Coyotes’ rebuild should continue with Keller, Kessel trades

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It is not difficult to see what is happening with the Arizona Coyotes this offseason.

There is a rebuild underway, and it has already seen the team trade established veterans Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Adin Hill, and Darcy Kuemper.

Along with those moves, they have spent the past few weeks weaponizing their salary cap space by taking on bad contracts that other teams do not want (Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Andrew Ladd, Shayne Gostisbehere) in exchange for draft picks. A lot of draft picks. Those moves already netted them the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 draft, and has put them in a position where they have 11 draft picks for 2022, including seven in the first two rounds (two first round picks and five second round picks).

In the process they have purged themselves of most long-term commitments, pretty much wiping the slate clean. They only have six players under contract for the 2022-23 season, while only four players are under contract more than two years in advance: Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Christian Dvorak, and Jakob Chychrun.

The trades should not stop now.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

At this point it is difficult to see the Coyotes contending for a playoff spot this season, especially with the departures of Kuemper and Antti Raanta in goal (the one main strength of the team that gave them a chance every night). Their only playoff appearance in the past nine years was the result of the play-in round during the 2020 Stanley Cup bubble (then they lost in the First Round in five games against the Colorado Avalanche) and the focus now is clearly on the longer-term future.

It seems like a given that at some point Phil Kessel will be on the move. He is entering his age 33 season and is an unrestricted free agent after this season. A re-signing here seems completely unlikely. That will not be a surprise when it happens.

The real important decisions are going to be with other players on the roster that might be viewed as more “core” pieces for the future.

That brings us to the 23-year-old Keller who is still under contract for another seven years at a salary cap hit of $7.15 million per season. In theory he should one of the players you build around. He is the right age, signed long-term, and is a pretty good player. But here is the important question: If you are not going to keep a player like Conor Garland, then what is the point of holding on to Keller at this point? His no-trade clause does not kick in until 2024 so there is no restriction on where he could go, and he is probably one of the few players still on the roster that could really bring back a somewhat significant return.

There are some potential problems with that plan.

The first is what would be a losing PR battle. They have already traded significant players this offseason, and if you move a player like Keller who is signed, young, and one of the better players on the team you really would be telling your fans “we are not going to win for a while.” That is always a tough sell, especially for a fan base that has already seen more than its fair share of losing over the past decade.

The second is that you still have to pay somebody and put an NHL team on the ice. You still have to reach the salary floor, and you still have to have players. Keller has a significant contract and would help reach that salary floor level and he is still pretty good.

There are workarounds to that, though. The Coyotes still have that blank slate of salary cap space and could continue to take on other team’s bad contracts for draft picks. Keep accumulating draft picks and it gives you options. For one, the best way to find talent in the draft is to give yourself more lottery tickets. They can also be used as trade chips to acquire players you actually want. The reality of the NHL is that the salary cap is not going to increase much in the next couple of years. A lot of teams have salary cap crunches. Those teams will probably have to move somebody they do not want to move for less than they want to move them for. A team with a boat load of draft picks and salary cap space to burn could really take advantage of that.

It just seems that if the Coyotes are going to go for a rebuild, they might as well follow through with it and trade everything they can as soon as they can. Just rip off the band-aid. Going from Kuemper, Raanta, and Hill to Carter Hutton and (for now) Joseff Korenar is a significant downgrade that will have a major impact on the team’s success this season. Losing Ekman-Larsson and Garland makes the team’s short-term intent clear, especially when combined with the practice of essentially buying draft picks.

The rebuild is here. Nobody should be kept out of trade discussions.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced Wednesday.

The Knights termed the procedure Tuesday as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested early Wednesday morning in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released later Wednesday on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.