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Building off a breakthrough: Clayton Keller

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.

Even the most optimistic person in the Coyotes organization would admit that the team did not get off to a great start last season. There’s not much room for debate there, what with Arizona starting 2017-18 with a pitiful 0-10-1 record.

During that confidence-shattering time, Clayton Keller‘s stellar start was a balm for wounded Coyotes fans who expected a big leap after the team landed the likes of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta.

Keller scored nine goals and six assists for 15 points over 13 October games, becoming an early Calder frontrunner and earning Rookie of the Month honors for the opening month of the season. You tend to develop that sort of buzz when you make other great rookies like Nico Hischier look downright silly on plays like these:

The slick-yet-undersized scorer generated such a hot start, people wondered if anyone else could catch him for the Calder. It turns out that the answer was a resounding yes, as Mathew Barzal left everyone else in the dust, and Brock Boeser turned out to be even more of an oasis in a desert of bad hockey than Keller for a comparably abysmal Canucks team. Still, Keller enjoyed a strong enough season to become a finalist for the award, generating 23 goals and 65 points while essentially being a first-liner (with the ice time that goes with that, as he averaged a veteran-like 18:05 TOI).

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Back in November, PHT’s Joey Alfieri caught up with Coyotes head coach Rich Tocchet, who praised Keller as you’d expect. Tocchet, like others, came away impressed with just how beyond-his-years Keller ended up being.

” .. What marvels me is that he’s a 19-year-old kid,” Tocchet said of Keller, who turned 20 on July 29. “He’s only going to get stronger, and he’s going against top players against other teams and how he’s coming out of the corners with pucks. He’s got the puck on his stick and he’s making plays. That’s what’s really been surprising to me.”

Indeed, for a player who was arguably underestimated just a touch during the 2016 NHL Draft because of his size (Arizona selected him with the seventh pick), Keller distinguishes himself in part by having such a nose for the puck.

Sophomore slump approaching?

Keller might be in tough to top his brilliant breakthrough season, but context is key.

To some extent, he was “a big fish in a small pond” during this past campaign. Despite carrying just three games of NHL experience with him from 2016-17, Keller topped all Coyotes forwards when it came to power-play time, averaging three minutes and one second per contest. Only Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a more frequent fixture on the man advantage.

The power play pond could easily get a little more crowded next season.

While Max Domi was the fixture himself on the PP as the second-most frequently used forward, Alex Galchenyuk might eat up even more time. It’s also quite plausible that Dylan Strome may be used in such 5-on-4 situations, as that extra space might help him leverage his strengths (smarts, playmaking) while camouflaging concerns like his skating.

The Coyotes still seem likely to lean heavily on Keller, and being that he just turned 20, there’s a strong possibility that he’s merely scratching the surface of his prodigious skills. Consider that he didn’t really ride outrageous shooting luck last season, with a very repeatable 10.8 shooting percentage.

Let’s also acknowledge the chewy elephant in the room: much like fellow brilliant American scorer Patrick Kane, Keller loves gnawing on his mouthpiece. There’s quite a bit of photographic evidence of this, which seems crucial to note.

As you can see, he deploys such a strategy at home:

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On the road (main image) and possibly while playing defense/battling for the puck:

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Honestly, scouts must have been sleeping on this one. Did they not at least consider the undeniable correlation between mindless mouth-wear misuse and blistering talent? *Sigh*

Anyway, all (bad) joking aside, it sure seems like the Coyotes unearthed a gem in Keller. Even if his ceiling is as a 20-25 goal, 60+ point player, he ranks as the sort of scorer you need in the NHL. If 2017-18 ends up being a mere appetizer for a greater breakthrough next season or in the near future, then the future is so bright you might need shades.

Maybe don’t chew on those sunglasses, though.

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.

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.

All-Rookie, All-Star Teams and rest of 2018 NHL Awards

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Let’s recap the remaining winners from the 2018 NHL Awards. Before we do so, here are the other big winners and corresponding links.

Hart Trophy

Taylor Hall

GM of the Year

George McPhee

Vezina Trophy

Pekka Rinne

Selke Trophy

Anze Kopitar

Jack Adams Award

Gerard Gallant

Norris Trophy

Victor Hedman

Calder Trophy

Mathew Barzal

Bill Masterton Trophy

Brian Boyle

Ted Lindsay

Connor McDavid

Lady Byng

William Karlsson

Also:

P.K. Subban named cover star for “NHL 19.”

Humboldt Broncos reunite to honor late coach Darcy Haugan (Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award).

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Now, let’s jump into the remaining awards and honors.

Mark Messier Leadership Award

Deryk Engelland (see video above this post’s headline)

King Clancy

Daniel and Henrik Sedin

William Jennings

Jonathan Quick with Jack Campbell

Of course, Alex Ovechkin won the Maurice Richard Trophy and Connor McDavid took the Art Ross.

First NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Taylor Hall
Center: Connor McDavid
Right Wing: Nikita Kucherov
Defense: Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman
Goalie: Pekka Rinne

Second NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Claude Giroux
Center: Nathan MacKinnon
Right Wing: Blake Wheeler
Defense: Seth Jones and P.K. Subban
Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

All-Rookie Team

Forwards: Clayton Keller, Brock Boeser, and Mathew Barzal
Defense: Charlie McAvoy and Will Butcher
Goalie: Juuse Saros

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.

Islanders’ Mathew Barzal claims Calder Trophy

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Mathew Barzal became the fifth New York Islander to win the Calder Trophy, which was handed out during Wednesday’s NHL Awards show in Las Vegas. The award is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association and given “to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League.”

Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Bryan Berard were the previous Islanders players to win the rookie of the year award.

“This is an amazing honor to win the Calder Trophy,” Barzal said. “The players that have won this award, within the Islanders organization and then others around the league, includes Hall of Fame players and Stanley Cup Champions. To have my name next to those guys in the record books is very humbling.”

Barzal led all rookies with 85 points and 27 power play points, and finished sixth in goals with 22. He was also the only rookie to average over a point per game (1.04). He finished the season as the Islanders leading scorer and was fourth on the team in goals.

One of the many highlights of Barzal’s rookie season was the three 5-point games he recorded, which made him him the second rookie in league history to achieve the feat. Joe Malone last did it 100 years ago during the NHL’s first season in 1917-18.

Here’s what the voting looked like as Barzal beat out the other two finalists, Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks and Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: 2018 NHL Awards

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NBCSN will televise the NHL Awards on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET from Las Vegas, as the NHL celebrates the top performers of the 2017-18 season from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE LIVE STREAM — 8 P.M. ET]

The 2018 NHL Awards will recognize the best regular-season players in a variety of categories, including most valuable player (Hart Trophy), outstanding goaltender (Vezina Trophy), outstanding defenseman (Norris Trophy) and outstanding rookie (Calder Trophy). The Ted Lindsay Award, which is presented annually to the “most outstanding player” in the NHL as voted by fellow members of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA), will also will be awarded. Vegas Golden Knights’ George McPhee and Gerard Gallant are finalists for General Manager of the Year and the Jack Adams Award, respectively. New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon are all finalists for the Hart Trophy.

Full list of 2018 NHL Awards finalists

Hart Trophy: Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, Anze Kopitar

Ted Lindsay Award: Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid

Vezina Trophy: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck, Pekka Rinne

Norris Trophy: Drew Doughty, Victor Hedman, P.K. Subban

Calder Trophy: Matt Barzal, Brock Boeser, Clayton Keller

Selke Trophy: Anze Kopitar, Sean Couturier, Patrice Bergeron

Jack Adams Award: Gerard Gallant, Bruce Cassidy, Jared Bednar

Masterton Trophy: Brian Boyle, Roberto Luongo, Jordan Staal

GM Of The Year: George McPhee, Steve Yzerman, Kevin Cheveldayoff

Lady Byng Trophy: Ryan O’Reilly, William Karlsson, Aleksander Barkov

King Clancy Memorial Trophy: Daniel and Henrik Sedin, P.K. Subban, Jason Zucker

Mark Messier Leadership Award: Deryk Engelland, Wayne Simmonds, Blake Wheeler

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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.