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Coyotes beat Blues, move into playoff spot in Western Conference

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There is a pretty improbable and unbelievable story unfolding in Arizona right now.

Thanks to their 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night, the Arizona Coyotes now find themselves in sole possession of the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, temporarily moving ahead of the Minnesota Wild with 12 games remaining in the regular season.

The Coyotes are now 12-4-0 in their past 16 games with their next two coming against the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers, presenting what should be a prime opportunity to keep collecting points and making a move toward a playoff spot.

It’s such an unbelievable development because this is a team that has not only missed the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, but was also the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago.

[Related: Tocchet ensuring Coyotes ‘don’t waste days’ in pursuit of playoffs]

Not enough of a challenge for them?

Throw in the fact their roster has been absolutely decimated by injuries this season with Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Jakob Chychrun, Michael Grabner, Brad Richardson, Alex Galchenyuk, Christian Dvorak, Nick Schmaltz, and Jason Demers all missing at least 10 games this season, with several of them missing more than 20.

Maybe there isn’t a superstar among that group, or even an All-Star right now, but that is still a pretty extensive list of players the Coyotes were expected to lean on, while several of them have been unavailable for significant portions of the season due to injury.

They are still currently playing without Raanta (their starting goalie), Stepan (their top center), and Schmaltz (acquired in the big Dylan Strome trade with Chicago earlier this season).

That is not an easy thing to overcome when you are still a rebuilding team that didn’t seem to have a ton of depth at the start of the year.

With all of that added together it wouldn’t have been a shock to see the Coyotes once again near the bottom of the Western Conference. But thanks to Darcy Kuemper‘s ability to take over the starting goaltending duties, and what has become a balanced lineup that now boasts 11 different players with double-digit goals they have managed to not only stay in the race but actually crawl into a playoff spot.

They still have a long way to go before they can actually punch their ticket (Minnesota is still only one point back with a head-to-head game remaining), but if they manage to pull this off you can be sure it is going to make coach Rick Tocchet a serious contender for the Jack Adams trophy as the NHL’s coach of the year.

The Coyotes making the playoffs might be the only thing that could take that award away from Barry Trotz.

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.

Q&A: Coyotes GM John Chayka on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence

Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Arizona Coyotes have crawled up the Western Conference standings and have surprisingly played their way into the wild card race. With a roster that is second in the NHL with over 300 man-games lost to injury, they currently sit three points behind the Minnesota Wild with a game in-hand.

In the thick of the wild card race, you won’t find Coyotes general manager checking his phone to see the out-of-town scoreboard or updated standings on a nightly basis, however.

“You know what, we’ve got so many things going on here, and our guys have been on a roll that I just know if we keep taking care of things and keep winning we’ll be in a good spot,” Chayka told Pro Hockey Talk on Friday. “I can honestly tell you I don’t do a ton of scoreboard watching.”

While only three of their final 11 games in March are against teams currently occupying playoff positions, every game for the last few weeks has been “playoff mode” for the Coyotes. Fortunately for them, the players have stepped as injuries ravaged the lineup, including Darcy Kuemper, who’s played a career high in games (41) this season after Antti Raanta went down.

“This is the story of our season,” Chayka said. “A guy gets an opportunity they might not of otherwise had with some of the injuries and he steps up and elevates his game. He’s been a big story for us. He’s been a rock for us back there. He gives the guys a lot of confidence and allows them to go and play their game. Credit to [head coach Rick Tocchet], too, because he’s got the guys playing a very detail-oriented system, limiting chances and when there are chances given up, obviously Darcy’s done a nice job of stopping them. Any time you get a guy like that to step up, a goalie, be a No. 1 and stop as many pucks as he has, it’s a good thing for us.”

We spoke to Chayka about the Coyotes dealing with injuries, his approach to the NHL trade deadline, Dylan Strome’s success in Chicago and more.

Enjoy.

Q. What’s impressed you most about your team this season and the way they’ve taken to the “next man up” mentality with all the injuries?

CHAYKA: “Just the leadership, and as a result, the resiliency. Rick Tocchet’s the ultimate leader of our team as a head coach. He hasn’t wavered, he hasn’t complained, he hasn’t felt sorry for us the next day after a big injury or two — it just seemed like every day we were getting a different one. He’s done a great job of keeping guys steady and obviously, [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson, first year as captain, new role. Some guys have trouble with it, some guys excel. I think he’s excelled. Him and Tocc together have been a great leadership duo through the good times and the bad here.”

Q. Was there a point this season where another guy went down and you’re like, ‘Come on, really?'”

CHAYKA: “Yeah, I lost count after a certain number. You know, injuries are part of the game. I think we did everything in our power in the off-season to add as much depth as possible in the event that you lose some guys. It’s not just the number of games lost, it’s really been the combinations of premium position players that have gone down. That’s been the frustrating part, but everyone deals with injuries. I think our guys have done a helluva job of managing it and staying steady. Now we’re in a place where we’re getting some guys back, too, and ready to make a push. It’s out of your control, for the most part, so you deal with it.”

Q. Are you surprised that with 300-plus man games lost you’re right in the mix for a wild card spot this late in the year?

CHAYKA: “If you had told me that was the case when we were perfectly healthy we probably would have taken that, too. We’ve shown great improvement year over year. Our young players continue to get better and continue to drive us and we want to play meaningful games down the stretch here and get ourselves a chance to play in the playoffs. We’ve had to weather the storm a little bit through the year. In a lot of ironic ways it’s been a really good season and hopefully our guys can have a good run down the stretch here and get us in.”

Q. You don’t want to make a panic move in response to injuries, but were you a little more aggressive around the trade deadline in seeking out some additional help to try and boost this chase for a playoff spot?

CHAYKA: “We worked hard at the deadline. We had a lot of conversations. We looked to improve our group. I think the key was that we’ve got a group here that’s done a good job and got us this far and in order to improve on our group we had to get a really good player. The status quo with some of these guys that come up, the [Conor] Garlands and the [Mario] Kempes and [Lawson] Crouses have elevated their games, and [Josh] Archibald’s been one of our better players the last number of games here. If someone was coming in to displace a player, they had to be a really good player. We wanted to do something that could make sense for now and in the future. We were willing to do some moves that we thought would part with significant futures, but it had to be the right fit, and unfortunately we weren’t able to find something that made sense. But again, we believe in this group. They’ve brought us this far and we thought we owed it to them to see it through and allow them to sink or swim, and so far they’ve been doing a heckuva job.”

Q. A number of players on the roster are young and have yet to experience playoff hockey. Playoffs or not this season, the intensity of the games of late has to be providing them with some valuable experience going forward.

CHAYKA: “Yeah, the last few months the [Jakob] Chychruns, the Kellers, the [Christian] Dvoraks, the [Christian] Fischers, Garlands, they’re all learning a lot and they’re learning by trial by fire right now. It’s great and it’s good experience for them. But I also know that these are guys that we selected for a reason and made them a part of our core future because they won at all levels, they expect to win, they expect to be the best, and they’re not taking anything for granted down the stretch. They want to get in, they want to be the best and that’s what drives these guys, and that’s why I think we’ll have success.”

Q. Do you look at what Dylan Strome has done in Chicago since the trade, and even Max Domi in Montreal, and ask yourself, ‘Did we give up on them too early?’

CHAYKA: “Our goal through trades is you draft players that you can draft and develop, but at some point you’re drafting for asset value and you’ve got to put together a team. You’re trying to find the right combination and right chemistry for your group. Obviously with Alex Galchenyuk, you get a pure goal scorer, a guy that can shoot them with the best in the league. There were many times last year where we were in a tight game, 1-1, with five minutes left and we get a chance and we can’t score and the other team gets a chance and their guys score and we lose the game. This year the tables have turned in that sense where Alex and Vinnie Hinostroza, some of these guys have come in and they’ve made a big play at the right time and that’s what we were looking for.

“You get a young scorer like Alex, [that] was something we were after and you’ve got to give to get. The same thing with Nick Schmaltz. With our system, with our style of play, we felt like speed through the middle of the ice is a rare asset and [he’s] a guy that can not only skate but make plays and make his teammates better and linemates better and think at a very high level and skate with a guy like Clayton Keller. We thought that that was something that really aligned with our vision of how we wanted to build out our team. 

“We traded some good players and we got some good players in return. The end result will be what our group does here and so far we’ve been able to string together a really good stretch of games with a really good team. That was our goal in making those trades.”

Q. What characteristics did you see in Rick Tocchet that made him your No. 1 choice when seeking a head coach?

CHAYKA: “I don’t think people know who good of a coach this guy is. Just to see him day in, day out with what he’s capable of doing. His ability to wear many different hats and do it in a way that is very genuine, I think that’s been the key. He’s a hard-driving guy. He wants to win, he’s passionate, he’s won at all levels and won at the highest level in his career as a player and a coach. He knows what it takes and wants to impress upon our group what it does take. When I was hiring a head coach I was looking for a partnership, someone that can come in and I can work with that had a shared vision that I could trust. I’ve allowed Tocc to run his team and develop the systems and culture he thought would be best and so far he’s done a phenomenal job of that. 

“He doesn’t get enough credit for turning around a culture and a franchise and getting us on the right track and getting the most out of his players every single night. That’s what he’s done.”

————

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.

Injury-ravaged Coyotes lose Derek Stepan for playoff push

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The hits just keep coming for the Arizona Coyotes.

With a five-game winning streak in tow, the Coyotes have risen to the point that they’re legitimate contenders for a West wild-card spot, but they’re going to need to go through much – if not all – of that playoff push without key center Derek Stepan.

Stepan’s expected to miss four-to-six weeks with a lower-body injury, according to Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet.

Arizona’s final regular-season game takes place on April 6, so perhaps there’s room for Stepan to return for the later stages of that push (especially considering how often hockey players tend to beat recovery windows), but there’s also the possibility that he would only get to play again if the Coyotes make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Stepan, 28, was injured during a seemingly innocuous play during Thursday’s eventual 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks.

Stepan isn’t the only noteworthy Coyotes player who’s out, and many of them might miss the rest of the season. Antti Raanta, Michael Grabner, and Jason Demers have been out for months, while Nick Schmaltz has already been ruled out through this season.

As The Athletic’s Craig Morgan notes, the Coyotes now appear very weak at center, with a group anchored by Brad Richardson, Christian Dvorak, Nick Cousins, and Mario Kempe (although this might be a situation where Alex Galchenyuk gets another look down the middle).

With a modest 32 points in 64 games, Stepan might not strike you as a crucial part of the Coyotes, yet he ranks fourth in scoring.

He’s also a versatile player. Stepan comfortably averages the most ice time per game of any Arizona forward (19:17), and only trails Richardson (2:41) for shorthanded ice-time per game among Coyotes forwards with 2:03 per night. Stepan saw a four-game point streak (two goals, three assists) end during Thursday’s games, and had been heating up in general with eight points in his past nine games.

The Coyotes will have to hope they can continue to gain points by committee, and that Darcy Kuemper can continue his hot recent play after going 8-3-1 with a strong .923 save percentage in February.

This would be a big challenge with the team at full-strength, but would be especially impressive if the Coyotes can keep this going with Stepan added to a significant, troubling list of injured players.

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 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.

 

Trades: Flyers send Weal to Coyotes; Blackhawks get Koekkoek from Tampa

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In what could be the first of many trades by new general manager Chuck Fletcher in the coming weeks, the Philadelphia Flyers made a minor deal on Friday afternoon by sending forward Jordan Weal to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for defender Jacob Graves and a 2019 sixth-round draft pick.

Weal, 26, had appeared in 28 games this season for the Flyers, scoring three goals to go with six assists and is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

For the Coyotes, it is obviously a short-term band-aid type of move for a team that has been absolutely decimated by injuries this season. Things only managed to get worse this week when the team announced that Nick Schmaltz will be sidelined for the remainder of the season due to a lower-body injury.

For Philadelphia, meanwhile, it could signal the start of a fire sale leading up to the NHL trade deadline. It has been a bitterly disappointing season that has resulted in massive changes throughout the organization, from the general manager’s office to the head coach. The only question that remains is just how many changes they make on the ice and whether they decide to tear it all down or simply re-tool. Wayne Simmonds is the big name to watch in the coming weeks as he, too, is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season and could be an attractive player for a contender.

[Related: Why wait to trade for Flyers’ Simmonds?]

This was not the only minor deal of the day.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning also completed a trade with Tampa sending defender Slater Koekkoek and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick to Chicago for Jan Rutta and a 2019 seventh-round pick.

Koekkoek was a first-round draft pick by the Lightning in 2012 (No. 10 overall). He was one of two first-round picks by the team that season, going nine spots ahead of current starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

What stands out about this deal for Tampa Bay is that the organization only has two first-round draft picks since 2010 remaining in the organization (Vasilevskiy and 2017 first-round pick Callan Foote). Every other first-round pick since then has been traded (either the pick itself, or the player the Lightning picked after the fact).

Koekkoek has appeared in 85 games so far in his career, scoring five goals to go with nine assists. That includes his nine games this season, where he tallied a single goal.

Rutta signed with the Blackhawks prior to the 2017-18 season, appearing in 80 games over the past two seasons.

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.