Clayton Keller

What’s driving Coyotes’ fast start, and how can they maintain it?

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PITTSBURGH — The Arizona Coyotes probably deserved a better result Friday night in Pittsburgh.

A lost face-off followed by a fluke bounce, Phil Kessel missing a wide open net, and a couple of jaw-dropping saves by Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry were just enough to turn yet another solid road effort into a tough-luck 2-0 loss, dropping them one point back of the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the Pacific Division. Even with that result the Coyotes are still off to one of the best starts in franchise history (even dating back to the Winnipeg days) and have at least put themselves on solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

Here’s how good their start has been:

  • Their .613 points percentage as of Friday is fourth best in the Western Conference, while they have a six-point cushion between them and the group of teams outside the playoff picture. That may not seem like a huge gap in early December with still three quarters of the season remaining, but history suggests not many teams (less than 20 percent) are able to make up that sort of deficit. The odds are in their favor.
  • Their 38 points through 31 games are tied for the fourth most in the franchise’s 40-year history, and are the most since they had 41 points during the 2013-14 season (that team ended up missing the playoffs by just two points following a second-half collapse. The Western Conference was also far more competitive and top-heavy that season than it is this season).
  • They allowing just 2.26 goals per game, the second lowest total in the league.

In a lot of ways this team has been a Western Conference version of the New York Islanders. They don’t really have an offense that is going to break games open, and they don’t rate very highly in a lot of analytical areas when it comes to shot attempts or shot rates, all of which can lead to some skepticism. But like the Islanders they help make up for the lack of quantity in a couple of other key areas. Their “expected goals against” rate (via Natural Stat Trick) is in the top-10 in the league, indicating that while they give up a lot of attempts they don’t give up the type of attempts that typically turn into goals. They are one of the most disciplined and least penalized teams in the league, almost entirely eliminating the special teams battle. And the most important element? They have one of the best goaltending duos in the league in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

Those two many not be household names around the league, but since being united in Arizona the list of goalies that have outperformed them can be counted on one hand. Since the start of the 2017-18 season both Raanta and Kuemper are in the top-five (among the 56 goalies with at least 50 games played) in all situations save percentage and even-strength save percentage, while both are in the top-10 in penalty kill save percentage. When a team gets that sort of goaltending a lot of flaws that might otherwise exist suddenly go away, and given that both have been able to play at such a high level for an extended period of time it’s easy to buy into it being sustainable. Even before arriving in Arizona both goalies had shown an ability to be above average goalies but were simply in positions where they were unable to get real playing time.

So how do the Coyotes build on this start and turn it into something that can extend their season into the spring?

1. Resist the urge to trade a goalie. Don’t try to to “trade from a strength to fill a weakness,” or even try to suggest it. The strength is what is literally driving the team right now. Not only that, it is almost a necessity to have two good goalies to win in the NHL these days because of how important it is to limit the starter’s workload and keep them fresh. Having two highly productive goalies signed to cap-friendly contracts through next season is a massive advantage. Take advantage of it. Keep them both and keep each them fresh by playing them each regularly. Their success isn’t a fluke.

2. Hope for a rebound from the top players. One of the most surprising aspects of their start is the trio of Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has combined for just 13 goals this season, putting them on a pace for only 34 goals over 82 games. A year ago that trio scored 55 goals. All three are currently being crushed on the shooting percentage front, and while Keller has never really been a high percentage scorer, the other two have been. Kessel has shown signs the past few games that he could be on the verge of one of his goal-scoring binges, while Ekman-Larsson has scored at least 12 goals in each of the past six seasons, at least 14 goals in five of those seasons. He is due. If those two can get their puck luck to change the offense will suddenly look a lot different (and better).

3. Get Niklas Hjalmarsson back. The other surprising element of their success has been that they have played almost the entire season without Hjalmarsson after he was injured back in October when he was hit by a shot. He is back on the ice skating, and given his original time frame is probably a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup. It would be a significant add because Hjalmarsson is one of the team’s best defensive players. If he can return to that level it would be a significant addition to a lineup that is already one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals.

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 wizards: NHL stars are embracing their creative side

Matthew Tkachuk watched Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov from 20 feet away and knew something special was about to happen.

Svechnikov picked the puck up behind the net, cradled it on the end of his stick and rammed it past the goaltender from behind the net. Someone in the NHL actually pulled off the lacrosse-style move made famous by Mike Legg in a college game in 1996.

Tkachuk was impressed.

“I had the best seat in the house,” the Calgary Flames’ forward said. “That was a sick, sick goal. You see a lot of guys try it around the league, but nobody’s been able to perfect it yet like him.”

Tkachuk knew what the Hurricanes’ forward was going to do because he has practiced the move many times before and tried it in games. And two nights later, he one-upped Svechnikov by scoring an overtime winner through his legs at full speed.

The highlight-reel goals seem to be piling up. Thanks to an infusion of talented young players motivated to raise the bar with GIF-worthy goals, coaches willing to encourage risk-taking in the name of offense and revamped rules designed to light the lamp, there is more freedom than ever for players to express themselves creatively in the NHL. Svechnikov, for example, routinely gathers 10 pucks behind the net to work on his nontraditional move at practice.

“A lot of these kids now, they’re growing up trying these moves, practicing these moves,” Vegas forward Cody Eakin said. “Skill work has been such a huge part of kids’ development, now that when there is opportunities or time or space, they can get creative. When there’s room and the guys have the skill to make the plays, there’s some fantastic plays being made out there.”

Some players think goals like Svechnikov’s happen once a decade. Maybe not, not with players around the league watching and eager to figure out the next cool way to go viral.

Arizona’s Clayton Keller and Montreal’s Nick Suzuki check out the highlights every day and take those inspirations to the rink.

“I try to watch all of them every morning,” Keller said. “When you see different goals and stuff like that, maybe you try it in practice. It’s something I did as a kid, whether it was watching (Sidney) Crosby or (Patrick) Kane, seeing their breakaway moves and I would do it the next time in practice.”

Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov is a little bit older but still turns to YouTube to get his fix of beautiful plays across soccer and hockey. When he’s the one making the highlights, the leading scorer from Washington’s 2018 Stanley Cup run appreciates the green light from coaches and very quickly calculates the risk/reward of doing something unusual.

“You actually don’t have time to think about it out there,” Kuznetsov said. “You just do it naturally. I feel like every player is different. I was like that since a kid, and for me, it’s kind of what hockey’s about.”

Mostly gone are the days of a star player getting stapled to the bench for trying and failing on something on offense. Play within the team structure, don’t turn the puck over in the neutral or defensive zones and it’s all good.

“Coaches like when players use their creativity, but you’ve got to pick your spots,” Suzuki said. “You can’t be doing it to cost your team. I think you can be pretty creative down low on the other team’s net and trying to create offense.”

No one is creating offense better right now than Boston’s David Pastrnak, a playmaking wizard who leads the NHL in goals. One game, Pastrnak tried a drop pass on a breakaway and often keeps opponents and even his Bruins teammates guessing.

“He’s so confident you never know what he’s going to do with the puck,” linemate Brad Marchand said. “Even we don’t know. … He feels like he can do anything.”

Confidence is a big reason for some of this newfound offensive creativity. Svechnikov asked his brother Evgeny four years ago for help on a lacrosse-style goal but only tried it after scoring two goals in his previous game.

“When you’re not really confident, you kind of try just to chip the puck or do something,” Svechnikov said. “When you’re confident, you can do anything.”

It helps that the league has taken steps to give skilled players more space and leeway. A generation after cracking down on hooking, holding and other obstruction, there has been a push to eliminate slashing and big hits that can slow down some of the game’s best.

“From when I came into the league, there’s a lot less of those big defensemen that can grab you and not get penalized,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “From top to bottom, players can play. It’s not surprising that these days you’re seeing more scoring.”

The best part is it’s not just greasy goals or from scoring from the dirty areas – a time-honored hockey cliche that becomes more prevalent come playoff time. The skill level in hockey is so high that each game is another chance to see something different, which begs the question: What’s next?

“Ooh, I don’t know,” Tkachuk said. “I’ve seen a couple guys try it – and sometimes I try it – the behind the back goal, kind of through the legs. That’s hard. I don’t know. That might be the next one. But that really takes a lot of courage to do.”

Crouse scores, leaves with injury as Coyotes beat Kings

LOS ANGELES — Lawson Crouse experienced it all against the Los Angeles Kings.

Crouse scored the go-ahead goal before a scary fall that forced him to leave the game, and the Arizona Coyotes held on to beat the Kings 3-2 on Saturday.

Phil Kessel and Christian Fischer also scored for the Coyotes, who have won five of seven, including a 3-0 home victory over the Kings on Monday. Antti Raanta made 43 saves for Arizona, which was outshot 45-18.

Anze Kopitar and Nikolai Prokhorkin scored for the Kings, whose five-game home winning streak ended. Jonathan Quick stopped 16 shots.

Crouse’s goal off a rebound in the second period put Arizona ahead 2-1. He left the game in the third period after he fell and hit his head awkwardly into the boards. After being checked by a trainer, he was helped off the ice, and he walked to the locker room.

“I just talked to him,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “He didn’t think he was out, but I thought he might have been out. He was a little woozy right now, so we’ll see.”

Kessel opened the scoring with a power-play goal in the first period. The Coyotes got through the neutral zone quickly, and he scored on a give-and-go play, assisted by Keller and Derek Stepan.

Kopitar tied it at 1-1 in the second period on the power play, his team-best ninth goal of the season.

“When you’re down 1-0 against this team, it’s tough,” Kings center Blake Lizette said. “Their start and the lack of our start was the difference.”

Crouse scored at 15:29 of the second period and 27 seconds later, Clayton Keller was whistled for a hooking penalty. But the Kings came up empty on that power-play opportunity.

Fischer’s empty-netter made it 3-1 with 2:10 left in the game, but Prokhorkin responded quickly with the game’s final goal.

Fischer had a key block in the final minutes.

“I thought we did a good job starting out with our game and our game plan,” Fischer said. “It’s different playing at 1 p.m. Ice wasn’t that great. A lot of factors. I thought we held our own. We knew when we were turning the puck over that that’s how they were creating their offense. I thought we mixed it up in the third.”

HOCKEY FIGHTS CANCER

Saturday was Hockey Fights Cancer day, and Jacob Brown was honored before the game in the ceremonial first puck drop. The 12-year-old got to meet Drew Doughty and the Kings through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Jacob is in remission after a battle with leukemia and was in full hockey gear. Doughty dropped the puck, and Jacob won the friendly draw against Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Jacob, an Alabama native and hockey player, signed a two-day contract with the Kings. The Hockey Fights Cancer auction raised over $28,000.

NOTES

Kings C Kopitar extended his team lead in points to 24. … Coyotes G Darcy Kuemper, a former King, didn’t play Saturday but is expected to start against Edmonton on Sunday.

UP NEXT

Coyotes: Host the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday in a matchup of the Pacific Division’s top teams.

Kings: Host the San Jose Sharks on Monday.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Coyotes cough up 3-0 lead, but end Capitals’ winning streak

The Arizona Coyotes can’t feel happy about giving up yet another lead (this time a 3-0 advantage), but they were able to salvage a 4-3 shootout win against the Washington Capitals on Monday — albeit barely.

Upon further review

When the Capitals made it 3-3, it was awkwardly funny, as Evgeny Kuznetsov appeared a breath away from scoring a hat trick goal to tie things up. Instead, T.J. Oshie got to the puck first. Would it have been the same difference if Kuznetsov was shooting rather than Oshie? Probably, yet when a standings point (or two) end up on the line, it’s better not to leave anything to doubt. All the laughing on the bench underscored the mixed feelings, and served up a reminder of the “passing to a teammate so they can score the empty-netter” culture of the sport.

It looked like Oshie would then match Kuznetsov with two goals on the night when Oshie scored in overtime — only he didn’t.

The NHL’s review determined that the play was offside, as wires got crossed between Oshie and Lars Eller when Eller lost his footing close to the Coyotes’ blueline. This was the second review that didn’t go Washington’s way on Monday, as an Ilya Samsonov save instead turned out to be a Christian Fischer goal.

That’s how close it really was for Washington. They almost extended their winning streak to seven games, even though the Coyotes generated that 3-0 lead.

On the bright side, there were moments where the bounces did go the Capitals’ way. When the Coyotes were really pouring things on, they fired another breakout pass behind Washington’s defense to Clayton Keller, a soon-to-be $7.15 million player who already scored the game’s first goal. Keller might be “elite in every sense of the word,” but Samsonov showed the agility and patience to wait Keller out, and Keller didn’t even end up with a shot attempt on that breakaway opportunity.

So, it stings for the Capitals to lose in such an anticlimactic fashion, but the “what if?” game could go both ways. Finishing the night at 13-2-4 isn’t really so bad for this quietly dominant team.

Playing with fire when you play with leads

There’s an almost inevitable question when a team squanders a lead, or even comes close to squandering a lead: was this about the Capitals turning it up a notch, or are the Coyotes guilty of sitting on a lead?

It’s a point that’s relevant to the Coyotes, in particular. For one thing, they sometimes lean heavily on goalies, especially when it’s red-hot Darcy Kuemper. (In Monday’s case, Antti Raanta was mostly sharp even as he seems to settle into a backup role.)

The question is also especially pertinent right now, as the Coyotes have given up leads in five consecutive games. Winning the shootout bailed Arizona out on Monday, but they might not always be so lucky, especially when the leads are slimmer than three goals. Perhaps they need to do some soul searching about finding a better balance between avoiding back-breaking mistakes and getting to passive in “turtle mode.”

To be fair, the Capitals have been a tough team to keep down. They’re now 4-1-2 in games where they’ve trailed after the first period.

Kuznetsov on fire

Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t get that hat trick, despite hats mucking up the ice in DC. He’s still on quite the roll lately. With two goals on Monday, Kuznetsov has a four-game multipoint streak going (three goals, six assists for nine points). That also gives him 18 points in 16 games so far in 2019-20, as he’s clearly shaken off that suspension.

***

The Capitals became the first team in the NHL to hit 30 points this season, sliding to 13-2-4. The Coyotes ended a three-game losing streak and are now 10-6-2. Both teams showed flashes of brilliance while also waving a few red flags of warning about blemishes they need to clean 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.

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.”