Phil Kessel

Getty

Replacing Fenton, Spurgeon’s future among biggest questions for Wild

1 Comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild.

1. Who will replace Paul Fenton as general manager?

Even though Paul Fenton’s reign of error as Minnesota Wild general manager lasted just one forgettable season it was still long enough to do plenty of damage to the organization.

Among the missteps and blunders during those 14 months…

  • He traded Nino Niederreiter, one of the team’s best players, at what was his lowest possible value for Victor Rask in what might be the NHL’s worst one-for-one trade since Hall for Larsson.
  • He alienated Jason Zucker, one of the team’s other top players and an extremely popular member of the community, by repeatedly trying to trade him (why?!) and allowing the details to leak publicly every time.
  • He never seemed to have a clear long-term direction for the team, trading established veterans with term remaining on their contracts for younger, cheaper players, while simultaneously trying to acquire more veteran, big-money players (trying to trade for Phil Kessel; signing Mats Zuccarello). It was impossible to tell if it was a team trying to rebuild or still trying to compete.

Those were just some of the bigger issues, and now the new general manager has to clean up the mess that was left behind.

But who will that new general manager be?

Will owner Craig Leipold be willing to hire another first-time general manager after the Fenton debacle? If so, Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald, and Bill Zito would seem to be the top names.

Or will he go to the NHL’s recycling bin and bring in a more established GM with experience? If so, Ron Hextall and Dean Lombardi have been mentioned, as has Peter Chiarelli despite his horrendous run with the Edmonton Oilers.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Will any of the new young players take a big step forward?

None of the Wild’s top-eight scorers during the 2018-19 season were under the age of 26 while three of their top-four (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter) were 34 years old. It is definitely an older team at the top of the lineup, and the addition of a soon-to-be 32-year-old Zuccarello only adds to that.

There are still some intriguing young players on the roster and in the organization and it would be pretty helpful for the Wild if one or two of them emerged as a key player this season.

At the top of that list are Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, two of the players acquired by Fenton just prior to the trade deadline this past season.

Donato had a very promising start with the Wild after arriving in the Charlie Coyle trade (the one in-season Fenton trade that had an immediate positive return) and it wasn’t really the result of percentage-driven luck. He was legitimately good and hasn’t looked out of place in his brief NHL career.

Fiala, acquired in the Mikael Granlund trade, is still only 23 years old and has shown 20-goal, 50-point ability in the NHL but regressed a bit last season, especially after the trade. His ability to bounce back from that would be a significant development for the Wild.

3. Will they get Jared Spurgeon re-signed?

Spurgeon may not be one of the biggest names among NHL defenders, but that’s not his fault. He is an outstanding top-pairing defender and should be the team’s biggest priority when it comes to their next long-term contract.

The 29-year-old defender is coming off of a career year offensively (14 goals, 43 points) and has been a rock on the team’s blue line since becoming a regular more than eight years ago. He plays big minutes against other team’s top players, stays out of the penalty box, and is consistently on the positive side of the shot, scoring chances, and goal differentials. If he hits the open market after this season he could be one of the top players available in 2020 free agent class.

He is the Wild’s best all-around defender and keeping him should be a must.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Plenty of Hurricanes are under pressure in 2019-20

Getty Images

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes.

Last season, the Hurricanes became a “bunch of jerks.” In 2019-20, they’re now a bunch of people under heightened pressure.

Rather than going with one single person, here are a few of the Hurricanes who must wrestle with heightened expectations next season.

Sebastian Aho: For those who follow how much players get paid, particularly ones who are potential faces of franchises entering the mere beginning of their primes, Aho is a ludicrous steal at $8.454 million per year.

But then, there are those sharks who circle any sports situation that might loosely be termed a “disappointment.” When those sharks smell blood, they usually also seek out the richest targets, even if those players aren’t really at fault for a team’s letdowns. (See: basically Phil Kessel‘s entire stay in Toronto.)

If the Hurricanes falter, don’t be surprised if their newly minted most expensive player ends up being the scapegoat, whether that ends up being fair or not.

… On the other hand, hey, at least Aho’s already got paid.

Justin Faulk: Faulk, on the other hand, enters a contract year with a lot of money that could be earned or lost.

At least, potentially he does. The Hurricanes could also decide to sign the 27-year-old to a contract extension, something that was at least hinted at somewhat recently.

If Faulk enters 2018-19 with his situation unsettled, he’ll enter a year with a lot on the line, though. The free agent market rarely sees quality right-handed defensemen become available before they’re 30, and sometimes teams go the extra 26.2 miles and overpay guys like Tyler Myers. At the same time, injuries can cool the market for a UFA blueliner, as we’ve seemingly seen with the perplexing Jake Gardiner situation.

You don’t even need to look at defensemen to see how much a season can swing how teams view a UFA. Faulk merely needs to look at his former Hurricanes teammate Jeff Skinner, a forward who was traded for precious little in the summer of 2018, only to have such a strong season that he was handed a lengthy contract with a $9M AAV one summer later.

[MORE: Three Questions | 2018-19 in review | X-factor: Hurricanes owner]

Petr Mrazek: Honestly, Mrazek’s under less personal pressure this season than he was in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, years where he was merely trying to prove that he was worthy of maintaining an NHL career, at least one beyond a backup or even third goalie role. Getting two years at a $3.125M AAV represents more stability than Mrazek’s experienced in quite some time.

Still, if the Hurricanes fail this season, don’t be shocked if it’s because the goaltending that finally worked out in 2018-19 reverts back to the problem that kept Carolina out of the playoffs for a decade. A lot of Carolina’s hopes still hinge on Mrazek, and James Reimer, who comes in with a higher cap hit but lower expectations.

Rod Brind’Amour: During his first season behind the bench, the Hurricanes made the playoffs. That’s great, but it also sets a new bar in the eyes of fans and owner Tom Dundon, so a big drop-off might inspire critics to be a bunch of jerks to Brind’Amour.

Whoever is the GM: If too many of the above situations don’t work out, a GM might be tasked with finding fixes — and if Dundon isn’t interested in spending much money to make those fixes, it could require some serious creativity.

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.

Burning questions for Coyotes in 2019-20

Getty Images

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Let’s ponder three questions about the Coyotes, beyond Phil Kessel handling the pressure and how luck has been such a factor in their recent results …

1. Can the Coyotes stay healthy?

Whether you judge injuries by quantity or quality, the Coyotes rank as one of the teams that were hit hardest by injuries last season.

Sometimes injuries just happen, and pile up, only to regress back to league average over time. Sometimes teams enjoy peculiar luck – good or bad – such as the Capitals’ bewilderingly long stretch of mostly avoiding injuries under Barry Trotz.

The Coyotes have to hope that 2018-19 was a mere anomaly.

In some cases, that’s likely true, and it has to be heartening that Phil Kessel was a borderline ironman on a Penguins team that’s dealt with recurring injury headaches through much of the Sidney Crosby era.

On the other hand, there are certain instances where you fear the worst. Antti Raanta is the clearest example, as there are reasons to worry that last year wasn’t a blip, but was instead a red flag that Raanta simply may not be able to avoid the nagging injuries that can hound a goalie, pushing a would-be starter down to a platoon level, or worse.

Raanta was limited to 47 games in 2017-18, but the 2018-19 campaign was especially grim, as the former Blackhawks and Rangers goalie only suited up for 12 games. While Raanta isn’t ancient, he also isn’t a spring chicken, as he turned 30 in May.

Sometimes injuries morph from sporadic bad luck to just the sad, status quo, so here’s hoping that Raanta can put that behind him.

Either way, the Coyotes should examine how they rest, and how they train. If there are any signs that they’re pushing players too hard, or could improve their odds of avoiding injuries, they should lean into opportunities with sports science.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | 2018-19 in review | X-factor]

2. What will they get from their goalies?

That Raanta discussion bleeds into this question: as unlucky as the Coyotes were with injuries, they were almost as lucky when it came to the surprisingly elite play of Darcy Kuemper, who’s otherwise been a career backup.

In a more ideal scenario, there could still be some uncertainty, as the dreamy picture would be the Coyotes essentially rolling out two starting-quality goalies in Kuemper and Raanta. That would really be something, especially since they combine for a cap hit barely over $6M.

Other scenarios are far cloudier. What if Raanta simply can’t hold up physically, whether that means that his workload would be limited, or that his career is unraveling in an even more profound way? It’s tough to imagine Kuemper matching his brilliant work from 2018-19, although he does have some potential to be an asset for Arizona.

If the goaltending sinks to a league average level or worse, then it could nullify gains made in other areas.

3. Will their offense sputter again?

Much like the Ducks, the Coyotes’ scoring stats were pretty depressing last season. When it’s 2018-19 and your leading scorer failed to hit 50 points (Clayton Keller generated 47), and no one reached 20 goals, you know that you’re not exactly overflowing with firepower.

Keller suffered through an unlucky year, and Kessel is the type of weapon the Coyotes have rarely deployed over the years, but it’s fair to wonder if they’ll still be able to score enough to compete in the modern NHL.

Last season, the Coyotes almost made the playoffs, but succeeded with a tiny margin for error (209 goals scored, 200 allowed), and more offense could help them gain something that’s often underrated in the NHL: easy wins.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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 are unpredictable, even by NHL’s random standards

Getty Images

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes. 

Even in a sport that’s already easily seduced by lady luck, the Coyotes’ luck is an X-factor that makes this team very tough to gauge.

No doubt about it, the Coyotes were bit hard and often by the injury bug last season, starting with increasingly fragile would-be number one goalie Antti Raanta. While Man Games Lost lists the Anaheim Ducks as the team with the highest volume of injuries from 2018-19, the Coyotes may have been hit hardest when you consider quality alongside quantity.

You’d think that the narrative would swirl around bad luck alone, and certainly, it stinks that a very promising-looking goalie like Raanta hasn’t been able to take the step from great backup with the Rangers and Blackhawks to proven starter for the Coyotes.

Yet, goaltending is a great jumping off point to discuss how puzzling the Coyotes are thanks to their mix of good and bad luck.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | 2018-19 in review | Three questions]

Because, frankly, the Coyotes can’t blame goaltending for missing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Instead, ace netminding almost dragged their battered bodies to the postseason, only it was Darcy Kuemper playing at an incredibly high level, rather than Raanta.

Heading into 2018-19, Kuemper had never played in more than 31 games in any season. While Kuemper showed some promise, particularly in 2017-18, there wasn’t much of an indication that he could produce near-Vezina-level work over 55 games, which was exactly what he did for the Coyotes this past season.

While his overall work was strong, Kuemper was especially hot down the stretch, producing Jordan Binnington-like numbers. From Jan. 1 through the end of the season, Kuemper won 22 games and sported a .933 save percentage.

The Coyotes deserve credit for identifying potential in Kuemper, yet even they would likely admit that this outburst was unexpected. If people saw that coming, Kuemper wouldn’t have been available for the $1.85M cap hit he’ll carry for one more season.

And so it goes with the Coyotes: tough breaks and surprising luck send prognosticators down a road of Shyamalan-like twists.

Rummage through most stats and you’ll see some interesting give-and-takes.

When you look at the overall work of power play and penalty kill units combined, the Coyotes enjoyed one of the strongest outputs of 2018-19, scoring 15 more goals than they allowed at that facet of the game. A phenomenal PK drove that dominance; the Coyotes allowed the second-fewest power play goals (34) while managing the second-most shorthanded goals at 16, so they ended up just -18 on the penalty kill last season, which is pretty mind-boggling over 82 games. It also strikes as especially unsustainable, as the Coyotes were a fairly normal -44 in that area one year before in 2017-18.

Yet, if there are losses on the penalty kill, the Coyotes might enjoy gains on the power play, where they were pretty weak last season.

Phil Kessel and healthier skill players stand as big reasons why that might work out, yet with Kessel’s two-way play leaving a lot to be desired, some of that increased scoring might be canceled out by more dangerous shots for Kuemper and Raanta to deal with.

 

You can go on and on with that, pondering the team’s low shooting percentage but high save percentage, and wondering what might actually carry over to 2019-20.

Again, hockey teams are already tough to figure out by their nature. Mild swoons, hot streaks, and health luck become a stew that makes predictions hard to chew on.

Even with those standards in mind, the Coyotes’ luck is an overriding X-factor. That uncertainty makes forecasting this team’s potential almost as intimidating as an actual coyote licking its lips and bearing its teeth.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Kessel has to take Coyotes to next level

Getty
8 Comments

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes. 

Every off-season, every single team in the NHL is looking to add some scoring to their lineup. But some teams need that offensive punch more than others. The 2019-20 Coyotes were one of those teams that absolutely needed to add a sniper as soon as possible and that’s exactly what they did.

Last season, the ‘Yotes were hoping that Alex Galchenyuk would be the 30-goal scorer they desperately needed. After all, he had scored 30 just a few seasons ago with Montreal and he possesses all the talent in the world. General manager John Chayka sent Max Domi to the Canadiens to get Galchenyuk, but the trade didn’t work out the way Arizona had hoped. Galchenyuk scored 19 goals and 47 points in 72 games while Domi 28 goals and 72 points in 82 contests.

After just one season, Chayka decided it was time to move on from Galchenyuk so they shipped him to Pittsburgh along with Pierre-Olivier Joseph. In exchange, Arizona got Phil Kessel, Dane Birks and a fourth-round pick in 2021.

For a team that didn’t have a 20-goal scorer or 50-point player last season, landing Kessel is a big deal. The 31-year-old has scored at least 20 goals in each of his last 11 seasons and he’s picked up 70, 92 and 82 points over his last three seasons.

“I think Phil’s one of the best scorers in the League in the past decade; the stats back that up,” Chayka said via NHL.com. “We think we’ve got a lot of good young players that can score more, but to have a guy that’s experienced, that we know going in that can score, he’s been durable, he’s been dependable in terms of putting up point production, that gives a lot of confidence to the entire group.”

Kessel’s arrival has brought plenty of excitement to the front office and more importantly to the fan base. Once he was acquired from Pittsburgh, season ticket sales were up 600 percent compared to the same time last year. They also had a 94 percent season-ticket renewal rate. Those are impressive figures.

Now, the pressure is on Kessel to deliver on the ice. He’s always been a productive player, but he’ll have that added responsibility of being the go-to guy on the ice, which he was in Toronto too, and he’ll have to be one of the key veteran leaders for the young players in the locker room.

Is that something he can handle?

“I haven’t really got to have that in my career,” Kessel said of being a key leader. “I think it’s going to be great. I’m going to do whatever I can to help these guys win and help them improve. The young guys have questions or anything they want to talk about, I’m there to talk about it. Try to get our team better and them better.”

[MORE COYOTES: 2018-19 Summary | X-factor | Three questions]

Kessel’s relationship with head coach Rick Tocchet should help ease his transition to Arizona and the fact that he’s on a team that won’t be the center of attention in the state should also help him feel more comfortable.

Now, it’s all about the veteran winger delivering on the ice. He won’t have the benefit of suiting up on the same team as stars like Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, but he has to find a way to take the Coyotes to the next level. Last year, they missed the playoffs by four points without him. Now that Kessel’s been added, he and the rest of his teammates are going to be expected to make up those four points.

Only four teams finished with fewer goals than the Coyotes last season (Wild, Stars, Kings, Ducks). So if Clayton Keller can bounce back from his difficult sophomore year and Kessel can add to the 19 goals Galchenyuk scored last year, they should be able to produce enough offense to make them competitive. Arizona also had the 26th ranked power play in the NHL last year. That should improve with Kessel in the picture, as 12 of his 27 goals were scored on the man-advantage.

There’s no denying that, on paper, this acquisition is a good one for the entire organization, but it’s now up to Kessel to find a way to make it work on the ice.

Can he do it?

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.