Niklas Hjalmarsson

Previewing the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes

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(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.

Coyotes betting big on questionable core

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The Arizona Coyotes are the NHL’s strange beasts.

For years, they suffered through shoestring budgets as their ownership and arena woes continued into infinity. While there still seems to be some turmoil in that area – their majority owner once again changed this summer – they’re now becoming a team that raises your eyebrows for seemingly spending more than expected.

Wednesday’s announcement of Clayton Keller‘s eight-year, $57.2 million extension serves as the exclamation point on that sentence.

Consider the players who are now under long-term deals in Arizona:

Keller ($7.15M cap hit starting in 2020-21; runs through 2027-28): Many are pointing out that Keller’s contract now makes William Nylander‘s often-criticized deal look quite reasonable, while others groan that with Keller set to carry a $7.15M cap hit, it sets a higher floor for other RFAs, from Kyle Connor this summer to Nico Hischier entering his contract year.

As PHT’s writeup notes, the Coyotes are betting that the 21-year-old has a high ceiling, thus making this a signing with foresight.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($8.25M starting this season, goes through 2026-27): For quite some time, there was angst about OEL leaving the lowly Coyotes for greener pastures. Then the Coyotes sent all of that green his way, really setting the table for this run of early extensions, as they signed Ekman-Larsson at basically the first possible moment in July 2018.

So, the good news is that they kept the Swede in Arizona for the long-term future. The bad news is that it’s possible OEL might not be quite the difference-maker they’re paying for. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn listed Ekman-Larsson as an honorable mention for one of the worst contracts in the NHL (sub required).

None of this is to say that OEL is a bad player. Instead, it keeps with the theme that it seems like the Coyotes are paying premiums for players who haven’t yet produced truly premium all-around results.

Nick Schmaltz ($5.85M through 2025-26), Jakob Chychrun ($4.6M through 2024-25), Christian Dvorak ($4.45M through 2024-25): Again, these players aren’t necessarily “bad,” it’s just surprising to see so many of them get so much term without overly obvious savings right off the bat. It’s the sort of hastiness you’d expect from a team that’s been contending, not one that’s had money troubles for ages and has missed the playoffs for seven seasons in a row.

Beyond that questionable core, the Coyotes are also spending a considerable chunk of change on veteran players like Phil Kessel, Derek Stepan, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Raanta, and Jason Demers.

Even if you give the Coyotes some leeway for absorbing Marian Hossa‘s dead contract, it’s honestly jarring that they technically are out of cap space heading into 2019-20, according to Cap Friendly.

Now, sure, this is a team that nearly made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs despite a plague of injuries, and with all of this youth and the potential boost of Kessel’s sniping, could very well make it in 2019-20 — particularly in a Pacific Division that seems weak on paper.

Still, it remains a bit baffling that the Coyotes are spending this much for a team that doesn’t necessarily wow you with its overall talent.

That said, the Coyotes seem like they’re approaching RFAs as a market inefficiency, and if any players will prove your risks right, it’s young ones. While OEL is already 28, Keller is 21, Chychrun’s run of injuries make him a mystery of sorts at 21, and so on. As we’ve seen with Leon Draisaitl at $8.5M per year, seemingly shaky contracts can end up looking like steals, at least when it comes to players entering their primes.

The Coyotes have to hope this all works out as planned, as they’re gambling big on all of this term for young players, and some pretty big bucks for veterans.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks visit on Coyotes on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Seven games in 2019 have equated to seven straight wins for the San Jose Sharks, who own the longest active winning streak in the NHL.

The Sharks are doing so well that they’ve climbed into second place in the Pacific Divison and can take top spot if the first-place Calgary Flames lose to the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sharks come into the game having played on Tuesday, with Tomas Hertl scoring a hat trick to down the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2.

It might be time, then, for the Coyotes to capitalize.

Arizona has won three of its past four and sends Darcy Kuemper into the crease. Kuemper has won four straight starts

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: San Jose Sharks at Arizona Coyotes
Where: Gila River Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Coyotes stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Marcus SorensenJoe ThorntonJoe Pavelski
Lukas RadilLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Evander Kane — Tomas Hertl — Joonas Donskoi
Melker KarlssonBarclay GoodrowKevin Labanc

Radim SimekBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson
Tim HeedJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Aaron Dell

COYOTES

Clayton KellerJordan WealChristian Fischer
Richard PanikDerek StepanVinnie Hinostroza
Alex GalchenyukNick CousinsConor Garland
Lawson CrouseMario KempeJosh Archibald

Oliver Ekman-LarssonNiklas Hjalmarsson
Jakob ChychrunIlya Lyubushkin
Jordan OesterleAlex Goligoski

Starting goalie: Darcy Kuemper

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

Trade: Coyotes send Strome, Perlini to Blackhawks for Schmaltz

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The Arizona Coyotes have officially moved on from the Dylan Strome experience.

A little over three years after making him the third overall pick in the 2015 draft (right behind Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel), the Coyotes traded the 21-year-old Strome to the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday night.

The Coyotes also sent forward Brendan Perlini to Chicago as part of the trade.

In exchange for those two Arizona will receive forward Nick Schmaltz.

First, here is Coyotes general manager John Chayka on what he sees in Schmaltz and where he might fit.

“Nick is a dynamic forward with top line potential. We feel he can be a core player of our team now and into the future. He’s a good complement to our evolving forward group and a rare combination of speed, skill and creativity.”

There is a lot to unwrap here, but let’s start with Chicago’s acquisition of Strome because — and with all due respect to Schmaltz and Perlini — he is going to be the player that makes or breaks this trade. For both teams.

It is a total boom-or-bust move for the Blackhawks because even with his struggles in Arizona he is still a player that is loaded with potential. He has excelled at every level he has played at (including the American Hockey League where he had 53 points in 50 games a season ago), but had not yet found a place or a permanent role with the Coyotes.

In 48 NHL games over parts of the past three seasons he has just seven goals and nine assists, including six points in 19 games with the Coyotes this season.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this deal for Chicago is the fact that it reunites Strome with winger Alex DeBrincat. The two were teammates together with the Erie Otters during their junior hockey days and absolutely ripped apart the Ontario Hockey League offensively. Together, they were unstoppable. There is obviously a massive difference between the OHL and the NHL, but the two clearly have a history together.

DeBrincat, a second-round draft pick by the Blackhawks in 2016, has already developed into a top-line NHL player and was one of the top rookies in the league a season ago. He is off to another strong start this season with 10 goals and eight assists in his first 24 games.

Will those two get a chance to play together again in Chicago? Will a change of scenery help Strome start to establish himself as an NHL player and realize his potential? Big questions, but probably a worthy gamble if you are a Chicago team that really needs to find more young, impact players given the age of their core and the perpetual struggle that is their salary cap situation.

That brings us to Schmaltz.

He was one of the few bright spots for the Blackhawks a year ago when he scored 21 goals (good enough for third on the team) in what was a breakout season. The red flag in that performance, however, was the 17.8 percent shooting percentage that drove that goal-scoring success.

So far this season the regression monster has taken a giant bite out of his numbers.

As of Sunday, Schmaltz has just two goals (and nine assists) in 23 games for the Blackhawks and has been unable to find any of the good fortunate that followed him around a year ago. Has he been a little snake bit? With a 6.1 percent shooting percentage it would be easy to say yes, but the unfortunate reality for him is that number is probably a lot closer to what should be expected from him.

He is also a restricted free agent after this season and will be in line for a pay raise.

Strome, on the other hand, is still signed through next season at a salary cap hit of $863,333.

Perlini, who had scored 31 goals in his first 131 NHL games, will also be a restricted free agent for the Blackhawks after this season.

What it all boils down to is this…

• Schmaltz has probably, by a very thin margin, been the most successful of these three players at the NHL level. But he is probably not as good as his numbers from the 2017-18 season might indicate.

He and Perlini are also very similar in the sense that they are the same age, have the same contract situation, and have nearly identical goal-scoring numbers throughout the first two-and-a-half years of their careers. Just consider that Perlini has scored 33 goals in 152 career games (with two in 21 games this season), while Schmaltz has scored 29 goals in 162 career games (with two in 23 games this season). 

Schmaltz has better assist numbers, but he has also played alongside superior talent in Chicago.

• Strome, as disappointing as he has been at the NHL level, still has what is by far the highest upside and is still young enough that he could break out if things click for him.

The Blackhawks are basically trading what will probably be a pretty good player for another pretty good player … and a potential star if they can catch lightning in a bottle.

What is not to like about that if you are the Blackhawks?

It is far from a guarantee to work, but it is a fine chance to take.

This is the fourth trade these two teams have made since the summer of 2017.

In June 2017, the Coyotes acquired defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson from the Blackhawks in exchange for Laurent Dauphin and Connor Murphy.

This past January the Coyotes traded Anthony Duclair and Adam Clendening to the Blackhawks for Richard Panik and Dauphin.

Then, just before the start of this season the Coyotes took on the remainder of Marian Hossa‘s contract in a massive, complex trade that also saw Marcus Kruger return to Chicago and Vinnie Hinostroza go to Arizona.

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.