Antti Raanta

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Offensive upgrades helping playoffs become expectation for Coyotes

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The obstacles of struggling to score goals and staying healthy didn’t force the Arizona Coyotes to wither and eye the NHL draft lottery last season. Instead, it was a “next man up” mentality that head coach Rick Tocchet continued to bark out to his players that put the team deep into the race for one of the Western Conference wild card spots.

The effects of losing a different teammate seemingly every week to another injury could have led to a team fading away, but the Coyotes’ close proximity to the wild card race was a key factor in not letting the situation take a toll on the roster.

“It’s a big kudos to our coaching staff and our general manager and our leadership group and our young guys to stick with the process, even though we had new bodies coming in almost every day,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago.

The Coyotes finished with 386 man-games to injury or illness last season, third-highest in the NHL. But their goaltending, led by Darcy Kuemper, who filled in for the injured Antti Raanta, was a big bright spot, as was their penalty kill, which tied for league best at 85%. The area of goal scoring, however, needed some help. Their 131 even strength goals were worst in the league, per Natural Stat Trick. To help solve that problem Alex Galchenyuk was traded to Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel, who is currently 43 goals away from 400 in his career.

[MORE: How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense]

It’s the confidence built up after overcoming last season’s hurdles and the addition a top offensive star in Kessel that has Stepan believing the playoffs can be a reality next spring.

“I certainly don’t see why we wouldn’t expect that,” Stepan said. “We were close last year. I think Chayka did a really good job of adding pieces to help us on the offensive side of the puck. It comes with that work ethic that we had at the end of last year, we kind of built that identity. I’m going into [the season] expecting to be in the playoffs this year.”

Stepan, who wasn’t sure yet if Tocchet would start him on a line with Kessel, added that the trade “re-energized” the Coyotes roster and with some internal improvements what held them back last season won’t stand in their way in 2019-20.

As far as integrating Kessel’s unique personality into what he described as a tight-knit dressing room, the veteran Stepan is eager to add the sniper to the group.

“I’m OK with him being a different cat,” Stepan said. “We’ve got a lot of dogs on our team. We could use a cat.”

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

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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.

Coyotes betting big on questionable core

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The Arizona Coyotes are the NHL’s strange beasts.

For years, they suffered through shoestring budgets as their ownership and arena woes continued into infinity. While there still seems to be some turmoil in that area – their majority owner once again changed this summer – they’re now becoming a team that raises your eyebrows for seemingly spending more than expected.

Wednesday’s announcement of Clayton Keller‘s eight-year, $57.2 million extension serves as the exclamation point on that sentence.

Consider the players who are now under long-term deals in Arizona:

Keller ($7.15M cap hit starting in 2020-21; runs through 2027-28): Many are pointing out that Keller’s contract now makes William Nylander‘s often-criticized deal look quite reasonable, while others groan that with Keller set to carry a $7.15M cap hit, it sets a higher floor for other RFAs, from Kyle Connor this summer to Nico Hischier entering his contract year.

As PHT’s writeup notes, the Coyotes are betting that the 21-year-old has a high ceiling, thus making this a signing with foresight.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($8.25M starting this season, goes through 2026-27): For quite some time, there was angst about OEL leaving the lowly Coyotes for greener pastures. Then the Coyotes sent all of that green his way, really setting the table for this run of early extensions, as they signed Ekman-Larsson at basically the first possible moment in July 2018.

So, the good news is that they kept the Swede in Arizona for the long-term future. The bad news is that it’s possible OEL might not be quite the difference-maker they’re paying for. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn listed Ekman-Larsson as an honorable mention for one of the worst contracts in the NHL (sub required).

None of this is to say that OEL is a bad player. Instead, it keeps with the theme that it seems like the Coyotes are paying premiums for players who haven’t yet produced truly premium all-around results.

Nick Schmaltz ($5.85M through 2025-26), Jakob Chychrun ($4.6M through 2024-25), Christian Dvorak ($4.45M through 2024-25): Again, these players aren’t necessarily “bad,” it’s just surprising to see so many of them get so much term without overly obvious savings right off the bat. It’s the sort of hastiness you’d expect from a team that’s been contending, not one that’s had money troubles for ages and has missed the playoffs for seven seasons in a row.

Beyond that questionable core, the Coyotes are also spending a considerable chunk of change on veteran players like Phil Kessel, Derek Stepan, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Raanta, and Jason Demers.

Even if you give the Coyotes some leeway for absorbing Marian Hossa‘s dead contract, it’s honestly jarring that they technically are out of cap space heading into 2019-20, according to Cap Friendly.

Now, sure, this is a team that nearly made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs despite a plague of injuries, and with all of this youth and the potential boost of Kessel’s sniping, could very well make it in 2019-20 — particularly in a Pacific Division that seems weak on paper.

Still, it remains a bit baffling that the Coyotes are spending this much for a team that doesn’t necessarily wow you with its overall talent.

That said, the Coyotes seem like they’re approaching RFAs as a market inefficiency, and if any players will prove your risks right, it’s young ones. While OEL is already 28, Keller is 21, Chychrun’s run of injuries make him a mystery of sorts at 21, and so on. As we’ve seen with Leon Draisaitl at $8.5M per year, seemingly shaky contracts can end up looking like steals, at least when it comes to players entering their primes.

The Coyotes have to hope this all works out as planned, as they’re gambling big on all of this term for young players, and some pretty big bucks for veterans.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Top regression candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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A week ago we used our PHT Power Rankings to look at 10 players that could be on the verge of a breakout during the 2019-20 NHL season.

This week we go to the opposite end of the spectrum and look at 10 players that could be due for a regression back to reality.

Regression candidates tend to be pretty easy to spot and usually come from players coming off of outlier seasons or were riding extremely high shooting percentages or save percentages that are simply not sustainable from one season to the next. Can they still be good? Absolutely. Will they be as good? Probably not.

Who are the biggest regression candidates this season?

To the rankings!

1. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders. Prior to 2018-19, Cizikas had played parts of seven seasons and never scored more than nine goals, averaging just eight per 82 games played. That is what made his 20-goal output such a surprise. It was a great year, but it was mostly driven by an 18 percent shooting percentage that was nearly 10 points higher than his career average. That sort of spike is not sustainable for any player, let alone one that has a 400-plus game sampling as a fourth-liner with limited offensive ability.

2. Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars. Pavelski has been one of the most underrated goal-scorers of his era and is coming off a monster 38-goal season for the Sharks. Even if he regresses from that number he should still be a great addition for a top-heavy Stars team that needs secondary scoring. They just shouldn’t be counting on him to push the 40-goal mark again. He had a career-high shooting percentage (20.2 percent!) at age 34, making him a textbook candidate for regression. Consider that only one other player since 2000 has shot higher than 20 percent at age 34 or older (Mario Lemieux during the 2000-01 season). A more reasonable expectation for Pavelski: 20-25 goals.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks. With all due respect to Barry Trotz and the coaching job he did, no one person meant more to the 2018-19 New York Islanders than Lehner. His .930 save percentage masked a lot of flaws and was the driving force behind the team’s improbable defensive turnaround. That is an almost impossible performance to maintain year-to-year, and he is now going to a team in Chicago that still has some big question marks defensively and has been one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL the past two years.

4. Alex Chiasson, Edmonton Oilers. Chiasson was one of the few things Peter Chiarelli touched in Edmonton that didn’t immediately turn into a dumpster fire. He scored 22 goals for the Oilers, nearly doubling his previous career high, and was one of the small handful of players that actually exceeded expectations. Getting a lot of time next to Connor McDavid helped, as did an 18 percent shooting percentage.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

5. Cody Eakin, Vegas Golden Knights. In the three full seasons prior to 2018-19 Eakin scored just 30 total goals. He followed that up by scoring 22 last season alone. He is a negative possession player (and looks even worse relative to his team), doesn’t generate a lot of shots on goal, and is coming off of a career-high shooting percentage. Bet on him being closer to 10 goals this season than 20.

6. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres. The 2018-19 season could not have worked out better for Skinner on an individual level. He had a career year in a contract year and cashed in with a mega-deal with the Buffalo Sabres. He scored 37 goals two years ago and seems to have great chemistry with one of the league’s best centers (Jack Eichel) so he should be capable of another huge year, but another 40-goal season seems like it’s asking a lot.

7. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. He filled in admirably for an injured Antti Raanta and was one of the biggest reasons the Coyotes were able to hang around in the playoff race until the final week of the regular season. That performance, however, was a pretty big outlier in his career, and if Raanta is able to stay healthy he will be in a competition for playing time. Expectations for Kuemper in 2019-20: Lower them … at least a little.

8. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. A fresh start in Calgary turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Lindholm as it produced a career-year that saw him shatter all of his career highs. There is reason to believe a lot of the improvement is real (great possession numbers, a shooting percentage that wasn’t a huge outlier, playing alongside talented players) but another 50-assist, 78-point season seems like a high bar for him to match.

9. Andrew Shaw, Chicago Blackhawks. On a per-game basis the 2018-19 season was by far the best one of Shaw’s career, so it was probably a good idea for the Canadiens to sell high on that and move him. Given the Blackhawks’ lack of forward depth he is probably going to be given a significant role, but I don’t know how willing I am to bet on him scoring at 60-point pace over 82 games again.

10. Ryan Strome, New York Rangers. After a nightmare experience with the Oilers, Strome went to the Rangers and erupted offensively with 18 goals in the final 63 games of the regular season. He did this despite averaging just 1.27 shots on goal per game and getting caved in from a possession standpoint. Sometimes players go on hot streaks that eventually fizzle out. His debut with the Rangers was most likely a short-lived hot streak that will eventually fizzle out.

Also worth mentioning: Jaroslav Halak (Boston Bruins), Jared McCann (Pittsburgh Penguins), Ryan Dzingel (Carolina Hurricanes), Ben Bishop (Dallas Stars)

Related: Top breakout candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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.

Burning questions for Coyotes in 2019-20

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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 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.

Coyotes are unpredictable, even by NHL’s random standards

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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 Arizona Coyotes. 

Even in a sport that’s already easily seduced by lady luck, the Coyotes’ luck is an X-factor that makes this team very tough to gauge.

No doubt about it, the Coyotes were bit hard and often by the injury bug last season, starting with increasingly fragile would-be number one goalie Antti Raanta. While Man Games Lost lists the Anaheim Ducks as the team with the highest volume of injuries from 2018-19, the Coyotes may have been hit hardest when you consider quality alongside quantity.

You’d think that the narrative would swirl around bad luck alone, and certainly, it stinks that a very promising-looking goalie like Raanta hasn’t been able to take the step from great backup with the Rangers and Blackhawks to proven starter for the Coyotes.

Yet, goaltending is a great jumping off point to discuss how puzzling the Coyotes are thanks to their mix of good and bad luck.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | 2018-19 in review | Three questions]

Because, frankly, the Coyotes can’t blame goaltending for missing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Instead, ace netminding almost dragged their battered bodies to the postseason, only it was Darcy Kuemper playing at an incredibly high level, rather than Raanta.

Heading into 2018-19, Kuemper had never played in more than 31 games in any season. While Kuemper showed some promise, particularly in 2017-18, there wasn’t much of an indication that he could produce near-Vezina-level work over 55 games, which was exactly what he did for the Coyotes this past season.

While his overall work was strong, Kuemper was especially hot down the stretch, producing Jordan Binnington-like numbers. From Jan. 1 through the end of the season, Kuemper won 22 games and sported a .933 save percentage.

The Coyotes deserve credit for identifying potential in Kuemper, yet even they would likely admit that this outburst was unexpected. If people saw that coming, Kuemper wouldn’t have been available for the $1.85M cap hit he’ll carry for one more season.

And so it goes with the Coyotes: tough breaks and surprising luck send prognosticators down a road of Shyamalan-like twists.

Rummage through most stats and you’ll see some interesting give-and-takes.

When you look at the overall work of power play and penalty kill units combined, the Coyotes enjoyed one of the strongest outputs of 2018-19, scoring 15 more goals than they allowed at that facet of the game. A phenomenal PK drove that dominance; the Coyotes allowed the second-fewest power play goals (34) while managing the second-most shorthanded goals at 16, so they ended up just -18 on the penalty kill last season, which is pretty mind-boggling over 82 games. It also strikes as especially unsustainable, as the Coyotes were a fairly normal -44 in that area one year before in 2017-18.

Yet, if there are losses on the penalty kill, the Coyotes might enjoy gains on the power play, where they were pretty weak last season.

Phil Kessel and healthier skill players stand as big reasons why that might work out, yet with Kessel’s two-way play leaving a lot to be desired, some of that increased scoring might be canceled out by more dangerous shots for Kuemper and Raanta to deal with.

 

You can go on and on with that, pondering the team’s low shooting percentage but high save percentage, and wondering what might actually carry over to 2019-20.

Again, hockey teams are already tough to figure out by their nature. Mild swoons, hot streaks, and health luck become a stew that makes predictions hard to chew on.

Even with those standards in mind, the Coyotes’ luck is an overriding X-factor. That uncertainty makes forecasting this team’s potential almost as intimidating as an actual coyote licking its lips and bearing its teeth.

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.