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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.

Devils face slew of tough choices in rebuild

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The New Jersey Devils signed head coach John Hynes to an extension on Thursday, answering a significant question about their future. Honestly, GM Ray Shero faces far more complicated and difficult ones as this rebuild goes forward, though.

Granted, the bright side is that Shero’s at least acknowledging that this will take time, rather than battling a rebuild every step of the way, as NHL.com’s Mike Morreale reported:

“Doing something for the sake of getting a little bit better, or to just say you’re doing something, is patchwork and not a plan,” Shero said. “There’s only one way to do this. The idea is to build something that once you do build it, you’re in a good position each year to have a chance to make the playoffs and at a certain point you’re considered a Cup contender.”

On one hand, that’s easier said than done, and some of that comes down to landing blue-chip prospects at the best time.

Still, it’s better to at least have the right perspective, rather than risking being in that puck purgatory: too good to land the Jack Hughes of the world, but too bad to become a credible contender.

Let’s go over the many “easier said than done” parts in greater detail, then.

[More on the Hynes extension.]

Stocking the cupboard

In overachieving their way to a berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the strength of Taylor Hall‘s MVP season, the Devils broke a slump of five seasons without a playoff berth.

Unfortunately, drafting Nico Hischier with the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft broke a different slump: the Devils had an agonizing run of botching some of their premium picks. Take a look at their first-rounders before Hischier:

2016: Michael McLeod (12th overall)
2015: Pavel Zacha (sixth)
2014: John Quenneville (30th)
2013: None
2012: Stefan Matteau (29)
2011: Adam Larsson (fourth)

McLeod and Zacha sting the most considering where they were drafted, and who went afterward. (Seriously, scrolling the 2015 list in particular will do Devils fans no good.)

To some extent, these tough times are to be expected for a franchise that enjoyed a resounding run of success during the Martin Brodeur days, but it’s not the greatest sign when you suffer for years but still see your farm system listed as low-end. Getting a high pick in 2019 to combine with Hischier and intriguing prospect Ty Smith would make things look brighter, for sure, but Shero would be wise to try to buy more “dart throws” in the draft by trading veterans for picks.

Hall of a challenge

Shero would be wise to tread lightly for a firesale for one key reason, though: Taylor Hall’s contract is coming up.

Hall’s been a brilliant steal at just a $6M cap hit, but that ends after 2019-20. While there are some reasons to worry about the aging curve – Hall would be 29 once his next deal kicks in – the Devils would likely gladly gamble on an extension if Hall would allow it. The question is: will he want to stick around? The freight train of a winger has endured two protracted rebuilds with Edmonton and now New Jersey, so could anyone blame him if he wanted to sign with a proven contender?

It’s up to the Devils to convince Hall that they’re building such a structure in New Jersey.

Other pivotal contract situations

Hall can sign an extension as early as July, or opt for a contract year in 2019-20, and he’s far from alone.

Consider these prominent cases of players whose current deals run out after this season or next:

  • Nico Hischier: His rookie deal ends after the 2019-20 season, so the Devils might want to learn a bit more about the promising Swiss-born center. To be specific, how effective can he be without Hall?

While it’s promising that Hischier has been able to stick with Hall, he’s really been attached at the hip with the star winger basically since day one. New Jersey may find it very valuable to see how well he can play on his own.

  • Sami Vatanen ($4.875M) sees his contract end after 2019-20, and he’s 27, much like Taylor Hall. Vatanen’s been an important, if imperfect, addition to a Devils defense that remains quite flawed, but New Jersey will need to decide if he’s a part of the long-term solution. Especially if he calls for a substantial raise.
  • Will Butcher will see his entry-level deal expire after two seasons with the Devils, making him a pending RFA after 2018-19. The 23-year-old’s offense cooled off this season (14 points in 38 games) after generating 44 points as a rookie, yet Butcher’s possession stats are promising, and he stands as an important building block for this defense. Locking him up to the right deal is crucial, and could be quite challenging.
  • Marcus Johansson‘s another interesting expiring contract. Injuries have hampered him since joining the Devils, which leads to an interesting question: should NJ part ways with him, or do they see a potential bargain here? It’s plausible that they can re-sign Johansson for quite a bit less than his current $4.58M cap hit.

Letting rentals Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon walk after last season was one thing, but can Shero make the right calls often enough in those situations?

Glaring areas of concern

Hashing out the right deals for those players – and begging Hall to stay? – won’t be easy. It’s sobering to realize that Shero needs to pull off some magic even if those situations go really well.

Looking at things from a more immediate perspective, there are three key weaknesses to work on: goaltending, scoring beyond Hischier/Hall/Kyle Palmieri, and improving on defense.

With each discouraging start, it seems less and less likely that Cory Schneider will find a way to get his career back on track. His $6M cap hit appears to be a sunk cost through 2021-22. Apologies to Keith Kinkaid and Mackenzie Blackwood, but it sure seems like the Devils need to look outside their organization for a lasting answer in net.

There are some pieces on the Devils’ defense, particularly compared to the days before they landed Butcher and Vatanen, but they lack a premium, Norris-type. As you’ve likely noticed, franchise No. 1 defensemen aren’t easy to find, either.

***

It’s not all bad for the Devils. Even with Schneider and Travis Zajac ranking among their problem contracts, they’re not saddled with as many problems as many others. Hall won’t be cheap if he decides to stick around, yet New Jersey can make up some of the difference with Andy Greene‘s $5M dissolving after 2019-20, as one example.

“Our car is in good shape,” Shero said while making an odd metaphor back in December, according to The Athletic’s Corey Masisak (sub required). “Some other ones on the same highway aren’t.”

Can Shero keep the Devils on the right course despite all the speed bumps and potholes waiting up ahead? It should be fascinating to see how that wild ride turns out.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Parity making NHL teams more willing to fire coaches early

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By STEPHEN WHYNO (AP Hockey Writer)

Peter Chiarelli didn’t feel like he could wait another day.

The Edmonton general manager didn’t sleep well after another tough loss, put the wheels in motion to replace coach Todd McLellan with Ken Hitchcock and made the move on Tuesday – a game day. After no in-season coaching changes around the NHL last season, there have now been four in less than three weeks.

The standings are still so close and volatile that it’s almost never too soon to decide to fire an NHL coach.

”Unfortunately as it is, that’s the way it’s trending,” Chiarelli said. ”The margins are thin and you look for edges and that’s one of them.”

Los Angeles fired John Stevens on Nov. 4, Chicago fired three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville two days later, St. Louis dismissed Mike Yeo late Monday and Edmonton followed suit with McLellan on Tuesday morning. The Kings had played 13 games, the Blackhawks 15, the Blues 19 and the Oilers 20, but it is no longer surprising to see such a drastic move before the quarter mark of the season.

Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens, now an NHL Network analyst, won the Stanley Cup as a player after a late-season coaching change and took over as co-head coach with New Jersey during the 2014-15 season. He said he was only caught off-guard by Quenneville’s firing and understands why so many GMs are pulling the trigger so early.

”I think a lot of times the GM has the pulse of everything that’s going on and knows when the time’s right to make that move,” Stevens said. ”I believe every team thinks they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. … Everyone feels they have a chance to win, and sometimes you just need a little luck.”

Or at least a big change.

”You can’t trade every player, so they fire the coach to try to get everybody’s attention,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said.

The calendar got Chiarelli’s attention because Thanksgiving typically serves as a barometer of which teams will make the playoffs. It’s an uphill climb for Hitchcock, the Kings’ Willie Desjardins , Blackhawks’ Jeremy Colliton and Blues’ Craig Berube to try to lift their teams out of rough starts and make it.

Sometimes, interim or replacement coaches are wildly successful after arriving during the season. The Penguins in 2009 with Dan Bylsma and 2016 with Mike Sullivan and the Kings in 2012 with Darryl Sutter won the Cup. The Flyers in 2010 with Peter Laviolette reached the final.

McGuire, himself a midseason replacement with the Hartford Whalers in the 1990s, said he believes this recent run of firings has something to do with the Vegas Golden Knights reaching the final last season as an expansion team, causing frustration around the league about quick results. Still, early-season coach firings are a time-tested part of the NHL.

”Coaching changes right around this time made huge differences,” McGuire said. ”People look at this over history and they say this can happen. Pittsburgh and L.A. are good examples of that.”

UPPER HAND SHORTHANDED

The Arizona Coyotes have killed off a league-best 91.7 percent of power plays, and their 10 short-handed goals are six more than the next-closest team. Michael Grabner has four, Brad Richardson three and Arizona has only allowed five power-play goals through its first 19 games.

Coach Rick Tocchet said Grabner, Richardson and his other penalty killers have done an excellent job of applying pressure with three players and the fourth making smart reads to take it the other way.

”Especially for PK guys, they really have a good hockey IQ on knowing when to attack pressure,” Tocchet said. ”The guys have done a nice job, like Richardson and Grabner especially, of making really good reads on when there’s a time to pressure and where that read is going to be. Sometimes you guess wrong but I think this year we’ve done a nice job guessing right.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals on Saturday visit the New York Rangers, who have been among the league’s biggest surprises under first-year coach David Quinn.

LEADERS

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 17; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 24; Points: Rantanen, 32; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:53; Save percentage: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), .942; Goals-against average: Rinne, 1.69.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s most impactful offseason additions so far

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at how your team’s biggest offseason acquisition has performed through the first quarter of the season.

Who has been an impact player? Who has exceeded expectations? Who has failed to meet expectations?

This is by no means a final grade or a definitive statement on the move itself; it is more of an initial progress report to see what the early returns are. Things can still change the rest of this season and in future seasons.

We also tried to limit this to the *big* signings/trades. Players that were involved in bigger, multi-player trades and free agents that were signed to multi-year, long-term contracts since those are the moves that carry the most risk for teams.

So let us get to the rankings.

The impact additions

1. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres — The Sabres desperately needed a player like Skinner, and they didn’t really have to give up a ton to get him. He has given Jack Eichel a legitimate front-line running mate on his wing, while Eichel has given him an All-Star playmaking center. Neither player has ever had a linemate like the other in their careers, and the early results have been stellar for a Sabres team that is starting to look … kind of good.

2. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — When you sign a seven-year, $77 million contract to join the Toronto Maple Leafs and be what they hope is the missing piece for a championship team, there is going to be a ton of pressure to go with sky-high expectations. So far, Tavares has been just what the Maple Leafs hoped he would be. Entering play on Monday he is better than a point-per-game player and has given them the luxury of still having a No. 1 center even while Auston Matthews is sidelined.

[Related: Tavares living up to hype with Matthews out]

3. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues — A shutdown center that is, as of Monday, on a 104-point pace this season offensively. Will he maintain that pace over 82 games? No way, but he has still been the Blues’ best player this season by a mile. They gave up a lot of assets to get him, but it was a definite quantity over quality trade. It is not his fault the team has failed to meet expectations.

Better than expected so far … will it last?

4-5. Max Domi and Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens — I admit it, I thought the Canadiens’ offseason was a disaster and was going to be another step backwards for the organization. Maybe in time it will still play out that way. So far, though, everything general manager Marc Bergevin touched over the summer has somehow turned to gold. A lot of Domi’s early success is tied to a 24 percent shooting percentage that is going to come down, but he has at least rebounded from back-to-back down years in Arizona.

Speaking of rebounds, Tomas Tatar is showing that he is still a really good player and that his post-trade deadline struggles with the Vegas Golden Knights were a fluke. Do not expect him to maintain this current scoring pace, but he is a proven 20-25 goal scorer in the NHL and should once again be at that level this season, even if his production regresses a bit the rest of the way.

6. Mike Hoffman, Florida Panthers — His production has been remarkably consistent through the first quarter of the season with a 15-game point streak entering the week. He has not had a truly dominant game (two points is his season high) but entering Monday he has had at least one point in all but two games this season (the first two games of the season).

[Related: Can Max Domi continue current pace?]

7. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — During his time in Carolina Lindholm was a top-five pick that was just simply good, but nothing really special. His career high in goals? 17. His career high in points? 45. Certainly not a bust, but also not really an impact player. Through his first 20 games in Calgary he has erupted offensively and is a point-per-game performer and on pace to shatter all of his previous career highs. On one hand, he is still only 23 years old and should be, in theory, entering his peak years in the NHL. On the other hand, that 21.6 shooting percentage is set for a big fall in the second half.

8. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — I still think if the Bruins are going to win the Stanley Cup — or at least seriously compete for it — they are going to have Tuukka Rask in net for it. Right now, though, Halak has been the best goalie in Boston and has been a huge surprise with a .935 save percentage and a 7-2-2 record entering play on Monday. After a disastrous season with the Islanders in 2017-18, and in his age 33 season, this is a pretty stunning performance.

Not quite what we expected (yet), but still pretty good

9. Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks — The offensive production has not been what we have come to expect from Karlsson, but that does not mean he has been bad. When he is on the ice the Sharks are controlling more than 59 percent of the total shot attempts and more than 55 percent of the scoring chances that take place. Those are dominant numbers. The offense will eventually come and like many of the players on the Sharks at the moment he is getting crushed by lackluster goaltending. I would be willing to wager that by the end of the season he would be near the top of such a ranking.

10. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes — Pretty much the same story as Karlsson. Probably been a lot better than his traditional box score numbers would indicate and getting hurt by bad goaltending.

11. Ilya Kovalchuk, Los Angeles Kings — He has shown flashes of still being able to be a dominant top-line player, and also flashes of being a 35-year-old that had not played in the NHL in more than five years. He alone was never going to be enough to fix what ailed this team, but he is still on pace for 20 goals and 60 points this season. That pretty much makes him an offensive powerhouse in relation to the rest of the players in Los Angeles.

What should have been expected

12-13. Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk, Arizona Coyotes — They have been nice additions for a Coyotes team that should be able to threaten for a playoff spot in a weak Pacific Division. Galchenyuk missed some time at the start of the year but now that he is healthy is on track for another season around 20 goals and 50 points, while Grabner has been a tremendous addition to the team’s lethal penalty kill unit that has helped drive their early start.

14. Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres — He was never going to repeat his performance from a year ago when he finished with the league’s best save percentage. While it would have been great for the Sabres if he somehow managed that, they mainly just needed him to be competent and give them a chance to win on most nights. He has done that.

[Related: The Sabres are good]

14-15. David PerronTyler Bozak, St. Louis Blues — The Blues needed scoring depth and spent big money this summer to try and find it. O’Reilly has played at an All-Star level, while their two big free agent acquisitions — Perron and Bozak — are producing at about the level you would expect David Perron and Tyler Bozak to perform at. Are they game-changers? No. But if the Blues’ goaltending situation was not the total dumpster fire it has been so far the team would would probably have a few more wins and all of their offseason additions would look a lot better.

The disappointments

16. Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights —  Pacioretty has simply not produced the way anyone expected him to. He had a down year in Montreal in 2017-18, and so far this season has seen his production fall off even more. It has to be even more frustrating at the moment for Vegas when you look at Tomas Tatar — traded for Pacioretty, along with top prospect Nick Suzuki — scoring for the Canadiens the way Vegas hoped he would score for them when they gave up a boatload of draft picks for him at the trade deadline.

17. James Neal, Calgary Flames — Just a total non-factor in every area for the Flames so far. Hopefully for the Flames it is just a poorly time slump at the start of a new contract because they are paying too much money over too many years for this level of production.

18. Jack Johnson, Pittsburgh Penguins — This was a questionable signing — at best — from the very beginning, and so far the results are everything critics of the deal thought they would be. Not good.

Jury is still out/Incomplete

James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia FLyers — He has only played in four games this season due to injury, but he looked really good in those games and seemed to be just what they needed to improve their scoring depth. When healthy he has been one of the top goal scorers in the league for a couple of years now, and he probably still has a couple years of that remaining when he is healthy. He just has not been healthy for the Flyers yet.

Paul Stastny, Vegas Golden Knights — Along with Pacioretty he was supposed to help give the Golden Knights a second dominant scoring line to go along with their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. Pacioretty has struggled mightily so far and Stastny has appeared in just three games due to injury. He also does not appear to be close to returning. Too soon to call him (or Pacioretty, for that matter) a total bust, but the early results are not what Vegas was hoping for. Both due to bad luck (Stastny’s injury) and just all-around disappointing play (Pacioretty).

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.