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It’s Arizona Coyotes day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

2017-18
29-41-12, 70 pts. (Last, Pacific Division; Last, Western Conference)

IN:
Alex Galchenyuk
Michael Grabner
Marian Hossa (cap hit only)
Vinnie Hinostroza
Jordan Oesterle

OUT:
Max Domi
Jordan Martinook
Zac Rinaldo
Luke Schenn

RE-SIGNED:
Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Kevin Connauton
Niklas Hjalmarsson
Antti Raanta

The Arizona Coyotes seem to be stuck in a rebuild with no end in sight. Alright, that’s not totally true, but outside of finishing the season strong, it was another long year for the ‘Yotes, who finished at the bottom of the Western Conference. They’ve now missed the playoffs in six consecutive seasons.

GM John Chayka had no choice but to make some heavy moves this off-season. He made a huge splash when he acquired Alex Galchenyuk from the Montreal Canadiens for Max Domi and he followed that up by extending franchise blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

[Three Questions | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Galchenyuk found himself in and out of Claude Julien’s dog house last year, but still managed to finish with 19 goals and 51 points in 82 games playing on the wing. The Coyotes have already stated that they plan putting the 24-year-old back at his natural position of center. Playing in a smaller hockey market might just be what the doctor ordered for Galchenyuk.

For Arizona to take the next step, they’re going to need youngsters like Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, Christian Fischer, Brendan Perlini, Jakub Chychrun, Dylan Strome and company to continue developing into impact players. There’s talent on the roster, but most of it is young and inexperienced. That’s the biggest issue.

Keller really took the NHL by storm, as he managed to pick up 23 goals and 65 points in 82 games as a teenager in 2017-18. His upside is enormous. Whether or not he can avoid the sophomore slump will be one of the bigger storylines heading into the season for the Coyotes.

The Coyotes also added Marian Hossa’s salary to their payroll, but that was mostly to acquire Hinostroza and Oesterle, who could turn out to be nice complimentary pieces at some point.

Last year, the team decided to commit to Raanta as their starting goaltender, but they also added Darcy Kuemper to the fold before the trade deadline. It’ll be interesting to see how Raanta and Kuemper end up splitting the workload. Neither of them has much experience as a starting netminder at the highest level, so expect there to be some prolonged struggles at times.

Prospect Pool

• Barrett Hayton, C, 18, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The Coyotes surprised some people when they used the fifth overall pick on Hayton, but they clearly had their sights set on adding another center. Hayton is a dynamic offensive talent with speed to burn. He finished sixth in on the Greyhounds in points despite being just 17 years old for the entire season. Hayton might simply head back to junior next season, but the Coyotes could also opt to give him a serious look in training camp.

Nick Merkley, W, 21, Tucson Roadrunners (AHL) – 2015 first-round pick

Outside of the lower-body injury that ended his season prematurely, Merkley’s introduction to pro hockey went pretty well. He suited up in just 38 games with the Roadrunners last season, but he managed to score 18 goals and 39 points. The young forward failed to collect a point in one game with the ‘Yotes. He could probably use some more time in the AHL to round out his game, but his offensive ability might be enough to get him on the opening night roster.

Kyle Capobianco, D, 20, Tucson Roadrunners (AHL) – 2015 third-round pick

After putting up a point-per-game season in the OHL in 2016-17, Capobianco made the leap to the pro ranks by picking up two goals and 30 points in 49 games last season. Like Merkley, Capobianco also got a one-game taste of the NHL last season. Although there’s nothing wrong with his offensive instincts, he’ll have show that he’s capable of playing consistently well in his own zone if he’s going make the leap to the NHL this year.

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.

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.

Will Coyotes give Dylan Strome a real shot?

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Aside from seeing who can tank harder, it might be tough to sell the Arizona Coyotes’ game against the Buffalo Sabres tonight. There is one interesting storyline, though: will Dylan Strome finally gain some traction? And will the Coyotes give him a solid chance to actually do so?

A failure at one level

Take a look at the top 10 picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, and you’ll see that nine of those prospects have played in at least 106 regular-season games.

The lone exception is Strome, the third selection by the Arizona Coyotes, who’s only appeared in 18 games at the highest level so far during his fledgling NHL career.

Strome’s development has been a frustrating process, as the book on Strome seems to be that he can dominate at lower levels, yet his strength and especially foot speed just isn’t there. This season backs up that even with Strome slowing down a bit at times in the AHL, as Strome generated 50 points in 47 games for the Tucson Roadrunners.

No doubt, it’s distressing to see Strome struggle, especially with Mitch Marner (fourth overall), Noah Hanifin (fifth), Ivan Provorov (seventh), Zach Werenski (eighth), and Mikko Rantanen (10th) all looking like studs who were selected behind him.

Sink or swim

No doubt about it, that stings. Allow some advice, then: the Coyotes should give him a better chance to prove himself than Strome has been afforded thus far.

Look, there’s no denying that his scant production (one goal, one assist in 18 games spread between last season and this one) is troubling. A can’t-miss prospect would probably be able to make every moment count, and you can’t really make that argument for Strome.

Still, with very little to lose – in fact, with plenty of incentive to lose – why not really set the table for him? That hasn’t exactly been the case at the NHL level; Strome averaged a measly 12:26 TOI per game during that 11-game span this season, and that was slightly down from his seven games in 2016-17. Strome averaged 1:23 power-play time on ice per night.

To Arizona’s credit, they’ve given him quality linemates during his brief window of action this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, his most frequent forward linemates have been Clayton Keller and Christian Fischer. Not too shabby, especially by the standards of Coyotes forwards.

It’s unclear who the Coyotes will line Strome up with during tonight’s game, but it could be very helpful for them to get a better read on him by really rolling him out. Ideally, they’ll give him more reps on the man advantage, strong linemates, and more opportunities in general.

Ten games won’t answer every question or solve any riddle.

For a team that’s shown signs of growing impatience with a slow rebuild, it sure would be nice to find out if Strome has a better chance of helping them out in 2018-19. What better time to find out than now?

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.