Christian Dvorak

Coyotes’ Soderberg thriving despite blindness in left eye

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The darkest time came right after the injury. Months in the hospital. Multiple surgeries. Pain, fear, little hope.

Playing hockey again was not even a remote consideration. Carl Soderberg had bigger concerns.

”I was more worried about my eye and would I get my vision back,” Soderberg said.

The Arizona Coyotes made the biggest splash of the offseason, trading for highly productive right wing Phil Kessel.

But the addition of Soderberg might have been Arizona’s biggest move.

A 6-foot-3, 210-pound center, Soderberg has given the Coyotes a big body to go with all those fast, skilled young players.

He’s a willing jostler outside the crease, creating traffic in front of opposing goalies and shooting lanes for his teammates. He’s the guy who goes into the corners to dig pucks out. Need a big hit, he’s Arizona’s guy.

Soderberg also is skilled, tied with Christian Dvorak for second on the team with eight goals. He’s also tied for fifth with 15 points through 29 games.

”He’s a guy that goes to the net. He’s always around the net,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”He’s just fit in and he’s a big body. It’s nice to have those big bodies. He’s done a nice job for us.”

The most amazing part of Soderberg”s NHL success: he’s legally blind in his left eye.

He was injured while playing in the Swedish Elite League in 2006 when an opponent tried to lift his stick and hit his eye instead. Soderberg suffered a detached retina, spent three months in the hospital because of pressure in his eye and lost track of how many surgeries he had, estimating between eight and 10.

A young player reaching his prime, Soderberg was in too much pain to think about his hockey career.

”The pressure in my eye was so high for months,” the 34-year-old said. ”It wouldn’t go down, so I was in constant pain, getting constant headaches and worried if I would ever be able to see out of my eye again. I just wanted to feel good again.”

Once the pressure started to go down, Soderberg began working out and, within about a year, was playing hockey again. His return was difficult, from figuring out how to play with limited vision to quashing the fear that comes with having been struck in the eye with a stick.

”It was a little different on the eyes, I was scared, afraid to get hit again,” he said. ”It took me a couple years to fully get back.”

Soderberg worked through the tentativeness and adjusted his game, learning to turn his head more to see the puck and having a better understanding of where everyone is on the ice.

”You have to be more aware, you have to listen to your teammates, look around you a little bit more,” Soderberg said.

Willie O’Ree knows what Soderberg is going through.

Playing at a time when players didn’t have helmets much less visors, O’Ree took a slapshot to his right eye during a game in 1956. O’Ree lost nearly all the vision in his eye and was told he would never play hockey again.

Undeterred, he started skating two weeks after leaving the hospital and adjusted his game. Being a left-handed left wing helped some, but seeing the puck to his right required turning his head all the way to the right so he could see it with his left eye.

O’Ree went on to become the first black player in the NHL in 1958 and played 21 seasons in a variety of leagues. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, has an NHL community award named in his honor and currently serves as the league’s diversity ambassador.

”You never took an eye exam, so I said, if I’m good enough to make the team with one eye, just don’t tell them,” O’Ree said. ”I was getting hit a lot more than I did before, but I was able to play 21 years with one eye.”

Soderberg is playing his eighth NHL season while seeing little more than light in his left eye. He spent three seasons with Boston and four with Colorado before being traded to Arizona for Kevin Connauton and a draft pick last summer.

Soderberg, who has 94 goals and 166 assists in 511 career games, has been a big reason the Coyotes are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, entering Wednesday’s games a point behind Edmonton in the Pacific Division.

”I have a good feeling about us as a group,” Soderberg said. ”We should be at the top of our division at the end and that’s our goal.”

It’s hard not to trust Soderberg’s vision at this point.

The Buzzer: Garland, Raanta help Coyotes roll; Capitals stay hot

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Three Stars

1. Antti Raanta, Coyotes

The Arizona goaltender earned his first shutout of the season and 12th of his career with a 31-save performance during a 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Power play goals from Derek Stepan and Jakob Chychrun helped power the Coyotes to their fourth win in five games. The win puts them now one point behind the Oilers for the Pacific Division lead.

2. Braden Holtby, Capitals

The Capitals netminder was kept busy during a 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. Holtby made 32 saves, which included 25 stops in the final 40 minutes. Washington has now won their last seven games that Holtby has started and 10 of their last 11 with him in net. He also passed the 25,000 career minute mark to join Olaf Kolzig as the only goalies in franchise history to hit that number. John Carlson picked up two assists and now has 11 multi-point games this season.

3. Conor Garland, Coyotes

Garland was one of three Coyotes with multi-point nights (Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz the others) as he netted a goal and an assist in the victory. He now has three goals in his last four games is up to 10 goals and 14 points through 22 games this season. In 47 games a year ago, Garland recorded 13 goals and 18 points.

Hathaway ejected for spitting

A late second period melee sparked by a Brendan Leipsic hit on Derek Grant saw several fights break out as Chandler Stephenson scored. Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway ended up tangled with Erik Gudbranson and was given a five-minute match penalty for spitting at the Ducks’ defenseman. Hathaway could face further punishment from the NHL in the form of a fine or suspension.

Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2019 inducted

Guy Carbonneau, Vaclav Nedomansky, Hayley Wickenheiser, Sergei Zubov, Jerry York, and Jim Rutherford were inducted Monday night in Toronto.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Ovechkin was left open in his favorite spot on a power play. Guess what happened next?

• Sweet spinning pass from Dvorak to set up Garland’s goal:

• With the game in Arizona, the Coyotes decided to troll the Kings by unveiling a Taylor Swift banner (backstory here). How did that go over with LA? Well…

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Capitals 5, Ducks 2
Coyotes 3, Kings 0

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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 sign GM Chayka to long-term extension

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — John Chayka arrived in the desert with an analytics background and made a big splash when, at 26, he became the youngest general manager in North American sports history.

As Chayka started to rebuild the Arizona Coyotes into playoff contenders, the recognition grew.

On Monday, the Coyotes rewarded Chayka, signing him to a long-term contract extension.

”I think the key thing is we’re on the right track. We’ve had a solid process and that’s always the main thing,” Chayka said. ”Obviously, you’re never satisfied until you reach your goals. We want to win a championship here, but it starts with making the playoffs and getting your foot in the door.”

Chayka was hired in 2015 as assistant general manager, analytics after co-founding the hockey analytics firm Stathletes.

Chayka was elevated to GM when Don Maloney was fired in 2016. He began rebuilding Arizona’s roster in hopes of revitalizing a franchise that was among the NHL’s worst in both attendance and wins.

The Coyotes struggled with injuries early in Chayka’s tenure, but were in postseason contention a year ago, finishing four points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot. With an added scoring boost to go with its staunch defense, Arizona has opened this season 9-6-2, right in the thick of the Western Conference race.

”John is one of the brightest and hardest-working general managers in the entire NHL and over the past four seasons, he has done an excellent job of rebuilding our franchise and transforming the Coyotes into a contender,” Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo said in a statement. ”I am fully confident that John is the right person to lead us moving forward and help us bring the Stanley Cup to Arizona.”

Chayka has been praised for revamping a team that had been one of the NHL’s best defensively and worst offensively.

Through trades and free agency, Chayka has brought in players like Nick Schmaltz, Derek Stepan, Carl Soderberg, Antti Raanta, Darcy Kuemper and Michael Grabner. Arizona also drafted Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and Barrett Hayton under Chayka.

The Coyotes made the big splash of the 2019 offseason, acquiring productive winger Phil Kessel in a trade with Pittsburgh.

All-Star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keller, Schmaltz, Chychrun and forward Christian Dvorak are all under long-term extensions, putting Arizona not only in position for success this season, but for many to come.

”We’ve got a good young group and we’ve got a lot of good veterans that have helped along the way and are helping develop these guys and are good players themselves, which is tough to find those types of quality people and quality players that can come in and help support the youth,” Chayka said. ”It’s one of those things where until you achieve your goals it’s tough to be too reflective on things, but ultimately we feel like we’re in a good place, we’re on the right track and still lots to go in terms of achieving our goals.”

Oilers, Coyotes following different paths to surprising starts

In a lot of recent years a matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes would have been viewed as a battle over draft lottery odds instead of a meaningful regular season game with an impact on the standings.

But things are finally looking up for both teams this season as they enter Monday’s game in Edmonto as not only two of the biggest early season surprises, but two of the Western Conference’s top teams (the Oilers are second in points percentage, while the Coyotes are fourth).

The two teams meet for the first time this season on Monday night in Edmonton.

Two teams following two very different paths

In terms of the actual results their early performances are strikingly similar in both the standings and their overall offensive production.  The Oilers’ points percentage is .700 entering Monday’s game (a 114-point pace) while they are averaging 2.87 goals per game. The Coyotes are at .654 (107 point pace) and averaging 2.85 goals per game.

They are also both among the top-10 in terms of goals against. All good signs.

The path in which they have reached those results, however, has been very, very, very different, in terms of both style and the players that are doing the heavy lifting for them.

Superstars vs. Balance

The Oilers are totally dependent on star power to carry their offense with the duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl factoring in on more than 50 percent of the team’s goals so far this season. Their roster beyond the top handful of forwards is still lacking in talent and offensive production, and they have not yet shown they can consistently win games when their two best players do not take over and single-handedly dominate.

They remain a poor possession team and get badly outshot every night, putting further pressure on their goalies (Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen) to carry them. This is the same recipe that has failed them the past two years and for the majority of the McDavid-Draisaitl era, which has to be at least a little concerning for Oilers fans.

The Coyotes, on the other hand, do not have anywhere near the same star power at the top of their lineup and are relying on a more balanced attack offensively. Not one player on the team has contributed to more than 32 percent of the team’s goals, while they already have six different forwards with at least three goals through the first 13 games (Phil Kessel, Conor Garland, Christian Dvorak, Nick Schmaltz, Carl Soderberg, and Michael Grabner) all of which are on pace to score more than 18 goals this season.

The Oilers only have three forwards on pace for more than 15 goals this season.

But the most encouraging thing for the Coyotes is probably the fact they have shown an ability to push the play and dictate the pace of games on their terms. Yes, they are getting great goaltending from the duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta and that definitely helps. But they are not dependent on them to win games. The Coyotes are a top-10 team in shot attempt differential, demonstrating an ability to tilt the ice in their favor, while they are also on the positive side of the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance differentials.

They may not have the superstars that Edmonton has at the top, but they seem to have have the necessary depth, balance, and playing style to overcome that.

Old faces in new places

You have to go back to the 2011-12 season to find the last playoff appearance for the Coyotes, and the duo of coach Dave Tippett and goalie Mike Smith played a key role in what turned out to be a shocking run to the Western Conference Final. It was all downhill for the duo (and the franchise as a whole) after that, and over the past couple of years they moved on from both Tippett (replacing him with Rick Tocchet two years) and Smith (trading him to Calgary the same offseason).

Now that duo is reunited in Edmonton and hoping to lead a turnaround for the Oilers.

For Tippett, this will be his first game behind the bench against his former team. He spent eight years as the Coyotes’ coach, compiling a 282-257-83 record with three consecutive playoff appearances between 2010 and 2012. He helped guide them through a rocky team in the franchise’s history when their long-term future was as unsettled as ever.

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.

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.