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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.

What’s wrong with the Blue Jackets?

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After putting together a solid campaign last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets came out of the gate strong in 2017-18. They won five of their first six games and it looked like they were going to be a shoe-in to make the playoffs again. But after a good start, things have fallen apart in a hurry.

As of right now, they’re clinging to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They’re tied with the Islanders for that spot, but they do own a game in hand. The Hurricanes, who have also played one more game than the Jackets, are one point back.

So, it’s safe to suggest that Columbus is far from a lock to make the playoffs at this point.

“You pick up the standings today, we’re right in the middle of it,” head coach John Tortorella said on Wednesday, per the team’s website. “That’s where we’re going to look to the next day. I’m going to show ’em stuff [Thursday], as far as some of the things that I think we’re getting more consistent at, as I’ve talked about some inconsistencies with our team, and just get it ready for our next game.

“Like I was talking to the coaches today [about], I’m excited about the challenge of the struggle that we’re in right now, by where we could go if we just stay within [ourselves]. That’s when you become a better team. So, it’s going to be a grind. I’m not sure where we come out at the end, but it’s certainly an opportunity to find out something about yourself as a coach, an individual coach and a coaching staff; individual player and team concept as a team, to find out what you can do here.”

It’s good to see that Tortorella is embracing the struggles and using them as an opportunity to improve his team, but why are they having such a hard time of late? Let’s take a deeper look.

Where are the goals?

In 2016-17, only the Penguins, Wild, Capitals, Rangers and Leafs scored more than the Blue Jackets, who had 249 goals. Cam Atkinson (35) and Nick Foligno (26) led the way in that category last year. But they also got double digit goal totals from 10 other players.

Their top scorer in 2017-18 is Josh Anderson, who has 16 goals in 51 games. Artemi Panarin, who was acquired from Chicago for Brandon Saad, leads the team in points with 42 in 53 games. Those are respectable totals, but the players who were big contributors last year just haven’t been able to replicate the same offensive totals.

Atkinson has been a shell of the player he was last year. Even before he missed 11 games with a foot injury last month, he was already struggling badly. The 28-year-old has just eight goals and 17 points in 37 contests. That’s not enough production from a guy that signed a seven-year, $41.125 million extension at the beginning of the year.

Foligno, who had 51 points in 79 games last season, is on pace to 15 goals and 34 points over 82 games this year. Again, it’s easy to see why the team’s offensive totals have dried up.

In 13 games since the start of 2018, the Blue Jackets have scored two goals or fewer in 10 of those outings (Not counting goals they got for winning the shootout). Clearly, that’s not a recipe for success.

Special Teams struggles

It’s no secret that the Blue Jackets power play has been abysmal for most of the year. Even when things were going well for them in terms of wins and losses, they couldn’t score goals on the man-advantage. They’re the only team in the league that has converted on less than 15 percent of the power play opportunities. Yes, that part of their game has been better lately, but they still have a long way to go.

To make matters worse, their penalty killing has also struggled pretty badly of late. Their PK ranks fifth from the bottom at 75.2 percent. Columbus has dropped four games in row and six of their last seven. In those seven games, they’ve given up power play goals to Erik Haula and Brad Hunt in a 6-3 loss to Vegas, Brendan Perlini in a 2-1 win over Arizona, Jason Zucker in a 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota, Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc in a 3-1 loss to San Jose, Nick Leddy in a 4-3 loss to the Islanders and John Carlson in a 3-2 loss to Washington.

Outside of the ugly loss to the Golden Knights, all the other games were decided by one or two goals. Executing on special teams is the difference between winning and losing tight decisions right now.

Thankfully for the Jackets, they can continue to lean on one of the best goalies in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky. Despite their recent struggles, they still rank 11th in the league in goals against with 146. Even though his numbers have dipped from last year to this year, he’s still managed to keep them in a lot of games. What would happen if they didn’t have him between the pipes?

Deadline Outlook

It’s become increasingly clear that the Blue Jackets need someone that can put the puck in the net. Many have mentioned a possible reunion with veteran winger Rick Nash. That wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad idea. He spent many years there, which should benefit him when it comes to making the adjustment to his new team. Also, three of Nash’s 16 goals have come on the man-advantage with New York this season. Panarin (five) is the only Blue Jacket that has more than three this year. Nash is just one possibility. If they don’t want to pay for a rental, they could also look to acquire Mike Hoffman from Ottawa.

When it comes to improving the penalty kill, they could look to add a veteran two-way forward. One name that comes to mind is Tomas Plekanec out of Montreal. The Canadiens are out of the playoff picture, so they could be willing to deal the 35-year-old pending unrestricted free agent. Plekanec’s offensive game has deteriorated over the last couple of seasons, but he’s still a useful player.

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.

The Buzzer: Shutouts, a hat trick and Vegas keeps rolling

AP
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Players of the Night

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: In his first start since Nov. 2 Price stopped all 36 shots he faced from the Buffalo Sabres during a 3-0 victory. The shutout was the 40th of his career and first this season to help the Habs end a five-game losing skid. Price is now the fourth goalie in Canadiens history to record 40 shutouts.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Jones recorded his second shutout of the season and 17th of his career as the Sharks blanked the Winnipeg Jets 4-0. Logan Couture scored twice and Jones made 38 saves, including 29 over the final 40 minutes, in the victory.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: Ovechkin had a special night and created one for a fan as his hat trick, which tied Pavel Bure for most in NHL history by a Russian-born player, powered the Capitals by the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2. Before the game, Ovechkin met Alex Luey, a 13-year-old bone cancer survivor, and the Washington captain delivered on a promise to score and created a memory for a lifetime.

Highlight of the NightNot going to beat what Ovi did, so here’s runner-up Brendan Perlini providing a highlight for the Coyotes:

MISC:

Brian Gibbonstremendous season continued as he potted his 11th of the season 2:32 into overtime to give the New Jersey Devils a 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Jaroslav Halak made 31 saves and Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle provided the goals as the New York Islanders edged the Ottawa Senators 2-1 for their sixth win in seven games. Matt Duchene scored his first goal with the Senators in the loss.

Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel each scored twice to power the Pittsburgh Penguins by the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2. Kessel also added two assists for a four-point night, while the Penguins captain had a helper of his own to finish with three points on the evening.

Chris Kunitz returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since signing with the Lightning and received his 2017 Stanley Cup before the game:

Corey Crawford’s great season continued as his 37 saves and three points from captain Jonathan Toews helped the Chicago Blackhawks down the Florida Panthers 4-1.

• Oh, look, another night, and some more goals from Jaden Schwartz, whose pair helped the St. Louis Blues double up the Minnesota Wild 6-3. The Blues lead the NHL in points with 35 through 24 games and are tied for third in scoring with 84 goals.

William Karlsson potted his 13th of the season as the Vegas Golden Knights won their fifth in a row by defeating the Arizona Coyotes 4-2. Jonathan Marchessault ended the night with a goal and two assists.

David Rittich recorded his first NHL win with 24 stops during a 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche. Micheal Ferland and Mikael Backlund scored 22 seconds apart in the final minute of the second period to snap a 1-1 deadlock.

Trevor Lewis‘ goal in the fourth round of the shootout was the difference as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Anaheim Ducks 2-1. Anaheim was 1:32 from clinching a 1-0 win when Dustin Brown scored his ninth of the season to send the game to overtime. Jonathan Quick made 25 saves in overtime and regulation.

Kevin Bieksa brought out the Superman punch again, as Andy Andreoff found out:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Capitals 4, Maple Leafs 2
Canadiens 3, Sabres 0
Islanders 2, Senators 1
Devils 4, Red Wings 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Panthers 1
Penguins 5, Lightning 2
Golden Knights 4, Coyotes 2
Blues 6, Wild 3
Flames 3, Avalanche 2
Sharks 4, Jets 0
Kings 2, Ducks 1 (SO)

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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.

The Arizona Coyotes’ season is only getting worse

Associated Press
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WINNIPEG — The Arizona Coyotes’ start to the 2017-18 season — a complete tire fire by all accounts — managed to burn a little brighter on Tuesday.

After dropping a 4-1 decision to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the Coyotes, now 2-15-3, became the first team in National Hockey League history to play their first 20 games and not register a regulation win.

It’s not the first time the Coyotes have flirted with the unfortunate side of the history books through the first quarter of the season.

Arizona’s first win came just in time to partially save their own blushes after ending an 11-game slide to start the year (partially, because they still tied a league record set back during the 1943-43 season for most games without a win to start a season) and prevented them from becoming the sole owners of a piece of history coveted by no one.

“I’ve been saying it all year: You can’t complain, you can’t moan,” Coyotes forward Brandon Perlini said on Tuesday after the loss. “Like, just go play, work hard. There’s no other special secret or special juice. You just have to work your way out of it everyone shift after shift … and eventually I believe it will turn.”

Perlini’s frustration, despite trying to remain positive, was evident, and while the results for the Coyotes are borderline shocking, to say the least, they might not be all that surprising.

The Coyotes have been bleeding for a while now, missing the playoffs in their past five seasons since their remarkable run to the Western Conference finals in 2012.

They lost veteran captain Shane Doan to retirement over the offseason and traded away Mike Smith, who had backstopped the ‘Yotes for six seasons as they entered full-fledged rebuild mode.

They gained Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta via trade with the New York Rangers and have watched Clayton Keller blossom into the league’s best rookie early this season, although he’s been held off the scoresheet in four straight games.

Adding three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson didn’t hurt either, but he hasn’t played since Halloween due to an upper-body injury.

Arizona is in the middle of the pack in terms of goals for but last in goals against. They’re second last in expected goals for and have the second-worst team save percentage.

None of that equates to wins and the Coyotes aren’t even getting lucky from time to time.

“It’s been a rough start,” said Raanta, who got the yank in Tuesday’s game. “When you have a young team and lots of new things going on, you need that confidence that comes from those wins. We haven’t gotten that early on in the season. But we’re still working hard. It’s the only way we can get over it.”

Raanta, who was arguably considered the best goalie without a starting role in the NHL over the past couple of seasons, said he’s had to battle his own demons this year amid all the losing.

“It’s tough when you’re a goalie and you lose a couple games in a row, you start looking at yourself and wondering what is going on,” said Raanta, who missed nine games with a lower-body ailment earlier this year. “For me, I just have to give us a chance to win. If I can look in the mirror after the game and say that I did whatever I could, of course, you can’t be satisfied, but you can find a positive.”

The land where the Coyotes are a contending team in the Western Conference seems like its far, far away at this point.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Alex Goligoski’s OT goal helps Coyotes earn first win of the season (Video)

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For the first time since April 6, 2017, the Arizona Coyotes have won a regular season hockey game.

It nearly fell apart for them, but Alex Goligoski’s first goal of the season was the difference as the Coyotes prevailed in overtime 4-3 over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Amazing work at both ends of the ice by Coyotes rookie Clayton Keller, who forced a turnover in the defensive zone and then could have taken a shot but saw Goligoski for the pass.

Arizona had a nice cushion of a 3-0 lead built up through the early minutes of the third period, but the Flyers didn’t back down. With the score 3-1, Jordan Weal and Sean Couturier tallied in the final minute of regulation to force the extra period.

Scott Wedgewood, Arizona’s fourth goalie to make a start this season, stopped 28 shots. He was making his first start with the Coyotes after a Saturday trade with the New Jersey Devils.

Entering Monday’s game, the Coyotes sported an 0-10-1 record, which tied the 1927-28 Pittsburgh Pirates, 1973-74 Minnesota North Stars and 1995-96 San Jose Sharks for the second-longest winless streak to start an NHL season. The record is 15, held by the 1943-44 New York Rangers. Arizona had also dropped nine in a row in regulation, which was one loss away from tying the franchise record for longest losing streak.

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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.