Derek Stepan

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

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.

Kakko’s debut a big — and rare — night for Rangers

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It is the start of a new era for the New York Rangers on Thursday night as they unveil their new roster that was strengthened over the summer with the additions of veterans Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, as well as the drafting of Kaapo Kakko.

Those additions have rapidly accelerated the team’s rebuild and definitely increased the excitement around the team. It might be dangerous for expectations to get too high right away, because even with the improvements it is still a very flawed roster with its share of weaknesses. But the entertainment level is going to skyrocket and there is at least a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

Out of all of the new additions, Kakko’s debut should be the most anticipated in New York because this is the type of player Rangers fans haven’t really had the opportunity to experience in a long time.

If ever.

For as exciting as the Panarin signing may have been, that sort of thing is nothing new for Rangers fans. Big free agent signings and big name acquisitions are what this team does and has always done for decades. It is their brand. Big names, big money, bright lights. If there is a big-name player available on the open market or for trade, it is a good bet the Rangers are going to at least have a seat at the table when it comes to trying to acquire them.

That strategy has not always worked, but it is what they do.

Kakko, though, is a very different type of player.

If this rebuild is going to work, he is going to have to be one of the biggest players at the center of it. A young, mega-talented player with superstar potential that was drafted by the team. This is the type of player — if all goes according to plan — championship teams need. And it is the type of player that does not come through Madison Square Garden very often.

Think about it: Who was the last big-time prospect to make their debut for the Rangers with this much fanfare and this sort of potential?

They have had a lot good young players come through their system over the years with varying degrees of success. Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh all come to mind. They were all, in their own way, excellent players that had a lot of success in New York. But none of them brought the type of potential and excitement that a player like Kakko does.

They had some highly touted prospects that ended up being, for lack of a better word, flops (Michael Del Zotto, Pavel Brendl, Jamie Lundmark, Dan Blackburn, etc.) but not even they carried those kinds of expectations.

They didn’t have superstar, franchise-shifting potential.

First, the Rangers are almost never in a position to get such a player in the draft. Those players typically go within the first couple of picks and the Rangers have, historically, never really been in that spot.

When they selected Kakko No. 2 overall this year it marked just the third time in franchise history they used a top-two pick in draft, and the first time since 1966 when they selected defender Brad Park.

It was the first time they picked in the top-five since 1999 when they selected Brendl with the fourth overall pick, and it was only their sixth top-five pick ever.

The Rangers also haven’t really introduced a lot of young players to their lineup over the years and expected them to play major roles. Since the start of the 1990 season they have only had 11 different players make their NHL debut between the ages of 18 and 20 and go on to play a full season with the team.

You probably have to go back to Alexei Kovalev’s debut during the 1992-93 season to find a rookie debut that came with this much excitement in New York, with maybe an argument to be made for Henrik Lundqvist in 2005-06, but even that comes with the benefit of extreme hindsight and knowing what type of player Lundqvist turned into. Remember, when he made his debut he was already 23 years old and opened his rookie season as the backup to veteran Kevin Weekes.

Given their lack of depth down the middle and on defense, as well as the age of Lundqvist and the uncertainty behind him at the position, this is probably going to be another tough year for the Rangers. But it is still going to be a team worth watching every night and one that has a chance to build something special beyond this season.

The presence of Kakko in the organization is a big reason why all of that excitement now exists.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

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.

Defending champion Blues surrounded by tough teams in West

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St. Louis had better dig in for its repeat bid.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues will have their hands full in the Western Conference, which seems to have a slew of contenders. And, every team in the entire league is going to give the Blues its best shot each game.

”There’s going to be a whole different feel for us that we’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how can we elevate our game?’ We’re not going to catch teams by surprise,” said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, last season’s playoff MVP and top defensive forward. ”We’re going to need to make changes and grow ourselves to be better this year and to do it again.”

Dallas, Vegas, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose and Winnipeg all go into the season with a shot to knock off St. Louis and keep the Cup in the West after the coveted trophy was won by Eastern Conference teams the previous three years. And even though the Nashville Predators appears to be somewhat overlooked this season, it’s not wise to count them out in the race, especially with the addition of center Matt Duchene.

The Central Division, which may earn both wild cards again in the conference, may be the strongest in the NHL.

”It’s hard not to say the Central with the Blues being in it,” Arizona center Derek Stepan said.

SHINING STARS

Dallas seems set up for success with star players all over the place, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.

Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn provide plenty of scoring power. Second-year coach Jim Montgomery can roll four lines after the front office bolstered the team’s depth by signing 35-year-old Joe Pavelski, who was an All-Star last year with San Jose for the third time in four years.

”Getting a guy like Pavelski to us is going to be huge for us obviously with the net front (presence) and leadership-wise in the locker room,” defenseman John Klingberg said.

The 27-year-old Klingberg is potentially going into the prime year of his career and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a future star on the blue line, coming off a 33-point rookie season in which he was durable enough to play all 82 games.

Goaltender Ben Bishop looks like he might be at his best at the age of 32. His save percentage led the league last year and he ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average, giving up fewer than two a game for the first time in his career.

THIRD TIME A CHARM?

The Golden Knights are hoping their third year is more like their first, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, and not like their second season that ended in the first round with a Game 7 loss to the Sharks. Vegas returns its top nine scorers and three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchise makes another run with familiar faces. Talented forward Mark Stone starts his first full season with the Golden Knights after signing an eight-year deal in February.

”We have something to prove to show that we are a top team in the NHL,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault.

GROUNDED JETS

Winnipeg’s chances may hinge on when, or possibly if, restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign to stay with the franchise.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Connor McDavid is one of the game’s greats and teammate Leon Draisaitl is a 100-point scorer, but the Edmonton Oilers might be relegated to playing only in the regular season for a third straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may not have enough talent around them to avoid missing the playoffs a third straight year in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade.

– The Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012 and they may miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since then.

– The Los Angeles Kings hired former San Jose and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, but he will have a hard time stopping the franchise from falling short of the postseason in two straight years for the first time since a six-season drought that ended in 2010.

– Under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Anaheim Ducks may miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-2002.

– The Arizona Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years, a drought that trails only Buffalo’s in the NHL, and probably will extend the run this season. The Vancouver Canucks could sit out a fifth straight year, which would be a franchise record.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: 2019-20 sleeper team

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We’re two weeks away from the start of the 2019-20 NHL season and the summer gives fans and teams reason to hope that this could be their year. Every season surprise teams emerge, defying the doubters and making noise after being written off by the hockey world.

While we as fans and media have our thoughts on who might surprise this coming season, we posed that question to players at the NHL Media Tour earlier this month in Chicago. You could probably guess two of the teams that were pretty popular considering the upgrades they made over the summer. Some players were confident enough to say their team could be thought of as a sleeper, while others were left with a lasting impression of a team that played them hard last season.

Here’s who NHL players told us will be the sleeper teams of 2019-20:

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “I think Florida’s going to be good. The only problem is they’re in a tough division.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “Probably New Jersey. I’m not really sure they’re a sleeper team but they’ve made a lot of really good acquisitions this summer. They’ve got the first overall pick, [Nikita] Gusev from Vegas, P.K. [Subban], and they’ve got some pretty good young guys that have been there for a while like [Nico] Hischier and [Taylor] Hall. They missed the playoffs last year but they’re always a tough team to play against. They play fast and they’re going to be a team that surprises some other teams.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “The ‘Hawks. I think we have a better group of guys. Our defensive units have been positive, the trades we made were positive and getting [Robin] Lehner is huge. No one wants to not make the playoffs again, so I think that’s a big thing in our locker room. We’re not going to accept it this year.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “I think Arizona’s going to be good this year. They were close last year, they did a lot last year, especially with all the injuries they had. That [Nick] Schmaltz is a heck of a player. Adding Phil Kessel’s a big deal. Signing [Clayton] Keller to that extension will give him a lot of confidence.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “I’d say ourselves. I think we played good hockey after the All-Star break and we were pretty good in the playoffs, just lost that Game 7 to St. Louis and added some really good pieces. We’re going to be a really good team this year.”

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: “I’d say Detroit. Everyone’s healthy right now. We have good pickups that would add depth to our team and our young core of players coming up.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I’d say the Montreal Canadiens. They got a lot of really good young players. I remember playing against them. They compete hard, they’re tough to play against. They’ve got a lot of skills. Obviously, Carey Price in net. That’s a good goalie to have.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “It’s so hard to pick now. I think Columbus is going to be a lot better than people have them ranked. Obviously guys leaving looks a certain way but I think they’re going to be very, very good team and very tough to be. They always are.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “Staying in our division I think Chicago’s going to be a good team. They’re due for a bounce back. They made some key moves this off-season. I expect them to be a lot better this season.”

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: “Florida Panthers.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I don’t know if there are sleepers anymore, to be honest. I think Colorado’s going to be good. Maybe Vancouver. I’ve found them to be a really good team. They worked so hard last year. There’s a lot of teams that are hiding in the weeds just waiting for their turn to make a surge for the playoffs and make it count when that time comes.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “The two teams that I think besides Colorado, who I think is a great team, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made it far would be Arizona or the Rangers.”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “There was a lot of big off-season moves but I think one team that really improved is the Devils. Their additions on the back end, forward end, they’re going to be a pretty good team this year.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “Florida. I think they have a great team, now they have a new goalie with [Sergei] Bobrovsky signing.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “Florida. I don’t know if people are sleeping on them too much but I think they made some great additions and I’m interested to see how they do this year.”

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: “New Jersey.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “I’m biased. I really like what our team has done. I think we have good pieces. I would throw us in the mix. If we continue to do the things we did at the end of last year with the work ethic and the defensive side of things we could be a dangerous club.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I think people have the Flyers as a low-end team this year. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. We have a great goalie and have some new faces. It should all come together.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “I’m very excited in what we can do, first things first. It’s a new coach, it’s a new team. We’ve got a lot of new guys coming in. Everybody’s put at the end of the standings already. It’s going to be a fun year. It’s going to be different than it was.”

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres: “Florida Panthers.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “I think they’ve been sleeping, but the Edmonton Oilers. Everyone’s kind of just waiting like, When is it going to happen? They’ve got a lot of pieces in play. I know a bunch of those dudes and they work hard. It just hasn’t come together. They do have arguably the best player in the National Hockey League. We’ll see, I guess.”

Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks: “I don’t know if they’re a sleeper but think Vegas is always going to be right up there and be good. They’ve got a lot of good players and the building’s tough to play in. I think they’re going to hold a grudge with what happened in the playoffs last year and they’re going to come out strong.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Philadelphia. New coaching staff and they added some depth defensively. They had a good team [last year] and they were tough to play against. They could surprise.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
Most underrated player
Change or keep current playoff format?

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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.