Why there’s reason to believe in Coyotes

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When we last checked in with the Arizona Coyotes they had just dropped a 2-1 decision to the Minnesota Wild, had won just one of their first five games, and were off to what was quite literally one of the worst offensive starts in league history.

A lot has changed since then. In the five games since, the Coyotes have won four of them and are coming off of an especially impressive 7-1 demolition of the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the league’s best teams and a consistent powerhouse, on Saturday night. They have put their slow offensive start behind them and scored at least three goals in all five games (including at least four goals in four of the games), have won all four games by at least three goals, and now have one of the 10 best goal differentials in the entire league.

Yes, this is an extremely small sampling of games, and yes there is always the potential that it could be a mirage. It is, after all, very early in the season and sometimes what you see here is not what you are going to get over the course of 82 games. But I am here to tell you that there are reasons to believe that this is not a mirage, and that the Coyotes are finally starting to put it together.

First, they have had a remarkably stingy defense to start the season. One of the best in the league, to be exact.

Even when they were losing over the first two weeks they had only surrendered 11 goals over those five games. For their season, their 2.00 goals against average per game is the best in the NHL. They are allowing just 28.2 shots on goal per game, the fourth best mark in the NHL. In terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt differential they are sixth in the league, as is their scoring chance differential.

In other words, they have been dictating the pace and pushing the play in all of their games, and in all of the key areas of the ice. What crushed them at the start was the simple fact that they could not actually put the puck in the net. And while they are probably never going to be a consistently great offense as currently constructed, they weren’t going to keep shooting at the laughably low 1.6 percent they had in those games, either. As long as they kept generating chances and shots (as they have) they were eventually going to see some positive reward for that. Lately, they have.

The biggest problem for the 2017-18 Coyotes was that they had an impossibly bad start that saw them lose their first 11 games, and 18 out of their first 20. By the middle of November they were already seven points behind the second-worst team in the standings (at the time the Buffalo Sabres) even though they had played in two additional games at that point. It was a hole they were never going to climb out of no matter what they did the rest of the way. At the center of that horrendous start was the fact they spent most of that time without starting goalie Antti Raanta as he was sidelined for most of the first month of the season, and then took a little bit of time to get back to 100 percent once he was able to return to the lineup. In his place was a revolving door of backups that, frankly, were not ready for NHL action. The results proved to be disastrous.

Once Raanta got back into the lineup the Coyotes were a fairly competitive team.

Over the final 62 games of the season they were 27-26-9, which comes out to around an 84-point pace over a full season.

Still not enough to get into the playoffs, but enough to be competitive.It was over the final 30 games where things really started to come together, finishing with a 17-10-3 record, and beating a lot of really good, playoff bound teams in the process. At times decisively. A lot of it was due to the play of Raanta, as he was sensational once he returned to health, but it showed just how much of a difference competent goaltending can make for a young, rebuilding team.

He has been just as good to start this season, and now the team in front of him is helping him out by limiting the number of shots and chances he has had to face. Together, it has been a great combination for the Coyotes and given them a chance to win every single night, even if it hasn’t always resulted in an actual win. This is the important thing: The process is starting to get there. They are doing the right things a team needs to do to win, mostly control the puck and outchance your opponent. Overall, the Coyotes have played 40 games since Feb. 6 and have a 22-15-3 record during that stretch. That’s a half-season worth of games where they have played at a 96-point pace. That gets you in the playoffs in almost every season.

They are also going to have a really good opportunity to continue this recent stretch and stack up some early season points as their next four games are against Ottawa, Carolina and back-to-back games against Philadelphia. That is a big opportunity they have to take advantage of.

Also working in their favor this season is the fact the Pacific Division is a mostly uninspiring pile of mediocrity.

The Ducks and Kings are both lousy, and even with a better than expected start the Canucks will no doubt soon join them. The Flames are completely underwhelming, and the Oilers are still a giant mystery that will probably only go as far as Connor McDavid can carry them. The Sharks are going to be at the top and Vegas will probably overcome it’s slow start and get back on track, but after that the entire division is completely wide open. Nearly one month into the season the Coyotes and Sharks are the only teams in the division that have actually outscored their opponents.

This is a team with an excellent goalie in Raanta, whose .922 save percentage is third in the NHL since the start of the 2013-14 season (among 44 goalies that have appeared in at least 140 games) behind only John Gibson and Corey Crawford, and a roster in front of him that is starting to play lockdown defense. That combination can carry a team a long way, even with a mediocre offense.

Now that Alex Galchenyuk is back in the lineup they have a respectable 1-2 punch down the middle with him and Derek Stepan, and an emerging top-line winger in Clayton Keller. They still need a player like Dylan Strome to take a big step forward to help solidify the offense, but as long as they keep shutting teams down the way they have and getting the goaltending they are getting from Raanta (and what backup Darcy Kuemper has given them so far) they are going to be a difficult team to deal with.

The process in terms of the way they are playing and playing the right way has been there from the start of the season.

The results are starting to follow.

(Shot attempt and scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Sabres fans are fed up with losing, and so is Jack Eichel

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While 24 NHL teams aim to return to play, the Buffalo Sabres will not. Despite seeing a league-leading playoff drought extend to nine consecutive seasons, the Sabres confirmed that GM Jason Botterill will be back. This all translates to deeply frustrating times for Sabres fans — not to mention star Jack Eichel.

And both Eichel and those Sabres fans made some waves with the way they aired their grievances.

Eichel and other Sabres are “fed up with losing”

Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and other Sabres vented during recent days. In Eichel’s case, he admitted that he’s “fed up with losing.” When you listen to Eichel, you can hear that mixture of fatigue and anger.

Eichel carries a lot of the burden as the Sabres’ biggest star. Yet, as much as Eichel’s suffered through five years of failures, Rasmus Ristolainen absorbed even more over seven. Rumors circulated that Ristolainen wanted out last summer, and he only (kind of) calmed things down later on.

Maybe that sets the stage for some eyebrow-raising comments? Ristolainen told reporters that he realizes that if someone gets traded, he might be the first to go. The defenseman also acknowledged how comments about building toward the future must make everyone sound like a broken record.

No doubt, missing the postseason in such an embarrassing way has to sting Sabres players like Eichel and Ristolainen. The angst also makes it more awkward for Botterill to try to say all the right things.

With cap space opening up and huge needs still lingering, this is a huge offseason for the Sabres. It also could be a long one in a more literal way, if the 2020-21 season starts in, say, December. Clearly, plenty of Sabres players won’t be feeling very patient if the team suffers through another stretch of setbacks.

Fans share discontent — sometimes creatively

It’s clear — and it’s been clear for a while — that Sabres fans are out of patience, too. (Remember Duane?)

Sabres fan Jill Thompson put the team “up for sale” on Craigslist. While the listing was not very surprisingly removed, Thompson shared a screenshot of it on Twitter:

Thompson wrote this in the listing:

For Sale: NHL Hockey Franchise
Team: Buffalo Sabres
Available: ASAP

*Lost team with diehard fanbase looking for wealthy owner who actually understands hockey*

Organization on the cheap. Could be flipped. Major structural damage but few core pieces still in tact.

Non-Negotiable Terms:
-Franchise must stay in current city and is ineligible for relocation.
-Immediate family (i.e. wife) is not eligible for internal position within the organization
-Must provide “team puppy”

Not crazy about the “immediate family” barb personally, but otherwise? Pretty good. Really, all 31 NHL teams should have at least one puppy.

Thompson explained the listing to the Buffalo News, and capturing the mood of many Sabres fans in the process:

“When I post about the Sabres on Twitter, it’s sadly in a negative light and that is because I am upset for the level of disrespect/lack of accountability/neglect of everything down to the smallest details that we are shown from the owners,” Thompson wrote to the Buffalo News. “As one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports, we deserve better.”

With serious questions lingering regarding goaltending, defense, and forward depth, the Sabres have a long way to go to turn things around. And they might not have a ton of time to win back fans like Thompson.

More on the Sabres

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Beleskey helps Ducks’ winning ways in 2015

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This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will feature four notable milestone and record performances.

In the first-ever playoff meeting between these two teams, the series was tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5. Jonathan Toews of Chicago forced an overtime period when he scored two goals with under two minutes left in regulation, but Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey scored the winning goal in overtime for the 5-4 win. With the victory, the Ducks improved to 11-3 in the 2015 postseason, tying the NHL record for the most consecutive games to begin the playoffs without a regulation loss.

Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti and Brian Engblom had the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Thursday, May 28 on NBCSN
• Blackhawks vs. Ducks (2015 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5 p.m. ET

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

LA Kings hope late-season surge indicates brighter future

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s hottest team before the coronavirus pandemic ended the regular season prematurely. They’re hoping they can eventually build on that success whenever they get back on the ice.

The team with the NHL’s longest active winning streak won’t get a chance to extend it this season, thanks to the league’s decision this week to limit its playoff tournament to 24 teams. The Kings’ seven straight victories before the stoppage comprised the franchise’s best stretch since December 2017, and it had even pulled them out of last place in the Pacific Division.

The Kings haven’t lost a game since Feb. 23, and their 10-3-1 surge prior to the pause suggests coach Todd McLellan’s work was finally paying off after Los Angeles mostly struggled through the first four months of a rebuilding season. The Kings’ only public comment on the abrupt end came in a statement from team President Luc Robitaille.

”It’s unfortunate that our season has concluded, but we fully understand this was necessary and support the decision,” Robitaille said. ”At the time of the pause, we had made considerable progress in the second half and were seeing positive results and encouraging signs for the future. We’ll now turn our attention to the NHL draft and player development so that we can continue building our organization for long-term success.”

Despite their late success, the Kings already were all but certain to miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2009.

Even after two straight disappointing seasons, Robitaille, general manager Rob Blake and McLellan all appear to be secure in their jobs and locked in on a long-term plan to return the Kings to Stanley Cup contention.

Los Angeles won the trophy twice in three years before entering a slow decline caused by massive veteran contracts and unimpressive talent development, culminating in the struggles that finally showed signs of ending before the coronavirus upended everyone’s plans.

”If we had a chance to finish the season, we’d want to finish the season,” Robitaille said earlier this month. ”Especially the fact that we have a lot of young players, it’s always good experience for them to play.”

CORE GUYS

A championship-winning veteran core remains in Los Angeles, but the Kings must decide whether to keep it together for another year. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter are all still-productive players locked into big contracts, but Blake knows it’s time to repair the foundation of his franchise to rebuild a winner. Blake values the leadership and experience of those veterans along with longtime depth forward Trevor Lewis, who is the Kings’ most noteworthy unrestricted free agent. Los Angeles already parted ways with stalwart supporting players Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford in February, and while it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect big changes given the contract obstacles, Blake would be foolish not to consider more ways to get younger and more financially flexible.

FIND THE NET

The Kings were among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams again this season, with Kopitar’s 21 goals and 41 assists easily leading the roster in both categories. Los Angeles had only five 10-goal scorers, while only Kopitar and Alex Iafallo topped 40 points. Despite their offensive struggles, Blake saw progress in the Kings’ implementation of McLellan’s system. ”Clearly we wanted to be a strong-shooting team, a team that got pucks to the net, recovered pucks well and generated offense off that,” Blake said. ”I think the year-end review showed that.”

PING PONG BALLS

The Kings have a 9.5% chance of winning the top pick in the complicated draft lottery this summer. For a franchise that hasn’t drafted a star since Doughty in 2008, a high pick would be an enormous boost. The Kings’ draft carries an added degree of difficulty with the departure of assistant general manager Michael Futa, whose contract expires in June. Still, Los Angeles is in prime position to add another elite talent to a solid pool of prospects including first-rounder Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Samuel Fagemo and Tyler Madden.

HIGHLIGHTS

Iafallo’s transformation from an undrafted free agent to a consistent NHL scorer in less than three years has been a rare bright spot for the Kings’ recent record of player acquisitions. Ditto for Sean Walker, an undrafted defenseman who played his way into a regular NHL role. Walker’s 24 points this season nearly matched the prolific Doughty, who had 28.

LOWLIGHTS

Carter has two more years left on his 10-year contract extension, but Blake said earlier this month that the 35-year-old veteran scorer wouldn’t have been able to return from his mysterious core injury even if the NHL season had continued for the Kings. And though Adrian Kempe was the Kings’ fifth-leading scorer, his inconsistency aggravated the front office and coaching staff. The Swede will strive for steadier production in the years ahead.

Killorn, Lightning jet ski their way to NHL return in ‘Bolts are Back’

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During some of the dog days of the pandemic pause, Alex Killorn gathered Lightning teammates for some tremendous-cheesy “Dock Talk” videos. It only makes sense, then, that he gathered the gang (“the boys?”) for the best segment yet to celebrate the NHL’s return to play. Yes, the “Bolts are back,” indeed.*

* – In small groups

Killorn, Steven Stamkos, and other Lightning teammates celebrated this announcement — on jet skis, with humor — to the tune of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are back in town.”

(Warning: that song will probably get in your head if you watch the video above. Maybe it already is?)

Enjoy some of the best moments of Killorn’s great “Bolts are back” video.

Splashy highlights of Killorn, Stamkos, other Lightning players in “Bolts are back”

Killorn makes his “directorial debut” with an honestly very nice overhead pool shot. The video starts strong with Stamkos and Killorn being goofy on their jet skis.

Stamkos "Bolts are Back"
What, Stamkos didn’t spring for fancy airpods? (via Killorn)

In a moment of poor sportsmanship/skismanship, an unnamed Bruin (or, most likely, someone wearing a Bruins shirt?) gets splashed. Figure this one out, Internet. I believe this is the same person who gets dumped in the water (while wearing a Maple Leafs shirt?) later on?

Bruins guy in "Bolts are Back"
Well, that’s rude. (via Killorn)

While there’s plenty of room for debate, I’d argue that Andrei Vasilevskiy (aka “Big Cat”) earns the nod for best cameo. We catch him lifting weights, and grunting something — maybe “you’re the man?” — before spotting his Lightning pals.

Vasilevskiy Big Cat "Bolts are Back"
Do goalies need to be that ripped? Asking for Dominik Hasek. (via Killorn)

Like many great filmmakers, Killorn tackles class when he features Lightning teammate Anthony Cirelli in one of the more memorable sequences of “Bolts are Back.” Notice that Cirelli (“Rocco”) is waiting tables before being summoned. You see, Cirelli is on an entry-level contract. Is his artificially deflated contract being referenced by Killorn?

Clearly.

Judging by Cirelli abandoning his duties, it’s not only good that the Bolts are back, and so seemingly is the NHL. It’s also promising that Cirelli’s due a raise as a pending RFA.

Other cast members

Not every appearance was as strong as a grunting big cat. Then again, maybe it boils down to repeat viewings, because Mikhail Sergachev‘s fanny pack and cat moved up the power rankings over time:

Sergachev cat
Almost a dog-like pose? Not complaining. (via Killorn)

Clearly, Braydon Coburn and/or Killorn are well-schooled on action movie tropes. At least, that’s my headcanon for Coburn being interrupted while cutting wood. Doesn’t that happen in every thriller involving a reluctantly returning hero? Anyway, Coburn joining the group with an open shirt earns one of the bigger laughs:

Braydon Coburn cameo
Alrighty then, “Kobayashi.” (via Killorn)

Killorn isn’t yet at that “obsessive auteur director” level just yet, as I imagine a control freak would have been maddened by the imperfect skiing V:

imperfect V "Bolts are back"
Maddening. (via Killorn)

(Seriously, who is the straggler? Could Cirelli’s jet ski not keep up? Class rears its ugly head again.)

Killorn ties it all together with another great joke: “The Bolts are back” — in small groups.

"Bolts are Back" -- in small groups
(via Killorn)

Killorn actually might be right about the whole “breakout influencer of the year” thing, honestly.

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.