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Locking up Ekman-Larsson is a must for Coyotes

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The Arizona Coyotes haven’t been good in quite some time. The last time they came close to making the playoffs was in 2013-14 when they finished two points short. On the bright side, they have some quality young players coming through the organization, but it won’t mean much if they can’t lock up the most important piece of the puzzle to a long-term extension.

Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is about to enter the final year of his current deal. He’ll make $5.5 million this season, which means he’s in line for a huge raise. According to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, the ‘Yotes are offering their franchise blue-liner an eight-year, $66 million to stay in the desert. With Arizona being a budget team, you’d have to wonder if they could go much higher than that (probably not).

It’s up to the 26-year-old to decide if he wants to be part of this rebuild or if he wants to go elsewhere so he can win right away.

Ekman-Larsson has been consistent when it comes to putting up offensive numbers. Since 2013-14, he’s scored at least 12 goals in each season and he’s put up over 40 points in all but one season (he had 39 in 2016-17). Those are strong numbers for a defenseman.

But his biggest value comes in the form of making his teammates better.

Of the 10 Arizona skaters that played at least 285 minutes with Ekman-Larsson, nine of them had better CF% with him than without him. That’s not an insignificant number. Jason Demers, who spent more time on the ice with him than any other player (949:39), had a CF% of 52.42 with Ekman-Larsson and 48.57 without him, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Clayton Keller, who was on the ice at the same time as Ekman-Larsson for 418:52, had the biggest dip in CF% without the Swedish defender. With him, Keller had a CF% of 54.59, but without him it sunk to 44.73.

Derek Stepan, Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Brad Richardson, Jordan Martinook and Christian Fischer are all in the same boat. They posted better numbers with Ekman-Larsson by their side. When you look at individual FF% for Coyotes players, the results are very similar. Most are better with him than without him. It’s totally normal, he’s clearly their best player.

It’s now up to Ekman-Larsson to decide whether or not he’s going to commit to this organization long term. It’s fully in his right to leave if he’d like to. He’s stuck around and played on some very mediocre teams.

Here’s what McKenzie had to say about the timing of this entire situation:

Last I heard he was in France on a vacation and I’m not sure if there’s a specific timeline here, but I would have to think in the next week or two the Coyotes want to know from Ekman-Larsson and his representatives if he’s prepared to commit to that long-term deal with Arizona. Because if he’s not, then there’s no doubt in my mind that Arizona will try to trade him and I believe that Arizona has kept its options open in that regard and I don’t think that they’re being real proactive out there picking up the phone and calling teams and saying, hey do you want to trade for Ekman-Larsson? But I think they’re well aware of which teams are interested in [him] and that there’s ongoing dialogue that if a trade should become necessary, how they might go about it.

If he’s not committed to staying in Arizona, GM John Cheyka will have no problem finding a trade partner for his services. The only issue is, they’re probably going to get a package of young players and draft picks for him. How much longer will Coyotes fans have to wait before the team becomes competitive?

Clearly, the Coyotes realize that bringing him back is the way to go. Now all they have to do is convince his camp to sign on the dotted line.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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.

Tanks for nothing: Some NHL teams can’t win for losing

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jack Eichel has difficulty accepting the sorry state of the Buffalo Sabres, who haven’t had a sniff at the playoffs in the three years since his celebrated arrival.

”When I got drafted, if you would’ve said we’d be in this position, I probably would’ve told you to give your head a shake,” Eichel told The Associated Press.

Instead, it’s the 21-year-old shaking his head in disbelief over a franchise that’s finished no better than 14th in the Eastern Conference since 2012-13 and in jeopardy of finishing last in the overall standings for the third time in five years.

This isn’t what anyone – from since-fired GM Tim Murray to Sabres fans encouraging the team to tank – were anticipating during the 2014-15 season. That’s when Buffalo was in a race to the bottom for the right to draft one of the two touted, generational prospects: Eichel and Connor McDavid, who was selected first overall by Edmonton.

What’s worse for Eichel is seeing other teams jumping ahead of Buffalo in the rebuilding process.

”You look at Colorado and some of these teams, New Jersey, that make a quick turnaround and all of a sudden they’re in the playoff hunt,” he said.

If misery likes company, the Sabres aren’t the only ones stuck in a rut.

Whatever watershed moment the 2015 draft was supposed to represent by infusing game-changing talent to the NHL’s neediest teams, it has yet to make more than a ripple in the standings.

Eichel hasn’t made a dent in the Sabres’ fortunes despite averaging nearly a point a game. For all of McDavid’s offensive exploits and earning NHL MVP honors last season, the Oilers will miss the playoffs for the second time in his three years.

Instead, the 2015 draft serves as a cautionary example of how bottoming out doesn’t guarantee instant turnarounds.

With the exception of Toronto, three of the teams, including Arizona, with top-five selections in 2015 have already been eliminated from this year’s playoffs, and a fourth, Carolina, could join them soon.

So much for the tanking tenet held by several NHL executives, who thought the best way to build a champion was to start by losing big.

Pittsburgh did that in building its three most recent Stanley Cup champion teams with two No. 1 draft picks (Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury) and a No. 2 (Evgeni Malkin). Chicago’s three most recent Cup winners followed the Blackhawks selecting Jonathan Toews with the No. 3 pick in 2006 and Patrick Kane No. 1 the following year.

And yet, there are exceptions.

Detroit won four titles from 1997 to 2008 despite not drafting higher than No. 19 from 1992 to 2013.

Boston has had a top-10 pick just twice in 10 years.

Just look at the NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have clinched a playoff berth and are leading the Pacific Division with a team cobbled together from scratch.

”A lot of teams have a lot of good hockey players, but there’s not many Malkins and Crosbys in the NHL. No, we don’t have them,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. ”It’s all about being a team. And we’ve been a team since Day 1.”

This year, Nashville is leading the NHL with a roster featuring one top-five draft pick, forward Ryan Johansen, who was acquired in a trade with Columbus, and no other player selected in the top 10.

”You don’t always have to be real bad for a few years to win,” Predators veteran forward Mike Fisher told The AP.

Goalie Pekka Rinne credits Predators management for assembling the team through trades and identifying talent in the later rounds of the draft. The Predators feature six players Nashville selected in the fourth round or lower, including Rinne, an eighth-rounder in 2004.

”We’ve never had to rebuild,” Rinne said. ”And for a guy like myself being here for a long time, it’s nice to have that. You don’t have to waste any years.”

Having a wealth of high picks is no guarantee.

Florida has made the playoffs twice since 2001-02 despite having a top-10 pick 10 times over that span.

The Oilers have made the playoffs once since 2010 despite selecting first four times.

The New York Islanders will miss the playoffs for a sixth time since selecting John Tavares with the No. 1 pick in 2009.

After 2015, there are even fewer benefits to finishing last after the NHL altered its draft lottery formula. Now, the last-place team is assured of nothing more than the No. 4 pick, as opposed to No. 2.

Coyotes forward Brad Richardson questioned whether teams adopting a strategy to lose had lasting effects.

”I don’t want to say tanking, but when you do tank, I think it sets a precedent in your organization that it’s OK to lose, and you’re showing the young guys that losing’s acceptable,” Richardson told The AP.

HOLLAND’S FUTURE

Red Wings GM Ken Holland told The AP he has received no assurances from the team he’ll return for a 21st year, despite reports indicating he will be back.

MLive.com on Tuesday cited an unnamed person in reporting Holland will be back ”with or without a contract.” The Detroit Free Press quoted a person familiar with the situation saying ”he’s going to be back as the GM,” but reported it’s unclear how Holland’s contract will be structured.

Holland, in a text to The AP, declined to discuss whether he’d return without a contract, saying: ”I’ll talk when the final decision has been made.”

LEADERS (Through games Monday)

Points: McDavid, 99. Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 45. Game-winning goals: Sean Monahan (Calgary) and Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado), 11. Rookie points: Mathew Barzal (Islanders), 78. Goals-against average (minimum 40 games): Fleury (Vegas), 2.12.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Top spot in the overall standings could be on the line Sunday, when the Western Conference-leading Predators travel to play East-leading Tampa Bay.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

PHT Power Rankings: Looking at the possible trade deadline candidates

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We are trying something a little different with our PHT Power Rankings for this week and taking a look at the players that could be on the move before the NHL trade deadline next month.

With so many teams still in the running for a playoff spot it really limits the number of potential sellers that are out there, but we still have a pretty good idea as to the names that might be available.

The Canadiens and Rangers might tear things down, while the Sabres, Oilers and Senators are among the few teams that are going to clearly be sellers.

Let’s take a look at the list!

1.  Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens — Pacioretty has since broken out after that miserable slump a few weeks ago and is back to scoring goals in bunches. It still seems like a long-shot that he is going to be moved, but the Canadiens seem to be open for business and Pacioretty’s name has been out there. They probably need to tear things down and start over, and dealing Pacioretty, who still has one more year left on his contract at a bargain basement cap hit for what he produces, would almost certainly bring a big return if they chose to go in that direction.

[Related: The Canadiens should probably tear it all down]

2. Mike Hoffman, Ottawa Senators —  The Senators are a disaster this season and they still have to figure out what to do with Erik Karlsson and his contract situation this summer. Hoffman has been mentioned as a possible trade chip and would be an intriguing target because he is not only a really good player, but also still has term left on his contract. It would probably take a huge offer to pry him away from the Senators — as it should.

3. Evander Kane, Buffalo Sabres — In terms of players rumored to be available Kane might be having one of the better seasons, and he is still in the prime of his career, but he is purely a rental at this point and the Sabres seem to have an extremely high price tag attached to him. How much are you willing to give up for a really good, but not great player you may only have for a few months?

4. Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers — The Rangers are reportedly considering “blowing it up” regardless of where they stand in the playoff race. McDonagh has struggled a bit in recent seasons and his possession numbers have cratered a bit, but in the right situation and right system he could rediscover his previous form.

5. Mike Green, Detroit Red Wings — Green’s value is almost entirely centered around his offense at this point. And while he is never going to be the 30-goal, 70-point threat he was earlier in his career he can still help a power play and provide some offense from the blue line.

6. Michael Grabner, New York Rangers — Grabner is a bargain against the cap and has been one of the top even-strength goal scorers in the league the past two seasons. In a league that is starting to become dominated by speed and skating, Grabner is still one of the fastest forwards going.

7. Patrick Maroon, Edmonton Oilers — The Oilers would probably like to keep Maroon but their salary cap situation is going to make that really difficult. He is not far off from the 27-goal pace he scored at a season ago and still has strong underlying numbers.

8. Thomas Vanek, Vancouver Canucks — For the second year in a row Vanek looks to be a potential rental candidate after signing a one-year deal. Just for a point of reference, his numbers at this point are almost identical to what they were a year ago at the same time for the Detroit Red Wings. He landed the Red Wings a third-round pick and Dylan McIlrath in a trade.

9. Rick Nash, New York Rangers — One of the many Rangers that could be on the trade block. A free agent to be after the season, Nash is having one of his worst seasons offensively but he is still probably going to end up with close to 25 goals while also playing strong two-way hockey. A rental that carries a big salary cap hit, he is still an extremely useful player.

[Related: The Rangers might be ready to blow it up at deadline]

10. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators — Like Hoffman, another Senators player that still has term left on his contract that could be dealt. He might be an ideal fit for a team like Pittsburgh that is still in the market for a third-line center. Not a great offensive player, but he can be a tremendous shutdown defensive center and penalty killer.

11. Robin Lehner, Buffalo Sabres — There are not a ton of teams in the market for a goalie so there may not be a lot of options, but how could he not be an upgrade for a team like the New York Islanders, a team that can score as well as any team in hockey but can’t stop anybody?

12. Ian Cole, Pittsburgh Penguins — Cole’s situation is fascinating because he was such a reliable player on the past two Stanley Cup winning teams — especially the 2016-17 team that was decimated by injuries on the blue line — but he has clearly fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. He has played well when given an opportunity, but his days in Pittsburgh seem to be limited.

13. Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings — As an upcoming restricted free agent and playing a position where there may not be a huge market he is in a similar situation to Lehner. Could still be an attractive option for a team looking to upgrade its backup spot.

14. Thomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens — His offense has declined significantly in recent years but still a really good defensive center.

15. Erik Gudbranson, Vancouver Canucks — A polarizing player because old time hockey guys love his blood-and-guts style of play, but there is really nothing outstanding in his performance. Still, it only takes one team to see him as a necessary addition for playoff style hockey.

16. Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Johnson requested a trade from the Blue Jackets but it is hard to see there being a huge market for him. His role has been greatly reduced in Columbus compared to what it used to be, and it’s unlikely he is going to find a team that is going to give him a bigger one than the one he currently has with the Blue Jackets.

17. Benoit Pouliot, Buffalo Sabres — A few years ago he was a favorite of the analytics community for his ability to drive possession, and he was an outstanding depth player that could play a variety of roles up and down your lineup. His play has regressed quite a bit since then. As a rental he might be worth taking a chance on down the stretch in the hopes that somebody can catch lightning in a bottle.

18. Radim Vrbata, Florida Panthers — He is having a miserable year for the Panthers offensively, but he is just one year removed from scoring 20 goals and being a 55-point player.

19. Mark Letestu, Edmonton Oilers — He can chip in some offense but is probably best suited for a fourth-line role on a contending team.

20. Brad Richardson, Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes don’t expect to be busy at the deadline, and there is hope that they can re-sign Richardson, but it only takes one phone call and offer to make a team change their mind. They could always flip Richardson for a pick or a prospect and try to re-sign him over the summer as a UFA.

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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.

Coyotes get first regulation win, Plekanec’s first NHL fight

The Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes don’t strike you as natural rivals, but the animosity can build pretty quickly when two teams start, well, striking each other.

The Coyotes currently lead the Canadiens 5-4, but even so, you could see frustrations spilling over at times during Thursday’s action. In some cases, it was pretty run-of-the-mill, as Zac Rinaldo fought with Nicolas Deslauriers.

To be fair, there were at least some hard punches thrown, with Rinaldo getting the worst of it, seemingly:

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, there was a truly startling fight, as Tomas Plekanec dropped his gloves for his first bout in his 941st game. Granted, there were times when he didn’t seem like he was totally on board with the fight against Brad Richardson.

You’ll note that there was blood, possibly from Plekanec? It was also that rare fight where a combatant was allowed to return to his feet.

Two questions remain: can the Coyotes hold on for a regulation win, and will Plekanec nab a “Gordie Howe hat trick?”

Update: No Howe hat trick for Plekanec. Instead, the Coyotes protected that 5-4 for their first regulation win of 2017-18. They improved to 3-15-3 on the season.

Here’s hoping Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher is OK:

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.

The Arizona Coyotes should not be this bad

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On Tuesday night the Arizona Coyotes will play their 20th game of the season when they take on the Winnipeg Jets, winners of five of their past seven games.

The Coyotes will enter the game with just two wins on the season.

None of those wins have come in regulation, only defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime back on October 30 and the Carolina Hurricanes in a shootout on November 4.

In total, they have collected just seven out of a possible 38 points.

This is not only the worst start in the NHL this season (they are five points behind the second worst team at the moment, a Florida Panthers team that has played in three fewer games than the Coyotes) it is the worst start any team has had in the NHL over the past 10 years.

Only one other team during that stretch has failed to reach at least the 10-point mark through its first 19 games, the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres, also with seven. That was one of the Sabres teams that was going through the scorched earth rebuild that saw the team get torn down to its most basic foundation in the front office’s efforts to tank for draft position.

Even that Sabres team won three of its first 19 games and one in regulation.

The Coyotes are still a team going through a rebuild and with an extremely young roster. They have seven players that have appeared in at least seven games (including six that have appeared in at least 14 games) that are age 22 or younger. A roster that young is almost certain to experience a lot of growing pains and the playoffs were probably not a realistic goal at the start of this season anyway.

It still should not be this bad because there is some real talent on this roster.

Right now they have the leading front-runner for the NHL’s rookie of the year in Clayton Keller, currently one of the top-five goal-scorers in the NHL. They added a number of established veterans (good ones!) this summer including Derek Stepan (a true top-six center), Niklas Hjalmarsson (a strong defensive defenseman), Antti Raanta and Jason Demers. They have a top-tier defenseman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. There was already a respectable core of young players in Max Domi, Christian Dvorak and Tobias Rieder in place.

It is not a totally hopeless situation on paper.

So what is happening here, and why are they off to such a terrible start?

For one, goaltending has been a pretty significant issue due to an injury to Raanta and a revolving door of backups behind him.

Louis Domingue (traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday), Adin Hill, and Scott Wedgewood are a combined 1-10-1 this season and as a trio have managed just an .876 save percentage.

No team has a chance to win with that level of goaltending.

The Coyotes scored at least three goals (including two games with four goals) in five of those 10 regulation losses that the Domingue, Hill, Wedgewood trio has started.

Three or four goals in regulation is usually enough a hockey game, or at least get a point. Teams that score either three or four goals in a game this season have a points percentage of .646. A team with a .646 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 106 point team in the standings.

When the Coyotes score three or four goals in a game this season (including the eight games started by Raanta)?

They are only at .142 in those games.

With even slightly better goaltending in those games there might have been a couple of extra wins right there. Even just plain bad goaltending would have probably made a difference as a .900 save percentage from those goalies would have sliced nine to 10 goals off of their goals against total for the season.

There is also an element of some bad shooting luck from some of their top forwards, including Stepan.

Prior to this season Stepan has been a remarkably consistent point producer that has always been a lock for at least 55 points and around 20 goals.

Four of the Coyotes’ top-six forwards in terms of shots on goal (Stepan, Domi, Dvorak, Brad Richardson, and Jordan Martinook) currently own a shooting percentage under 5 percent. As a group that quintet  has scored on just six of their 187 shots on goal.

That is a shooting percentage of just 3.2 percent from a group of, mostly, their top forwards.

Prior to this season that group had a career shooting percentage of 9.9 percent.

If they were shooting at their normal career averages on the same number of shots that would be an additional 12 goals from that group alone.

Put all of that together with a young, inexperienced team that still has some holes to fill and you have the worst start in the NHL in more than a decade.

So what are the Coyotes at this point?

They are a rebuilding team that has been hurt by two big injuries to key veterans (Raanta, Hjalmarsson), crushed by bad goaltending, and has had a few of  itstop players start the year on a cold streak shooting.

They should not be an historically bad team like their early season record would seem to indicate. They also are not because there is a chance a lot of these early trends from a percentage perspective reverse.

When that happens the results should start to improve too.

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.