Christian Dvorak

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Ice-cold Coyotes offense could get boost from Hayton’s debut

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Through their first two games of 2019-20, things seemed a lot like last season for the Arizona Coyotes.

They played strong defense, only allowing three goals total over those two games, but their offense has yet to ignite with Phil Kessel added to the mix, as they mustered a lone goal.

The Coyotes are likely feeling anxious considering the break they’ve had between Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins and Thursday’s upcoming home game against the Vegas Golden Knights. The most excited player of all might be Barrett Hayton, who is getting into the lineup for his first NHL game.

It seems like the 19-year-old is getting a legitimate chance to make an impact, too.

Via NHL.com’s handy collection of Thursday’s projected lines, Hayton is set to start his NHL career with some solid linemates in Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz. (Interestingly, you could argue that all three could line up at center, depending upon the circumstances.)

According to Left Wing Lock, Hayton also might get a look on the Coyotes’ top power play unit with Kessel, Derek Stepan, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

Depending upon how you look at it, that’s either a great opportunity for the fifth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, or a trial by fire. (Or maybe it’s a combination of the two?)

While the Coyotes got mixed reviews for selecting Hayton at that position — at least with many penciling Filip Zadina in as the third best choice available, though he slid to Detroit at sixth — Hayton’s impressed since the Coyotes went out on a bit of a limb to choose him. In 39 games with the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, Hayton scored 26 goals and 66 points, exceeding the 60 points he scored in the OHL in 2017-18, even though he played in 63 games that season. Hayton also managed 16 points in 11 playoff games at the junior level in 2018-19.

In September, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked Hayton as the 11th-best prospect in the NHL (sub required), ahead of the likes of the Golden Knights’ Cody Glass (16th) and Zadina (23).

So, it should be interesting to get a first look at where Hayton is at, especially since he’s slated for a top-six role, instead of just barely making it into the lineup on the fourth line.

The Coyotes could use the boost, too, with that lone goal in two games.

Some of that improvement should happen strictly from positive regression, mind you.

Arizona’s been solid-to-good at even-strength so far, with Natural Stat Trick listing them as having 4.28 expected goals vs. 3.3 expected goals allowed at five-on-five. A league-worst 1.67 shooting percentage at even-strength has doomed them through two games (Columbus is second worst at 3.85). Even if the Coyotes might lag a bit behind other teams from a shooting skill standpoint (their 6.61 even-strength percentage was the worst of 2018-19), they should get far more bounces over the long haul of this season, especially if Kessel clicks — and maybe if Hayton can catch on as another gamebreaker.

The Golden Knights aren’t necessarily the easiest opponents to stick with, but either way, it should be interesting to see how Hayton might keep up.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
 
For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Better. The Coyotes made a splash when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins this off-season. Assuming he comes in with the right attitude, Kessel alone makes the Coyotes a better team. The ‘Yotes haven’t had a sniper like him in a long time and head coach Rick Tocchet’s ability to get the most out of Kessel should help Arizona in a big way. Let’s not forget, this Coyotes team is young, too. So, there should be some internal progression as well.

Strengths: Arizona has quietly built up some solid depth down the middle of the ice. When healthy, Nick Schmaltz produced offensively, as he accumulated 14 points in his first 17 games with his new team. If he can keep that up, the Coyotes will be that much tougher to stop. They also have veterans like Derek Stepan and Carl Soderberg that will make important contributions this year. We’ve already talked about Kessel and what he brings to the table, but they also have other dynamic forwards on the wing like Clayton Keller and Christian Dvorak, too.

The Coyotes also have a deep blue line with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jakob Chychrun and Jason Demers. And their goaltending is stable with Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | X-factor | Three questions]

Weaknesses: Overall depth might be an issue up front. Do they have enough players in the bottom-six that can contribute offensively when their offensive-minded players go quiet? Overall, this is a well-balanced team that could use more depth, but which team doesn’t need that?

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Let’s go with a four for Rick Tocchet. He’s not really on the hot seat going into the season, but his team also has to show some significant signs of improvement this year. They finished ninth in the Western Conference last year (they missed the playoffs by four points), so they have to improve this year or the seat will get hotter for Tocchet.

Three Most Fascinating Players: You can’t have a fascinating players section on the Coyotes roster and not talk about Kessel. We know what Kessel is capable of doing on the ice, but how will he mesh with his new teammates off the ice? Can he be the leader Arizona needs him to be? We’re starting to hear more and more about his fractured relationship with some of his old teammates in Pittsburgh. The Coyotes have to be hoping that something similar doesn’t happen to them.

Schmaltz is also an intriguing name. After being acquired from Chicago, he nearly scored at a point-per-game clip. Can he post similar numbers over an 82-game stretch? Schmaltz has all the talent to succeed at the NHL and now he has a golden opportunity to be one of the offensive catalysts on an up-and-coming roster that should push for a playoff spot this year.

The goaltending situation will also be something to keep an eye on. Raanta was limited to just 12 games last season after he had a career year in 2017-18. But once he was forced from the lineup Kuemper came in and did a nice job of keeping the Coyotes competitive. Does Raanta bounce back? Does Kuemper keep rolling? It might be a little bit of both.

Playoffs or Lottery: This is a tough one. It would be amazing to see the Coyotes sneak into the playoffs. The issue is finding which of the top eight teams they’ll finish ahead of this season. If the Rantanen hold out lasts long, can they sneak in ahead of Colorado, who finished in the last Wild Card spot last year? Maybe, but that’s still not a given. I think the Coyotes will miss the playoffs by less points (four) than they did last year.

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

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.

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.

Coyotes sign Keller to massive eight-year, $57.2M extension

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Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka described Clayton Keller as “elite in every sense of the word” in Wednesday’s press release. Considering the eight-year, $57.2 million extension Keller was handed, the Coyotes certainly are paying him as such.

This means that Keller, 21, will carry a whopping $7.15M cap hit beginning in the 2020-21 season, as he’s about to enter the final year of his entry-level contract.

“Clayton is elite in every sense of the word,” Chayka said. “He is not only an All-Star and one of the premiere offensive playmakers in the league, but he is equally special as a person with his drive and determination to be great. We are thankful to Clayton for believing in our future and look forward to him playing a vital role on this team for many years to come. We are also very appreciative of Mr. Meruelo’s willingness to invest in our future and solidify one of our core players here in Arizona for a long time.”

Keller’s agent confirmed details, including the structure (cue ominous music for lockout protection):

After bursting onto the NHL scene with a 23-goal, 65-point rookie campaign, Keller suffered through a sophomore slump in 2018-19, sinking to 14 goals and 47 points. Clearly, that regression — and any other potential pitfalls – did not sway the Coyotes from making this bold investment.

Chayka continues to be a fascinating GM, as while he has something of an analytics background, he also seems to walk to the beat of his own drum. In many cases, that means making sometimes surprising investments, like signing Christian Dvorak through 2024-25.

The analytics community has not been kind to handing Keller such a massive deal, some going as far as to call it “disastrous.”

Evolving Hockey doesn’t love Keller’s chances of justifying a $6.4M cap hit, let alone a $7.15M mark:

Of course, Keller is very young, and could see growth that makes criticisms look unfair in retrospect. Maybe Keller would have driven his leverage through the ceiling by combining his splendid playmaking skills with Phil Kessel‘s elite sniping?

Again, the Coyotes are spending big while hoping that they’re right, and others are wrong.

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.

Coyotes hanging around in playoff race even as injury list grows

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The Arizona Coyotes have every possible reason and every possible excuse to be out of contention for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Thanks to some strong defensive play, some good goaltending, and a lot of help from the teams around them they are most definitely not out of contention for a playoff spot.

About 10 days ago I took an in-depth look at insane Western Conference Wild Card race that has become a complete log-jam of, uh, let’s just call it mediocrity, with a bunch of teams all separated by a small handful of points.

At the time, there were seven teams separated by six points fighting for what would basically be three playoff spots (the third place spot in the Central Division and two Wild Card spots). One team I omitted from the discussion was the Arizona Coyotes. They were even further back than the rest of that group sitting seven points back of a playoff spot, with an extra game played than most of their competitors, and with five teams sitting between them and a playoff spot. They were only on a 78-point pace for the season and have been one of the hardest hit teams in the league this season for injuries.

It just seemed like a real long shot to even include them based on all of the variables working against them. It was easy to write them off.

In hindsight, at least for now, I seem to have underestimated two things.

First, just how historically weak the lower half of the Western Conference playoff race is where absolutely nobody has shown any ability to distance themselves from everybody else. In just about any other year a 78-point pace halfway through the season would be more than enough to bury a team and all but end their playoff hopes. Over in the Eastern Conference teams on a similar pace are currently sitting at least eight points back and probably preparing to go into sell-mode for the trade deadline. It’s almost as if some of the teams involved in the Western Conference are fighting to stay out of the playoffs as opposed to getting in the playoffs.

And second, I seem to have underestimated just how hard this Coyotes team has played under second-year coach Rick Tocchet and how quickly they have changed their season outlook to at least get back within striking distance of a potential playoff spot.

They are not just hanging around, they are now all of a sudden in the playoff race.

Entering the All-Star break the Coyotes find themselves with a 23-23-4 record, giving them 50 points in the standings. That leaves them only two points back of the current eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche (with now only two teams between them). They have managed to gain that ground by going on a 6-2-2 run over their past eight games.

What stands out about this recent run is the fact they have not only done it by picking up points against some of the league’s elite teams (beating San Jose, getting a point against Pittsburgh in a game they easily could have won, winning in Toronto), they have done it with a roster that just been absolutely devastated by injuries all season. it only kept getting worse on Wednesday night when star defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson exited their game against the Montreal Canadiens with a lower-body injury.

He joins a list that now includes veteran forward Michael Grabner, defender Jason Demers, veteran forward and top penalty killer Brad Richardson, recent trade acquisition Nick Schmaltz, and perhaps most important of all, starting goalie Antti Raanta.

And that does not even include third-year forward Christian Dvorak who has not played in a game this season and may miss the season entirely or defender Jakob Chychrun who has missed a significant chunk of the season as well.

At the start of the season I had the Coyotes pegged as a team that could take a massive leap forward this season if a few things went in their favor, specifically as it related to offseason acquisition Alex Galchenyuk (who also missed 10 games earlier this season), the development of recent No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome, and Raanta’s ability to stay healthy and play like he did when he was in the crease a year ago.

Some of that has worked and some of it hasn’t.

Galchenyuk has been fine once he returned to to the lineup, while Strome was traded to Chicago for Schmaltz. But Schmaltz was playing pretty well after the trade until he also recently joined the list of walking wounded. He is now done for the season.

Raanta is the one that seems like it should have been the crushing blow. When he was in the lineup last season he was good enough to allow the Coyotes to play at a pace that would have put them on the fringes of playoff contention over a full season, if not actually in a playoff spot. It was when he was out of the lineup due to injury, with no capable backup behind him, that the house of cards fell over.

That has not been the case this season where veteran backup Darcy Kuemper has done an outstanding job to keep the Coyotes in games and give them a chance on most nights, and especially throughout the month of January.

This is all encouraging, and should at least offer some hope that when this team has all of its pieces in place there could be something to build on here.

What’s discouraging is we will not see that this season because most of the players that are currently injured are done for a long time.

Schmaltz and Raanta are all done for the season. Dvorak might be done as well. Demers and Grabner are still sidelined for an undetermined amount of time and if Ekman-Larsson has to miss any games that will be a problem. For a team that was short on depth to begin with, especially offensively, that is a lot to overcome.

So far, thanks to some excellent goaltending recently and some stingy defense that has seen them be one of the best shot suppression teams in the league over the past 16 games (a stretch that has seen them go 9-5-2), they have managed to overcome it.

Whether or not it results in what would be a stunning playoff berth remains to be seen, but they have at least given themselves a chance to keep fighting for one this season.

MORE:
Arizona Coyotes place Antti Raanta on injured reserve
Nick Schmaltz done for season as Coyotes’ injury woes continue
How has Alex Galchenyuk fit in with Coyotes

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.