiens team. The Habs aren’t one of the elite teams in the conference, but they went into last night’s game sitting in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. Still, the Flyers couldn’t afford to drop those two points if they wanted to stay in the hunt.

For the second game in a row, Hart was pulled after playing just 10 minutes. This time, he got the hook after allowing a goal to Brendan Gallagher from a horrendous angle.

“We’re not in the position we’re in without him,” James van Riemsdyk said of Hart, per Philly.com. “He’s come in and does a tremendous job. There are games like that when there are going to be tough bounces. Again, he has nothing to hang his head on. He’s been unbelievable since he got here.”

So going into Saturday’s Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia finds themselves eight points behind their state rivals, who are in the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. A win at Lincoln Financial Field would bring them to within six points, but they’d still have Carolina and Columbus ahead of them.

Given the position they’re in, they have to absolutely unload Simmonds before Monday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline. Holding on to him and losing him for nothing at the end of the year isn’t an option. Although it’s hard not to blame the players for the way they played on Thursday night, they deserve credit for not giving up on the season when they easily could have done so in December, January and February.

For now though, it looks like they’ll have to start looking toward next season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Gritty’s diary; Patrick Kane’s incredible season

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli believes that Mark Stone‘s days in Ottawa are numbered. (TSN)

• Speaking of Stone, he’d be a nice fit in Boston, but there’s other guys the Bruins could target, too. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Ilya Kovalchuk has officially put his New Jersey home on the market for a whopping $18 million. (Pucks and Pitchforks)

• Can Kovalchuk be a useful asset to a team that’s not the Los Angeles Kings? Rotoworld’s Gus Katsaros takes a deeper look at the advanced stats. (Rotoworld)

• The Lightning are blessed with a ton of depth all over their roster, but which defenseman should they sit once the playoffs begin? (Raw Charge)

• It might be a boring trade deadline for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Keeping Jeff Skinner beyond the trade deadline would be a major gamble for the Buffalo Sabres. (The Hockey News)

• Check out Gritty’s Stadium Series diary ahead of Saturday night’s outdoor game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. (NHL.com)

• Buffalo’s KeyBank center has become a little outdated. That barn is now 22 years old. (Buffalo News)

Patrick Kane might just be having the best individual season in Blackhawks history. (Faxes from Uncle Dale)

• Can Blues goalie Jordan Binnington win the Calder Trophy? (St. Louis Game-Time)

Steven Stamkos believes that Nikita Kucherov should win the Hart Trophy this year. (Toronto Sun)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Gallagher’s hat trick powers Habs; Stars end Blues’ streak

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Three Stars

1. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens. The Montreal Canadiens were dominant on Thursday night in a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, turning in one of their best overall performances of the season. At the center of it was Brendan Gallagher who recorded his first career hat trick to continue his great season. After his performance on Thursday he is now up to a team-leading 26 goals.

2. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks. The Pittsburgh Penguins were no match for the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night who looked like the Stanley Cup contender that they are. Tomas Hertl was one of the big driving forces in the win as he scored a pair of power play goals, including one in the game’s first two minutes to set the tone for what would go on to be a decisive win. This game ended up getting very heated late.

3. Justin Williams, Carolina Hurricanes. The Carolina Hurricanes are back in a playoff spot after their come-from-behind win over the Florida Panthers. Captain Justin Williams had a huge game by scoring a pair of goals, including one off of his face. His second goal was a bit more conventional and went in the books as the game-winner. Nino Neiderreiter and Teuvo Teravainen also had multi-point games for the Hurricanes in the win.

More Notable Performances From Thursday

  • The Dallas Stars were 5-2 winners over the St. Louis Blues, snapping what had been an 11-game winning streak. Jamie Benn eclipsed the 20-goal mark in the win for the Stars.
  • The Nashville Predators reclaimed the top spot in the Central Division with a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. You can read about it and what is ahead for the Predators here.
  • Big night for New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider as he recorded his first shutout of the season in blanking what is left of the Ottawa Senators’ roster.
  • The Arizona Coyotes are not going away. Their overtime win against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday was huge and now has them just one point out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Given where they were coming from a year ago and the injury situation they have dealt with this season it is an impressive accomplishment to still be in this race.

Highlights of the Night

This sequence early in the Washington Capitals-Toronto Maple Leafs game was bonkers.

Another highlight reel goal for Aleksander Barkov!

Tomas Hertl may never score an easier goal in the NHL.

Factoids

  • Connor McDavid recorded his 25th multi-point game of the season in leading the Edmonton Oilers to a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders. One of those points was the game-winner in overtime. His 25 multi-point games are the third-most in the NHL this season. He also had a questionable hit on Nick Leddy in the first period that could result in a review from the NHL’s DoPS. Eventful night.  [NHL PR]
  • Nikita Kucherov reached the 100-point mark faster than any other player over the past 22 years. [NHL PR]
  • Alex Ovechkin scored career goal No. 650 in the Washington Capitals’ win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. [NHL PR]

Scores

Washington Capitals 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Florida Panthers 3

New Jersey Devils 4, Ottawa Senators 0

Minnesota Wild 4, New York Rangers 1

San Jose Sharks 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 0

Montreal Canadiens 5, Philadelphia Flyers 1

Tampa Bay Lightning 2, Buffalo Sabres 1 (SO)

Nashville Predators 2, Los Angeles Kings 1

Dallas Stars 5, St. Louis Blues 2

Edmonton Oilers 4, New York Islanders 3 (OT)

Arizona Coyotes 3, Vancouver Canucks 2 (OT)

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.