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Burning questions for Coyotes in 2019-20

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 Arizona Coyotes.

Let’s ponder three questions about the Coyotes, beyond Phil Kessel handling the pressure and how luck has been such a factor in their recent results …

1. Can the Coyotes stay healthy?

Whether you judge injuries by quantity or quality, the Coyotes rank as one of the teams that were hit hardest by injuries last season.

Sometimes injuries just happen, and pile up, only to regress back to league average over time. Sometimes teams enjoy peculiar luck – good or bad – such as the Capitals’ bewilderingly long stretch of mostly avoiding injuries under Barry Trotz.

The Coyotes have to hope that 2018-19 was a mere anomaly.

In some cases, that’s likely true, and it has to be heartening that Phil Kessel was a borderline ironman on a Penguins team that’s dealt with recurring injury headaches through much of the Sidney Crosby era.

On the other hand, there are certain instances where you fear the worst. Antti Raanta is the clearest example, as there are reasons to worry that last year wasn’t a blip, but was instead a red flag that Raanta simply may not be able to avoid the nagging injuries that can hound a goalie, pushing a would-be starter down to a platoon level, or worse.

Raanta was limited to 47 games in 2017-18, but the 2018-19 campaign was especially grim, as the former Blackhawks and Rangers goalie only suited up for 12 games. While Raanta isn’t ancient, he also isn’t a spring chicken, as he turned 30 in May.

Sometimes injuries morph from sporadic bad luck to just the sad, status quo, so here’s hoping that Raanta can put that behind him.

Either way, the Coyotes should examine how they rest, and how they train. If there are any signs that they’re pushing players too hard, or could improve their odds of avoiding injuries, they should lean into opportunities with sports science.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | 2018-19 in review | X-factor]

2. What will they get from their goalies?

That Raanta discussion bleeds into this question: as unlucky as the Coyotes were with injuries, they were almost as lucky when it came to the surprisingly elite play of Darcy Kuemper, who’s otherwise been a career backup.

In a more ideal scenario, there could still be some uncertainty, as the dreamy picture would be the Coyotes essentially rolling out two starting-quality goalies in Kuemper and Raanta. That would really be something, especially since they combine for a cap hit barely over $6M.

Other scenarios are far cloudier. What if Raanta simply can’t hold up physically, whether that means that his workload would be limited, or that his career is unraveling in an even more profound way? It’s tough to imagine Kuemper matching his brilliant work from 2018-19, although he does have some potential to be an asset for Arizona.

If the goaltending sinks to a league average level or worse, then it could nullify gains made in other areas.

3. Will their offense sputter again?

Much like the Ducks, the Coyotes’ scoring stats were pretty depressing last season. When it’s 2018-19 and your leading scorer failed to hit 50 points (Clayton Keller generated 47), and no one reached 20 goals, you know that you’re not exactly overflowing with firepower.

Keller suffered through an unlucky year, and Kessel is the type of weapon the Coyotes have rarely deployed over the years, but it’s fair to wonder if they’ll still be able to score enough to compete in the modern NHL.

Last season, the Coyotes almost made the playoffs, but succeeded with a tiny margin for error (209 goals scored, 200 allowed), and more offense could help them gain something that’s often underrated in the NHL: easy wins.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Losses pile up for Red Wings as Blashill’s seat gets hotter

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It’s pretty wild to think that it’s been a month since the Red Wings last won a game, a 4-3 overtime victory over the Ducks. It’s even wilder to realize that was their third straight win and that streak began by beating the Bruins and Golden Knights.

One month later and Detroit has gone 12 games without a win, five NHL teams have made coaching changes — with differing reasons, of course — and Jeff Blashill remains behind the bench.

The Red Wings are currently approaching the franchise record for consecutive losses (14) set back in 1982 and are five defeats away from tying the NHL record (17) held by the 1974-75 Capitals and 1992-92 Sharks.

“When things go bad, they’re really bad right now,” said Dylan Larkin. “We don’t have an answer for that right now. But we need to find it. It’s not even Christmas yet and this has happened too many times. It’s not acceptable.”

How bad it is? Their goal differential is currently a a league-worst minus-62. The Devils are right behind them at minus-37. They’re ranked 29th in team even strength save percentage at .896, per Natural Stat Trick, with their goaltenders allowing five or more goals in half of their 32 games. The offense is averaging a paltry 2.09 goals per game.

The expectations were low this season, so playoff hockey wasn’t a thought for the team. With a new general manager in Steve Yzerman and a young roster, it was all about development and taking steps forward. Blashill signed a two-year extension in April, but there’s been a lack of progress. There’s a natural replacement on the Red Wings’ bench in Dan Bylsma, but perhaps Yzerman has someone else in mind?

While his future remains unknown, Blashill is trying to focus on the present.

“For me, all I’m doing is what I always do and that’s be solution-based and worry about what we can control,” he said following Tuesday’s defeat. “What we can control right now is learning from this game and make sure we are helping our team get better. Find solutions. Come Thursday and worry just about that. That’s it.”

It’s hard to know Yzerman’s thinking on the situation given he hasn’t spoken publicly about Blashill since last month’s general manager meetings when he said he was “seeing good progress” with the Red Wings and there’s still a “long way to go.” But clearly something’s got to give in Hockeytown.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ron Francis speaks about handling of Peters situation while Hurricanes GM

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NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis has responded to how physical abuse accusations against former Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters were handled when he was the team’s GM.

Speaking with The Seattle Times this week, Francis said he addressed the issue with Peters and defended giving him a two-year extension after the fact.

“We looked where the team was and how it was playing,” Francis said. “It was moving in the right direction. We’d made a huge increase from where it was the year before to where we were that year. And quite honestly, we looked at that (physical-abuse) situation, we addressed it and we felt it was behind him.”

“I think you deal with it the best you can with the situation you have at the time,” Francis said. “I think within the last week there have been some changes the league has made. I think that’s positive moving forward. I don’t claim to be perfect. I make mistakes. I try to learn every day from the people I talk with in situations. That’s what I try to do and take that knowledge moving forward. And hopefully you’re never in that situation again.”

Last month, after Peters was accused to uttering racial slurs at Akim Aliu, whom he coached in the American Hockey League, former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan said that Peters kicked him in the back and punched another player during a game. The allegations for were confirmed by current head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who was an assistant under Peters.

Former Hurricanes majority owner Peter Karmanos told The Seattle Times that he would have fired Francis “in a nanosecond” had he been made aware of the allegations against Peters, even though Francis, who added there was a full vetting process during the hiring process, said he informed management of the situation.

Peters resigned as Calgary Flames head coach days after the allegations went public. In a statement that week Francis acknowledged he was made aware of the incidents and that he “took immediate action to address the matter and briefed ownership.” He did not reveal what he did to correct the matter in either his statement or in the interview with the Times’ Geoff Baker.

“When you look back, there were some things we did well and certain things we need to improve on to get better,” he said. “That’s part of the learning process, I think.”

The NHL revealed a four-point plan this week at the Board of Governors that will provide a guideline for teams in handling abuse allegations and other inappropriate conduct.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Wild’s Spurgeon 10 seasons into size-defying career

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The defining moment of Jared Spurgeon‘s hockey career came when he was just 13: His peewee coach in Edmonton moved him from forward to defenseman.

There was no going back for Spurgeon, even though he hasn’t grown much bigger since then. Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 167-pound stalwart on the blue line has been defying size stereotypes ever since.

”I just fell in love with the position,” Spurgeon said.

The Wild have felt the same way about him over the last 10 seasons. The 30-year-old Spurgeon, who set career highs in games (82), goals (14), assists (29), shots (152) and hits (91) during the 2019-19 season, signed a seven-year, $53 million contract extension at the beginning of training camp.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick the New York Islanders ultimately declined to sign, paving the way for a tryout with the Wild two years after he was drafted.

”Probably the best in the NHL at breaking the puck out. Unbelievable on his edges. One of the smartest players in the game,” said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella, who played with Spurgeon in Minnesota for seven seasons. ”He’s got a lot of things in his toolbox, and he doesn’t even need the size.”

Spurgeon, who is halfway through an expected two-week absence for a hand injury sustained while blocking a shot, has ranked over the last four years in the top 20 among NHL defensemen in goals, power play goals, blocked shots and time on ice.

”That’s one of those players that you’re just like, ‘How?’ ” Scandella said. ”You just have to watch him over a season. Play with him, and you understand how good he is.”

The ability to skate – and pass – quickly will always be critical for a player with Spurgeon’s frame. Part of that is being fast enough to elude opponents, but it also means maximizing his power by maintaining leverage and balance for the moments when he does initiate or absorb contact.

”You don’t need to be huge and massive to be strong on your skates,” said St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly, who faces Spurgeon frequently as a Central Division rival. ”You go in and forecheck, and he is so strong. It’s like going against a big guy.”

Awareness is just as important as fearlessness to succeed as a 5-foot-9 player, of course.

Spurgeon simply doesn’t get pushed around much because he’s rarely caught off guard by a big hit. The advantage of vision from the blue line, being able to see the plays develop in front of him, was one of the benefits that immediately drew Spurgeon to defense. He tried to emulate players who came before him like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle, sub-6-foot defensemen who were offensive threats but never a liability in their own zone.

”The emphasis of moving the puck and getting up ice and being able to contribute offensively as well is a whole lot different than it used to be, where maybe you had one of those guys before and a bunch of a big, mean guys,” Spurgeon said. ”But I think now the game is so fast that I think it gives the ability for smaller guys to play.”

According to Sportradar data, there are 41 defensemen who have appeared in at least one NHL game this season and are listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter. That number drops to 18 at 5-foot-10 or less and to six at 5-foot-9 and under.

In the 2005-06 season after the lockout, which brought rule changes to encourage more free-flowing action in the neutral zone and increase goal scoring, there were only 29 defensemen at 5-foot-11 or shorter, 11 at 5-foot-10 or less, and three at 5-foot-9 and under. Twenty years ago, there were fewer still: 22 players at 5-foot-11 or shorter, eight at 5-foot-10 or less, and just one at 5-foot-9 and under.

The Wild have two 5-foot-9 blue-liners with Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Boston’s Torey Krug is another standout in the club. Those lanky veterans around the league like St. Louis’ Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-6) and Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) have obvious advantages with reach and strength, but there’s plenty more to sound defense than being able to poke a stick at a puck.

”We have the quickness and the first two or three strides in order to close plays so that they don’t get the possession of the puck and move on. I think it’s just using our skating abilities,” Krug said. ”I think it’s been a long time coming, especially with the real changes in the way the game is trending. It’s funny, years ago to have one of those guys on your team, people kind of scoffed at that. Now we’ve got two and sometimes three in the lineup at once, and it creates really mobile back end.”

STREAKING

Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry had a franchise-record scoreless run of 177:15 that ended during a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Tuesday, just the second defeat in eight starts for the backup to Matt Murray. Jarry stopped 82 consecutive shots during the streak, the longest in the league this season.

SLUMPING

The Detroit Red Wings are sliding toward a four-year absence from the playoffs after the end of their famous 25-season streak of making it. The Red Wings are on a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2 since Nov. 12, and have the worst record in the NHL at 7-22-3. They’ve dropped 10 straight games in regulation by a 47-16 margin.

Our Line Starts podcast: Montgomery’s firing; drafting the All-Decade Team

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the surprise firing of Stars coach Jim Montgomery. The guys also give their takes on Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to handle abuse. Pierre McGuire sits down with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger to talk about his time in Europe and his path from the Premier League back to the NHL. Plus, Jones and Sharp reveal their top defensemen and goalies of the decade. Do you agree with them?

Start-0:45 Intros
0:45-7:25 Reaction to Dallas firing Jim Montgomery
7:25-14:10 Gary Bettman and the NHL’s 4-point plan
14:10-32:50 Pierre interviews Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
36:05-End The guys begin to draft their All-Decade Team

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports