Phil Kessel

Coyotes aiming to stay focused following Chayka resignation

1 Comment

The Arizona Coyotes caught a break when the NHL opted to expand the postseason and return from the pandemic-related shutdown in a pair of Canadian bubbles.

Arizona was a long shot to make the playoffs when the season was halted in March and the rejiggered format puts them in the postseason for the first time since 2012.

The Coyotes also suffered a setback even before they got to the Edmonton bubble.

John Chayka, considered one of the NHL’s top general mangers, resigned from his position and was called a quitter by the franchise in a sternly worded news release Sunday.

The news broke the day the Coyotes left for Edmonton. So along with trying to prepare for their Stanley Cup qualifier series against Nashville, which opens Sunday, the Coyotes have to add avoiding outside distractions to their list.

”Yeah, that’s been said. A bunch of times. Trust me,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said from Edmonton. ”Guys have been great, we’re focused. It’s a focused group and they know how to deal with stuff like that, and we’re ready to go.”

The Coyotes have certainly had their share of off-ice distractions in recent years.

The NHL ran the franchise for four years after former owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy in 2009. The Coyotes reached the 2012 Western Conference Finals but the financial constraints of being run by the league took a toll, in part leading to an eight-year playoff drought.

A new ownership group brought new hope in 2013, but turmoil surfaced again in 2015, when the city of Glendale voted to terminate a 15-year, $225 million lease agreement with the Coyotes for Gila River Arena.

Plans for a new shared arena with Arizona State University fell through in 2017 and the franchise’s future in the Phoenix area continued to remain in doubt.

Andrew Barroway gave the Coyotes a bit more financial flexibility when he bought a majority stake in the team in 2017. Current owner Alex Meruelo kept the franchise on an upward climb when he bought the team last year, clearing the way for Arizona to trade for high-scoring forwards Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall.

The Coyotes played well early in the season, but injuries to goalies Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta sent them tumbling down the standings to 11th in the Western Conference when the season was halted due to the pandemic.

The new-look postseason put Arizona in the Edmonton bubble and appearing to be in good shape with both goalies, along with Kessel, able to heal.

Then drama hit again.

Chayka, who became the youngest general manager in Northern American sports history at 31 four years ago, reportedly asked Meruelo permission to pursue another professional opportunity. The relationship apparently strained, Chayka was not invited to a dinner with Meruelo and new CEO Xavier Gutierrez to talk with Hall about a contract extension.

Chayka, who signed a contract extension through 2024 earlier this season, tendered his resignation Friday and the team did not hold back in its news release announcing the decision two days later.

”Chayka has chosen to quit on a strong and competitive team, a dedicated staff, and the Arizona Coyotes fans, the greatest fans in the NHL,” the team said.

The inopportune timing puts the Coyotes in the position of having to prepare for what should be a tough postseason series against the Predators while trying to shake off yet another off-ice distraction.

Being in a bubble should help them keep focus. So should their history of playing while uncertainty hangs over the franchise, especially in a playoff format that will be new to everyone.

”You work pretty hard to put yourself in position to play in the playoffs and with everything that went on, we’re in,” Coyotes forward Conor Garland said. ”We’ve just got to take advantage of it. Obviously, our first game, everyone’s going to be excited and it’s going to be a different situation than anyone’s ever had, but it’s new to everyone so it’s an even playing field.”

It will be – if the Coyotes can overcome the outside distractions.

NHL Power Rankings: Teams hit hardest by flat $81.5M salary cap

Getty Images

As focused as NHL teams are on the present with the ambitious return to play, the CBA extension introducing a flat salary cap for 2020-21 leaves GMs (and fans) with plenty to think about.

Sure, there are NHL teams who can take advantage of a flat salary cap. That’s a post for another day — maybe a future edition of PHT’s power rankings?

But, overall, there are plenty of NHL contenders and hopefuls who are sweating that flat salary cap far more than there are those ready to circle like vultures. At minimum, the flat NHL salary cap presents huge obstacles for 2020-21. The ripple effects of COVID-19 could affect multiple seasons, especially if the world continues to struggle to contain the coronavirus.

Let’s power rank the five NHL teams hit the hardest by the flat $81.5 million salary cap, then. While the larger future will be considered, these rankings weigh the offseason heading into 2020-21 most heavily.

Frankly, plenty of teams will sweat this situation, so the honorable mentions section is quite robust.

[At least there’s the NHL return-to-play schedule to look forward to.]

Power rankings: 5 NHL teams hit hardest by the flat salary cap

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Even in an ideal, pandemic-free world, the Lightning would need to tighten their belts. This franchise is a lot like the dynasty-era Blackhawks when it comes to perennial cap crunches, only they sadly don’t have the jewelry to show for it. But with the NHL salary cap flat at $81.5M? That belt-tightening morphs into the potential for painful surgeries.

After all, with about $76M already devoted to 15 players (give or take), things would be snug. Then you factor in talented RFAs Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev deserving significant raises, and … yikes. It’s the sort of thing that might make you want to jet ski out of town.

(Cirelli can’t wait tables forever.)

Infomercial voice: But that’s not all.

To make matters worse, Lightning GM Julien BriseBois faces potential hurdles in no-trade/no-movement clauses. Via Cap Friendly, supporting cast members such as Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn all own such clauses. So, it’s not just about who you’d want to move out (as painful as that already would be), but it’s also about who you could convince to leave.

Even by their frequently cap-challenged standards, the Lightning have their work cut out for them.

2. St. Louis Blues

The Lightning and Blues could really be a 1a/1b situation.

Much like Tampa Bay was expecting struggles even with a cap increase, the Blues likely knew that it would be difficult to keep Alex Pietrangelo. With about $79.45M devote to their roster, how could St. Louis afford a Norris-level defenseman like Pietrangelo? Heck, how can they make it work to keep underrated RFA blueliner Vince Dunn?

Also like the Lightning, it might come down to the Blues convincing players to waive clauses, or finding snug fits to places they’d accept.

Maybe the Blues could make it work by moving a combination of Alexander Steen, Jake Allen, and/or a more painful loss like Brayden Schenn or Jaden Schwartz. Or maybe the Blues lose Pietrangelo, still need to make an uncomfortable decision or two, and need to find a way to stay afloat?

Good thing they won at least one Stanley Cup, eh?

3. Arizona Coyotes

It’s OK if you’re doing a double-take at the Coyotes now. Aren’t they supposed to be a team barely making it to the floor? Weren’t they putting Chris Pronger and Pavel Datsyuk on their cap just to get there?

Well, over the years, the Coyotes have quietly been getting more and more expensive. They haven’t always got what they paid for, but this isn’t a wholly cheap team. (Although there’s still a Marian Hossa here or there on LTIR.)

Cap Friendly places Arizona’s cap allocation at almost $80M devoted to 17 players.

And that’s without Taylor Hall. Trading for Hall represented a statement that the Coyotes want to be taken seriously. Making him more than a rental would really cement that, but could Arizona really make that work — assuming Hall would return?

The Coyotes might deal with many of the same trade clause headaches as others (Phil Kessel, Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski, Carl Soderberg), although bribing someone to take on Derek Stepan‘s $6.5M could be key. It may not be easy to find an oasis in this salary cap desert.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are like a family trying to divvy up a pizza pie. You already had some hungry siblings who were going to leave little more than toppings and crust (see: expensive stars Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner). Now concerned parent/GM Kyle Dubas must deal with being delivered a medium pizza instead of the extra large he was expecting before the flat NHL salary cap.

At least in this coming offseason, he doesn’t have too many overly important mouths to feed.

(Yes, that lengthy pizza parallel is my hunger staining this conversation like grease on a pizza box.)

The flat salary cap hurts the Maple Leafs hardest in trying to make more aggressive moves toward improving. Maybe they can stem the tide of losing flawed-but-featured defensemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci. But will they get better in hoping internal options like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren can sink, not swim? That remains to be seen.

But Dubas would also probably be wise to get proactive, because the bill is coming soon for key players. If the Maple Leafs want to keep one or more of Frederik Andersen (contract runs through 2020-21) and Morgan Rielly (through 2021-22), it will probably mean making some painful trades during the offseason.

The long-term outlook for the Maple Leafs is bumpy. They’re placed slightly lower in these specific power rankings because other teams face even more immediate concerns, though.

5. New York Islanders

Unlike others on this list, the Islanders aren’t already almost bumping their heads on that flat NHL salary cap ceiling. That said, their almost cozy-looking space (Cap Friendly puts them at about $73.4M pledged to 19 players) could get claustrophobic quickly.

Most importantly, the Islanders need to reach a deal with pending RFA star Mathew Barzal. Back about 20 years ago (OK, March), Lou Lamoriello said that the Islanders would match an offer sheet for Barzal. That’s comforting for Islanders fans who may still smart from losing John Tavares, but that doesn’t mean Barzal will be cheap. Frankly, his talent and importance to the Islanders probably justify a salary far exceeding their cap space.

Even at a discount, the Islanders won’t have much space to retain another important player in RFA defenseman Ryan Pulock. They’ll probably need to find a way to move some shaky contracts (such as those of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk), which is easier said than done, even for a master of the dark GM arts like Lamoriello.

Some teams below might technically face more immediate, in-your-face challenges. On the other hand, the uncomfortable thought for the Islanders is that they might face big bills with diminishing returns.

Quick thoughts on other teams likely to be hit hardest by flat NHL salary cap

You might believe that others deserve a mention, so feel free to chime in via the comments. A few quick hits before we go:

  • The Boston Bruins might rank as the biggest honorable mention. Even if you disagree, you’d likely admit that some pain may come. If they keep Torey Krug around, then Don Sweeney deserves a raise.
  • Then again, the Bruins aren’t alone in the honorable mentions. Much has been made of the Vancouver Canucks, who may feel enough of a squeeze to explain those Brock Boeser trade rumors, even if someone else ends up being the one standing at the end of flat NHL salary cap musical chairs.
  • The Washington Capitals face a conundrum with Braden Holtby, for sure. They also must try to figure out the future for Alex Ovechkin, whose lengthy contract wasn’t as lifetime as it seemed (it ends after 2020-21).
  • The Chicago Blackhawks are required to have cap issues. That’s simply the rule we must all abide by. In the latest iteration, it’s difficult to tell what might happen with their goaltending situation.
  • Again, this might be fodder for a future post, yet opportunistic rebuilding teams could feast if they’re creative. Why not take some short-term pain in the form of shaky contracts to earn long-term gains in future assets, particularly if you don’t expect your team to be very good anyway? A little further down the line, the flat/barely moving NHL salary cap could be a huge boon to the Seattle expansion team, too.

Who else will feel the crunch? Would you rank honorable mentions in the top five, or bump others out? Do tell.

MORE NHL POWER RANKINGS FROM PHT:

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.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

2 Comments

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Rested Phil Kessel thinks he can get back on track as Coyotes await NHL return

By just about any measure, 2019-20 marked a disappointing debut season for Phil Kessel with the Arizona Coyotes. Kessel acknowledged his “tough year,” but believes that he can bounce back as an NHL return looms.

“Obviously I had a tough year,” Kessel told Alex Kinkopf of the Coyotes website. “I think it’s probably the most injuries I’ve had in a year, but that’s no excuse, right? It’s one of those years, and obviously I’m going to look to never have that again. I’ve never had a year like that.”

Kessel pointed to the pandemic pause, saying that his body “feels good” and that he’s rested.

Of course, just about any returning player probably expects to rebound from a bad season. Especially a driven one like Kessel, a player who’s reached considerable heights — both individually, and by helping the Penguins win two Stanley Cups.

But the question is: does Kessel have the ability to rebound after a 14-goal, 38-point letdown?

Kessel thinks he can bounce back, but he needs a rebound from beyond his Coyotes debut

The more interesting question is: can Kessel regain a form from longer ago?

Yes, Kessel still produced even as things soured with the Penguins (Evgeni Malkin, or otherwise). You can look at point-per-game production in 2018-19 (82 points in as many games) and even better 2017-18 numbers and think that Kessel was at his peak.

But the criticisms that once unfairly dogged Kessel caught up to him quite a while before Kessel joined the Desert Dogs. Plenty of metrics indicated that Kessel’s defensive game nullified his offense. Depending upon what you weigh and who you ask, some viewed him as a net negative toward the end of his Penguins days:

Really, the defensive criticisms of Kessel have frequently been warranted — it’s just that the tenor’s been overly harsh. Attribute it to advancing age at 32 or whatever else, but Kessel at some point declined from “worth the trouble” to “not nearly productive enough to look away” during the past few seasons.

Pandemic pause could negate (some of the) possible downside of that “ironman” streak

But one interesting consideration is: maybe Kessel has been playing at less than 100 percent for quite often?

Consider the lengths Keith Yandle has gone to maintain his league-leading active games played streak of 866 games. Kessel is right behind Yandle with an 844-game “ironman” streak of his own. Perhaps Kessel — a perceived stubborn player — has sometimes played when he shouldn’t have?

This pandemic pause gave Kessel no choice but to be more rested. Or at least not to play professional hockey.

There’s absolutely a chance that such a break would be bad for a professional athlete. Some rely on playing games and practicing to stay in shape, rather than supplementing with training.

Yet, if you want to be optimistic about Kessel returning to form, then the break is a legitimate reason to focus on. Just realize that even the “best” Kessel will probably take something from the table — you just have to hope he brings more than he takes away.

If nothing else, it would be fun to watch Kessel if he got a new lease on life with the Coyotes, both against the Predators during the Qualifying Round and possibly beyond.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere

“The No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft belongs to a team yet to be determined, coming from the qualifying round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

As surprising as it sounded when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly revealed the 2020 draft lottery winner, it was kind of a fitting for a not-so-normal season.

Alexis Lafreniere, the expected top pick in the 2020 draft, will have to wait a little longer to find out which team he’ll be playing. We’ll learn about that in the Phase 2 drawing, which will involve the losers of the eight Qualifying Round matchups.

According to the NHL, that will take place between the Qualifying Round and the First Round of the Return to Play. That means one of the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Canucks, Coyotes, Flames, Hurricanes, Islanders, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Panthers, Penguins, Predators, Rangers, or Wild will own the No. 1 overall pick. The eight teams that end up being eligible for the lottery will have an equal 12.5% chance at Lafreniere.

But what if the COVID-19 pandemic the derails the NHL’s plans? The lottery would then include only the eight lowest teams by inverse of their regular season points percentage. That would mean Arizona, Chicago Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Rangers, and Winnipeg would be in the running for the No. 1 pick.

In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the best possible landing spots for Lafreniere.

[Mock Draft: Projecting top picks for the 2020 NHL Draft]

1. Penguins: Imagine the reaction if the team with the seventh-best points percentage during the regular season wins the No. 1 pick? The franchise selected in the top two four drafts in a row from 2003-06, setting them up for three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2017. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still at the height of their powers, which means adding a potential young, elite winger — to a cap spending team on a cheap, entry-level contract for three seasons — would allow them to retain “contender” status even longer. Now imagine a Lafreniere – Crosby – Jake Guentzel top line.

2. Canucks: Vancouver owns a roster that is full of young talent and ready to take that next step into “annual playoff team” world. How does a Lafreniere – Elias PetterssonJ.T. Miller / Brock Boeser top line feel to you?

3. Canadiens: The Habs have not selected a Quebec-born player with their first pick since Louie Leblanc in 2009. He played only 50 games in Montreal and has been out of hockey since 2016. Montreal was supposed to host the 2020 draft, meaning Lafreniere missed out on that emotional moment of hearing his name announced in front of friends and family. “Hometown kid gets picked by local team” would be one of the bigger storylines out of this draft.

4. Oilers: One complaint about the construction of the Edmonton lineup was Connor McDavid didn’t have enough help. That’s improved as Leon Draisaitl has shown us. Adding Lafreniere would be another step in strengthening the roster around McDavid and Draisaitl so they don’t have to do it all themselves.

5. Rangers: The retooling-on-the-fly is moving in the right direction for GM Jeff Gorton. The Artemi Panarin signing made an immediate impact and the goalie picture seems clear with Igor Shesterkin‘s emergence. Kaapo Kakko struggled in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have the pressure of turning around the team single-handedly. Same could be said for Lafreniere, who would enter a market trending upward and, like Kakko, be allowed time to grow.

Getty Images

6. Hurricanes: An important part of the maturation of young players is the ability to make mistakes and learn from them. Rod Brind’Amour does that in Carolina, and that would make a fine place for a top pick to settle. The Hurricanes are already filled with an abundance of young talent. Winning the No. 1 pick and adding Lafreniere to that mix would make them even bigger “jerks.”

7. Blackhawks: They’re 23rd in points percentage, so giving Chicago the top pick would fit with the “The draft should help the bad teams” crowd. Kirby Dach was picked third last year and Adam Boqvist was added at No. 8 in 2018. The Blackhawks are transitioning on the fly without making it a full-on rebuild. Their veterans are aging and they own some painful cap hits, but there is young talent coming through the ranks that could form a future core.

8. Jets: In a different world, the Jets actually won the draft lottery. Had the NHL gone with the traditional 16-team playoff format using points percentage and not added eight more teams, then Winnipeg would be Lafreniere’s future home. “Team E” was the placeholder that won the lottery with a 2.5% chance. That spot would have been held by the Jets in that scenario. Sure would be nice to see Lafreniere in a top six among Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Patrik Laine, no?

9. Maple Leafs: Toronto is going to be up against the cap ceiling, especially if it stays at $81.5M for the next few seasons. To stay as a contender that will require cheaper talent making an impact. Lafreniere would be dropped into the center — sorry, centre — of the hockey universe and not be dubbed as “the savior.” Between John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, there’s more than enough offensive weapons to allow the rookie ample time to find his role.

10. Blue Jackets: After losing Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in free agency, Columbus fought their way into playoff contention for most of the season. They also did it while seemingly losing players to injury every other day. If Jarmo Kekalainen could add a prize in Lafreniere to his prospect pool, it would go a long way to maintaining their momentum after a tough summer.

11. Coyotes: Should Taylor Hall decide to stay in Arizona, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Coyotes finding themselves firmly in playoff position next season. The organization has long possessed a strong prospect pipeline, and now there’s a good youth/veteran mix on the roster. A bounce-back season by Phil Kessel would only strengthen their case for a postseason berth.

Plus, we know what kind of lottery magic Hall possesses:

12. Panthers: Here’s the question for Florida: Is it better for the organization to win their Qualifying Round matchup with the Islanders, thereby making the playoffs, something the organization stressed following Joel Quenneville’s hiring, or is the 12.5% shot at Lafreniere a better option? Do you take the excitement of a series win over an 87.5% chance of ending up picking No. 9-15? Remember, they would also be involved in the lottery if the Return to Play plan does not go off.

13. Flames: If a Johnny Gaudreau trade does actually happen, I know of a talented winger who could slot into his place…

14. Islanders: Fortunately for the franchise, Lou Lamoriello lottery-protected the first-round pick he sent to Ottawa in the J.G. Paguea deal. If New York does get Lafreniere, that pick would transfer to 2021. If the Return to Play doesn’t happen, then the Senators would have a third first-rounder. A Lafreniere-Matt Barzal would be a fun duo to build around, and with Barry Trotz in charge the top pick will certainly be schooled in the ways of two-way hockey.

15. Predators: The cap picture is ugly, and while Nashville could use an elite prospect to help with their eventual turnaround,  how long will that take? David Poile will not be getting any relief via a rising cap ceiling any time soon. The franchise remains in “win now” mode, but in a highly competitive division how much would Lafreniere help immediately?

16. Wild: Kirill Kaprizov will arrive in the NHL one day. Eventually. This summer? Maybe next season? Anyhoo, he’s currently the big fish in the franchise’s prospect pond. With eight current skaters 30 or older, the Wild are desperate to get younger, faster and skilled. A Kaprizov/Lafreniere tandem would help in Bill Guerin’s reshaping of the roster. But with some long, heavy cap hits between Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mats Zuccarello, a turnaround may take some time.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
NHL Draft Lottery memories
Most exciting Qualifying Round series
Qualifying Round storylines
Off-season buyout candidates
Round Robin teams with most to lose

————

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.