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Coyotes hanging around in playoff race even as injury list grows

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The Arizona Coyotes have every possible reason and every possible excuse to be out of contention for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Thanks to some strong defensive play, some good goaltending, and a lot of help from the teams around them they are most definitely not out of contention for a playoff spot.

About 10 days ago I took an in-depth look at insane Western Conference Wild Card race that has become a complete log-jam of, uh, let’s just call it mediocrity, with a bunch of teams all separated by a small handful of points.

At the time, there were seven teams separated by six points fighting for what would basically be three playoff spots (the third place spot in the Central Division and two Wild Card spots). One team I omitted from the discussion was the Arizona Coyotes. They were even further back than the rest of that group sitting seven points back of a playoff spot, with an extra game played than most of their competitors, and with five teams sitting between them and a playoff spot. They were only on a 78-point pace for the season and have been one of the hardest hit teams in the league this season for injuries.

It just seemed like a real long shot to even include them based on all of the variables working against them. It was easy to write them off.

In hindsight, at least for now, I seem to have underestimated two things.

First, just how historically weak the lower half of the Western Conference playoff race is where absolutely nobody has shown any ability to distance themselves from everybody else. In just about any other year a 78-point pace halfway through the season would be more than enough to bury a team and all but end their playoff hopes. Over in the Eastern Conference teams on a similar pace are currently sitting at least eight points back and probably preparing to go into sell-mode for the trade deadline. It’s almost as if some of the teams involved in the Western Conference are fighting to stay out of the playoffs as opposed to getting in the playoffs.

And second, I seem to have underestimated just how hard this Coyotes team has played under second-year coach Rick Tocchet and how quickly they have changed their season outlook to at least get back within striking distance of a potential playoff spot.

They are not just hanging around, they are now all of a sudden in the playoff race.

Entering the All-Star break the Coyotes find themselves with a 23-23-4 record, giving them 50 points in the standings. That leaves them only two points back of the current eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche (with now only two teams between them). They have managed to gain that ground by going on a 6-2-2 run over their past eight games.

What stands out about this recent run is the fact they have not only done it by picking up points against some of the league’s elite teams (beating San Jose, getting a point against Pittsburgh in a game they easily could have won, winning in Toronto), they have done it with a roster that just been absolutely devastated by injuries all season. it only kept getting worse on Wednesday night when star defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson exited their game against the Montreal Canadiens with a lower-body injury.

He joins a list that now includes veteran forward Michael Grabner, defender Jason Demers, veteran forward and top penalty killer Brad Richardson, recent trade acquisition Nick Schmaltz, and perhaps most important of all, starting goalie Antti Raanta.

And that does not even include third-year forward Christian Dvorak who has not played in a game this season and may miss the season entirely or defender Jakob Chychrun who has missed a significant chunk of the season as well.

At the start of the season I had the Coyotes pegged as a team that could take a massive leap forward this season if a few things went in their favor, specifically as it related to offseason acquisition Alex Galchenyuk (who also missed 10 games earlier this season), the development of recent No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome, and Raanta’s ability to stay healthy and play like he did when he was in the crease a year ago.

Some of that has worked and some of it hasn’t.

Galchenyuk has been fine once he returned to to the lineup, while Strome was traded to Chicago for Schmaltz. But Schmaltz was playing pretty well after the trade until he also recently joined the list of walking wounded. He is now done for the season.

Raanta is the one that seems like it should have been the crushing blow. When he was in the lineup last season he was good enough to allow the Coyotes to play at a pace that would have put them on the fringes of playoff contention over a full season, if not actually in a playoff spot. It was when he was out of the lineup due to injury, with no capable backup behind him, that the house of cards fell over.

That has not been the case this season where veteran backup Darcy Kuemper has done an outstanding job to keep the Coyotes in games and give them a chance on most nights, and especially throughout the month of January.

This is all encouraging, and should at least offer some hope that when this team has all of its pieces in place there could be something to build on here.

What’s discouraging is we will not see that this season because most of the players that are currently injured are done for a long time.

Schmaltz and Raanta are all done for the season. Dvorak might be done as well. Demers and Grabner are still sidelined for an undetermined amount of time and if Ekman-Larsson has to miss any games that will be a problem. For a team that was short on depth to begin with, especially offensively, that is a lot to overcome.

So far, thanks to some excellent goaltending recently and some stingy defense that has seen them be one of the best shot suppression teams in the league over the past 16 games (a stretch that has seen them go 9-5-2), they have managed to overcome it.

Whether or not it results in what would be a stunning playoff berth remains to be seen, but they have at least given themselves a chance to keep fighting for one this season.

MORE:
Arizona Coyotes place Antti Raanta on injured reserve
Nick Schmaltz done for season as Coyotes’ injury woes continue
How has Alex Galchenyuk fit in with Coyotes

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.

 

Schmaltz’s season is over as Coyotes’ injury woes continue

The Arizona Coyotes were already one of the league leaders in terms of man-games lost due to injury.

That total is only going to get worse.

The team announced on Tuesday that forward Nick Schmaltz will be sidelined for the remainder of the 2018-19 season due to a lower-body injury.

Schmaltz has not played since Dec. 30, missing each of the team’s past three games.

It is disappointing news for the Coyotes because Schmaltz had been playing very well since he was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this season in exchange for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini. In his first 17 games with the Coyotes he had tallied 14 total points (five goals, nine assists) and was on pace for more than 50 points overall for the second year in a row.

The 22-year-old forward scored 21 goals and 52 total points in his first full NHL season a year ago with the Blackhawks.

Strome has had nearly identical production for the Blackhawks since the trade.

Along with Schmaltz, the Coyotes are also currently without Michael Grabner, Christian Dvorak, Jason Demers, and starting goalie Antti Raanta due to injury.

Alex Galchenyuk, Jakob Chychrun, and Alex Goligoski have also missed significant time this season due to injury. All of that has helped contribute to another difficult season for the Coyotes.

Entering play on Tuesday the Coyotes are in 12th place in the Western Conference with an 18-21-3 record, sitting six points out of a playoff spot with four teams in front of them.

Related: Strome making most of his fresh start with the Blackhawks

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.

Coyotes’ penalty kill has been incredible

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The Arizona Coyotes dropped a 5-4 overtime decision to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night. In the end, it had to be a mostly disappointing result given that they entered the third period with a two-goal lead, but they were still able to collect another point and are now 6-2-1 in their past nine games after winning just one of their first five.

Still a lot of good news if you are a Coyotes fan when it comes to the big picture outlook for the season.

One of the biggest reasons they were able to collect another point on Thursday was yet another incredible performance by their penalty killing unit which might be, through the first month of the season, the single most impressive unit in the league.

They not only killed off all three Flyers’ power plays on the night, but they also scored two more shorthanded goals. Those two shorthanded goals came on the same penalty kill in the second period, and were just 23 seconds apart.

On its own that would be an incredible performance, even if just for one game. But the Coyotes have been doing this all season, and have already scored nine shorthanded goals in only 14 games. 

They have only scored 22 goals at even-strength in those 14 games. Even more ridiculous is the fact their own power play has only scored seven.

Since the start of the 1990 season only five teams have had more than five shorthanded goals this far into November. The 1993-94 St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers both have seven. The 1991-92 Philadelphia Flyers, 2005-06 Montreal Canadiens, and 2008-09 New York Rangers all had six.

The Coyotes, once again, currently have nine.

There were only five teams in the entire league a year ago that scored more than nine shorthanded goals for the entire season.

They have scored those nine goals on only 45 penalty kills, the sixth lowest number in the league. That means they are scoring on exactly 20 percent of their penalty kills. To put that number in perspective, there are currently 14 power play units in the NHL (including the Coyotes’) that are converting on less than 20 percent of their power play opportunities.

These are absurd numbers, and it is not just about the goals scored.

They are generating a ton of shots, too, at least relative to the rest of the league. So far this season they are averaging more than 20 shots on goal per 60 minutes of penalty kill time. No other team in the league is averaging more than 18, while only four averaging more than 15. The league average is around 12.

What makes the performance offensively even more incredible is they are not giving it up at the other end. It is not the result of an overly aggressive strategy that is leaving them exposed defensively where they give up as much as they score or generate. As of Friday, their penalty killing unit is also allowing the third fewest total shot attempts per 60 minutes of PK time.

They have only allowed four goals and currently have a league-best 91.1 percent success rate when down a player.

Overall, they still have a positive goal differential at plus-five.

Only one team in the league is better than minus-four (the San Jose Sharks are at minus-three).

So what is behind this performance? When it comes to the goals they are scoring there is almost certainly an element of luck and circumstance at play here. No matter how good your penalty killing unit it you don’t need me to tell you that it unreasonable to expect a team to keep scoring shorthanded goals at that pace (and outscoring opposing power plays) over an entire season.

Still, given the number of chances they are creating and the number of shots the unit is generating (as well as the shots they are not allowing their opponents to register) suggests there is also plenty of skill on the unit as well. Goaltending will always play a big role for a team’s penalty kill, and when healthy the Coyotes have an outstanding goaltender in Antti Raanta.

But when it comes to the skaters a lot of the success has to start up front where the Coyotes boast two of the best penalty killing forwards in the league when it comes to generating shorthanded opportunities in Michael Grabner and Derek Stepan.

Of the 160 forwards that have played at least 150 shorthanded minutes since the start of the 2016-17 season, Grabner and Stepan are both among the top-eight (Grabner is second; Stepan is eighth) in shot attempt percentage, while Grabner (currently the team’s top shorthanded option among forwards) is in the top-15 in terms of shot suppression and goals against. His speed is a game-changer and can cause havoc for opposing power plays. He and the rest of his teammates (including Stepan, Brad Richardson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers) are doing a number on every power play unit they have faced this season.

They are going to get two big tests in their upcoming games when they go on the road to face the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. It will be interesting to see how they fare against two of the most intimidating and talented power plays in the league.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

WATCH LIVE: Coyotes visit Wild on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

As they look to stop their slow start to the season, the Arizona Coyotes received good news on Tuesday. Alex Galchenyuk, who’s get to play this season since being acquired over the summer from the Montreal Canadiens, practiced with his teammates for the first time since suffering an injury during preseason.

Galchenyuk will likely take over No. 1 duties when he’s completely healthy. For now, he’s been cleared for contact but there’s no timetable for a return.

The Wild traveled home after Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Nashville Predators staring at a 1-2-2 record and last place in the Central Division. Head coach Bruce Boudreau emphasized the imporatance of putting together a few wins together, especially with a weekend back-to-back away at Dallas and at home against Tampa Bay.

“If you look at our schedule, we have to get to .500 quick, and then you have to start moving above .500 if you want to stay in this race,” he said.

What: Arizona Coyotes at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Tuesday, October 16th, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Coyotes-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Coyotes
Richard PanikDerek StepanClayton Keller
Lawson CrouseDylan StromeChristian Fischer
Michael GrabnerBrad RichardsonNick Cousins
Brendan PerliniJosh ArchibaldVincent Hinostroza

Oliver Ekman-LarssonJason Demers
Alex GoligoskiJordan Oesterle
Kevin ConnautonNiklas Hjalmarsson

Starting goalie: Darcy Kuemper

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Wild
Jason ZuckerEric StaalJordan Greenway
Zach PariseMikko KoivuMikael Granlund
Nino NiederreiterEric FehrCharlie Coyle
Marcus FolignoMatt HendricksJ.T. Brown

Ryan SuterMatt Dumba
Jonas BrodinJared Spurgeon
Nick SeelerGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Should Seguin re-sign with the Stars?

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Here’s a hypothetical hockey scenario you won’t encounter very often: “What if the Dallas Stars didn’t drop the ball when Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were dirt-cheap.”

Consider this. From 2013-14 (Seguin’s first season in Dallas) through 2016-17 (the final year of Jamie Benn’s second-most-recent contract), the Stars allocated just $5.25 million in cap space to Benn and a mere $5.75M to Seguin. You could very fairly argue that Benn and Seguin were worth $11M apiece during that span, yet for four seasons, the Stars essentially deployed them at a buy-one, get-one-free rate.

Despite those incredible bargains, the Stars missed the playoffs twice and only won one playoff series during those four seasons. They squandered another bargain Seguin season in 2017-18, too, as they missed the postseason once again.

The Stars now enter 2018-19 with Seguin in a contract year, and GM Jim Nill told Mark Stepneski of the team website that the Stars hope to hammer out an extension, and that there’s “continued dialogue” on that subject.

From here, Nill touched on what should be some good advice for Seguin: he’s probably better off waiting to see if this team will finally put things together. Nill provided that comment when asked if an extension might happen before the season begins.

“I hope so. But I think I have mentioned from Day 1 that I don’t want people to panic if he is not signed when the season starts,” Nill said. “I think the biggest thing is we need to have a good season — get off to a good start. I hope he is signed by then, but I know if he isn’t, we’ll get a good year out of him and go from there. But like I said, I am hopeful we can get it done. We’ll have to see.”

Look, few would credibly question Seguin if he just decided to ink an extension this summer.

The threat of injuries makes an early extension very appealing, and the 26-year-old starring Star should make a bundle of money even if he leaves a healthy chunk on the table, which has to be a concern for a player who’s been sorely underpaid for his entire NHL career.

Seguin is presented with some undeniably relevant peripheral reasons to ink an extension beyond “wanting to swim in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck.” While the Stars have been disappointing during his stay relative to the ceiling many would picture, they have some fantastic supporting cast members, particularly Jamie Benn and John Klingberg. It’s almost certainly not lost on Seguin that Dallas features tax-related perks associated with “non-traditional hockey markets,” and also boasts a more easy-going media atmosphere than one he’d experience in, well, a “traditional hockey market.”

So don’t be surprised if he shrugs his shoulders and votes for the certainty and security that would come from a long-term contract.

It would be far more interesting if he waited things out, though, especially if Seguin values a chance at the Stanley Cup more than anything else. Let’s ponder some of the thoughts that might go through the splendidly talented forward’s head if he was assessing the Stars’ efforts and chances.

This isn’t exactly a “budget” situation – As great as Dallas has been at landing splashy trades and free agent signings, they’ve also made some big blunders. They’ve moved away from more modern-style defensemen (Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers), instead pursuing old-school types (Marc Methot, Roman Polak) who clash with the style that left opponents gasping for air during Dallas’ best moments. The struggles seem to continue regarding finding answers in net; Ben Bishop seems more stable than Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, yet would the Stars be as excited to sign his risky deal in 2018 as they were merely in 2017?

So, yes, there’ve been some mistakes, but as much as the strikeouts sting, it’s better to swing for the fences than to walk away from possible solutions. It’d be far more dire if Seguin was pondering, say, the Senators’ outlook.

Seguin can confidently state that the Stars tried to leverage bargains like his deal, despite the lack of success. Some of those moves do work out, too, like the signing of Alex Radulov, so that would have to be a pretty big plus.

Testing out the new coach – Hey, it probably helps the Stars’ chances to move on from Ken Hitchcock. As wise as Hitch is, and even if he’s mellowed a bit with old age, he’d probably fall short of “players’ coach” status.

Jim Montgomery could end up being a taskmaster, too, yet there’s a strong chance he will – at minimum – lean toward a faster style, which would almost certainly appeal to a superbly talented player such as Seguin.

Some reasons to be optimistic – The Stars have a few players who might nudge them toward the sort of supporting cast that can finally give them sorely missing depth.

That’s true if Miro Heiskanen can make good on his potential as the third pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Valeri Nichushkin‘s been a big disappointment, yet with the goal posts moved to a different position during his next Stars tour, he’d be a great find if he can merely fit in nicely on a prominent line. Some other young players may flourish under Montgomery, with Julius Honka standing out as a plausible beneficiary.

(There’s also the Erik Karlsson possibility, though those rumblings have died down for not just the Stars, but everyone else. Then again, the notion that the Stars are willing to spend money to make money might come back into focus there.)

Joyless division – I’d venture a guess that, as tuned-in as NHL players are these days, Tyler Seguin probably doesn’t factor the toughness of the Central Division much – or at all – into his future decision. Such a thought would likely be silly when considering a long-term contract, as things change fast in sports.

(Plus, Seguin might not be as plugged-in as others, considering that he at least claimed to have never heard of a “Gordie Howe hat trick.” C’mon, Tyler.)

That said, the ruggedness of the Central Division might hurt his viewpoint of Dallas’ chances as a contender if Seguin decided to really wait things out. The Stars could conceivably make big gains in 2018-19 and still fizzle out in the postseason simply because just about everyone’s likely to struggle against the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets. It’s conceivable that the Stars leap yet still end up with the third seed, fall in the first round despite a good effort, and still seem disappointing.

If that happens and Seguin hasn’t signed an extension, well, who knows? We could see a John Tavares-type situation, even in an arguably superior situation than the one the Islanders offered.

***

Ultimately, this could end up being a pretty simple situation for Seguin. Maybe he has a sweet spot in mind for term and/or AAV, or merely just some no-trade-type provisions. It would be silly to lampoon him for any of that, especially when he’s cashing checks, playing on what should be a competitive team, and not shivering during the winter.

On the other hand, the Stars haven’t enjoyed a ton of success since braining the Bruins in that Seguin trade, and the second pick of the 2010 NHL Draft might just want to explore the free agent market.

What would you do if you were in Seguin’s shoes?

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.