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Long-term outlook for the Arizona Coyotes

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Arizona Coyotes.

Pending free agents

The Core

A pressing question — one of the most important in franchise history, frankly — is if the Coyotes should re-sign Taylor Hall, and if Hall would actually want to become part of the core.

Because, whether you feel convinced that this is the sort of group you can win a Stanley Cup with or not, there’s definitely a core to this team.

Extending Oliver Ekman-Larsson was crucial to the Coyotes, but he didn’t really look like an $8.25M defenseman during his first season being paid that way. Time will tell if Clayton Keller is really worth $7.15M per year, himself. (It’s fair to mention that big prices for prominent forwards almost always look better as time goes on.)

The Coyotes have handed big term to some interesting players, including Nick Schmaltz, who they received in moving out former third overall pick (2015) Dylan Strome. Christian Dvorak‘s contract was a little surprising at the time, but will probably be fine.

There are some other interesting questions to answer. Can Jakob Chychrun stay healthy enough to realize his potential? As great as Darcy Kuemper has been, will he be the goalie beyond his extension (running through 2021-22)? Will they retain Antti Raanta beyond 2020-21 to maintain a potentially outstanding platoon?

Clearly, the Coyotes also hope that Barrett Hayton will not just be part of the core, but a star for them. File another one under “We’ll see.”

Long-term needs for Coyotes

The Coyotes still lack that “game-breaking talent,” so to speak.

For all that the Coyotes do well (they’re quite viable), it’s not a great sign when your top two scorers are at 45 points (Schmaltz) and 44 (Keller) this late in the season. At least now that we’ve exited the dreadful “Dead Puck Era.”

Circling back to an earlier point, Taylor Hall lingers as a tough question.

While still a strong player, Hall might not quite be the guy anymore. Hall nonetheless is the closest answer Arizona currently possesses. (Opinion: Keller and Hayton seem more likely to settle in as “stars” rather than “superstars.”)

Also, for a team that’s missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons and stands at risk of an eighth, their prospect cupboard doesn’t bowl you over. The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked their farm system 20th in late January (sub required), for example. While some might chalk that up to “early graduations,” Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed Arizona’s 23-and-under core at a middling 16th place.

The defense is also getting a little older in spots, particularly Alex Goligoski (34). Even OEL turns 29 on July 17.

Long-term strengths of Coyotes

Goalies are an unpredictable lot, but the Coyotes have done as well as anyone in acing these tests.

They’ve successfully targeted two backups in Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper. While receiving top-notch goaltending, the Coyotes also haven’t signed scary contracts like other teams. They merely signed Raanta for three years ($4.25M) and Kuemper’s extension ($4.5M for 2020-21 and 2021-22) looks like a super-steal right now. Even if Kuemper slides, few teams have made safer bets.

There are Plans C and on, too. Adin Hill has shown some potential, and Arizona boasts an interesting prospect in the pipeline in Ivan Prosvetov.

If Chychrun can get through this rough patch of injuries and Victor Soderstrom develops, the Coyotes’ defense looks pretty solid, too.

Yes, lots of “solid” can feel like a curse when “great” is usually the difference between clearing a hurdle and crashing. (Well, great matched with lucky, at least in this often-random sport.)

Still, the Coyotes keep putting themselves in a spot where they can get that extra boost. With plenty of Pacific Division teams looking to be in waning periods, there might just be an opening for the Coyotes.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes
Coyotes’ biggest surprises, disappointments so far

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.

Taylor Hall’s early impact on Arizona Coyotes

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In mere hours, Taylor Hall will suit up for his fifth game as a member of the Arizona Coyotes. Hall’s new team has a chance to fatten its Pacific Division lead against the (mostly) rising Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday.

Don’t blame Hall if he’s still trying to find his rhythm, and footing.

Consider that the New Jersey Devils sat Hall as they ramped up their efforts to trade him, ultimately finding a deal with Arizona. Hall waited a week between games, needing to catch a “red eye” flight to debut for the Coyotes in a win against the Sharks on Dec. 17.

Other factors likely messed with Hall’s equilibrium.

So far, the Coyotes only played one home game (against the Wild on Dec. 19), not that “home” is home yet for Hall, anyway.

While the holiday break provided a crucial opportunity for rest, Hall probably feels like he’s still trying to dance to a strange, unfamiliar beat. Really, these factors only strengthen the logic behind trading for a player sooner rather than later. Ideally, the Coyotes will get Hall fully up to speed long before most other teams make their late “rentals.”

Factoring in all of those caveats underscores how impressive Hall’s first four games have been. Let’s break down his start, going deeper than one goal and two primary assists.

Dec. 17: Coyotes beat Sharks 3-2 (Hall gets first assist)

Using Natural Stat Trick’s handy game logs, you can see that this was the only game so far where Hall was really under water from a shot-share perspective.

Even then, Hall showed why the Coyotes acquired him by combining power and skill to set up Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s game-winning goal:

“He had maybe four hours of sleep, travels cross country, and he hasn’t played in about a week. Not bad for that situation,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet after that game, via NHL.com. “If he plays like that for not having much sleep, imagine what he can do with some real rest.”

Dec. 19: Wild beat Coyotes 8-5 (Another assist)

Hall has avoided the line blender so far, spending the majority of his even-strength time with Christian Dvorak and Phil Kessel. If that alignment boosts Kessel and opens up easier matchups for the likes of Clayton Keller, it could be quite the boon for Arizona.

While this marked Hall’s first loss with the Coyotes, he made an impact, firing five SOG and finishing this nice takeaway by Dvorak by setting up Kessel:

 

The Coyotes lost Darcy Kuemper to injury, so it was clearly not a great overall night for Arizona.

Dec. 22: Coyotes beat Red Wings 5-2 (First Hall goal with Arizona)

Despite limited ice time (14:16 TOI), Hall made an impact. He fired four SOG, with his first Coyotes goal coming on a booming shot:

Goodness.

Dec. 23: Predators win against Coyotes 3-2 (First time Hall hasn’t scored a point for Arizona)

Looking at only the simplest stats, this seems like a rough night for Hall specifically. He failed to score a point, and finished with a -2 rating.

Delve deeper and Hall comes across as a positive influence. The Predators dominated possession, but Hall broke even. Hall also showed signs that he could click with Derek Stepan and Vinnie Hinostroza if need be.

***

After Hall’s debut, Tocchet told NHL Now that he didn’t want Hall to get “system’d to death” upon arriving with the Coyotes. If Arizona leans toward a slow trickle instead of a deluge, maybe we’ll see more of the benefits of that osmosis starting with Saturday’s game against the Golden Knights?

Ultimately, it’s already been a pretty strong start for Hall in Arizona.

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.

Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

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If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

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.

Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Detroit Red Wings fans are right to rejoice. While the move’s been telegraphed for a while, this is indeed a good Friday for the Red Wings, as Steve Yzerman was officially named as their next GM.

Whether it was convincing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to sign team-friendly deals, or identifying the league’s general prejudice against smaller players to unearth draft day bargains, Yzerman* did such a great job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that I’ve called him a magician and/or wizard on multiple occasions.

Even if you’re a vociferous defender of Ken Holland’s latter, sometimes-rebuild-resistant years, chances are, you’re probably very excited about Yzerman’s hiring. The team announced official titles for both Yzerman and Holland, if you like your updates especially granular.

So, to me and plenty others – not just Red Wings fans – this is a shrewd hire.

Still, if there’s one talking point that stands out as especially valid, it’s this: when Yzerman took over the Lightning, he already had an elite center in Steven Stamkos, and a future Norris-winning defenseman in Victor Hedman.

All due respect to Dylan Larkin (who had a strong season, and is only 22) and some other nice players, but the Red Wings don’t have foundational players at quite that superstar level. They do, however, have a pretty interesting setup. If Yzerman is as bright as he seemed to be in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings could really turn things around. All they need is some luck and patience.

Let’s get an idea of the path ahead for Yzerman.

On a Larkin

Look, there’s no shame in Larkin not being quite what Stamkos was in 2010, when Stevie Y took over in Tampa Bay. It’s easy to forget just how potent Stamkos was (the NHL’s most goals [156] and second-most points [283] from 2009-10 to 2010-11), possibly because a few catastrophic injuries briefly derailed his career.

Larkin is fantastic, and stands as the sort of contract you’d build around: a 22-year-old star with a bargain $6.1 million cap hit running through 2022-23.

Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi showed great chemistry with Larkin late in the season, with Mantha in particular boasting the sort of pedigree that points to continued success. One of Yzerman’s early challenges will be to strike affordable deals with Mantha, Bertuzzi, and Andreas Athanasiou, three useful forwards whose contracts expire after 2019-20. Would the best deals come in earlier extensions, or would the Red Wings be wiser to wait? It’s up to Yzerman & Co. to decide, and getting good deals could be key if they want to build a winning core.

Early fruits of rebuild

While I’d argue that Holland dragged his feet multiple times when it came to the rebuilding process, the good news is that when Holland did act, he landed some nice building blocks. In trading away Gustav Nyquist, Nick Jensen, and especially Tomas Tatar, the Red Wings have really loaded up on draft picks, most of which land in the top three rounds.

The development processes are already underway for a few interesting prospects, particularly 2018 first-rounders Filip Zadina (sixth overall) and Joe Veleno (30th). The Red Wings once again pick sixth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, so it’s up to Yzerman to land another blue-chipper, even if Detroit doesn’t get the luxury of a more obvious choice like Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko.

Almost as important is that the Red Wings have loaded up on picks like they’re at Prospect Costco:

  • Last year, they had those two first-rounders, plus: two second-rounders, and three third-rounders to go with their normal set of choices (minus a fifth-rounder).
  • Via Cap Friendly’s handy chart, the Red Wings have two extra second-round picks and one additional fifth-rounder in 2019.
  • In 2020, they have an extra second and third-round pick. (The third-rounder could turn into a second-rounder depending upon the San Jose Sharks’ actions.)
  • They already have an extra third-rounder in 2021.

That’s a fantastic start, eh? Even the best drafting teams would admit that there’s a lot of “dart throwing” involved in drafting, so it makes sense to load up on those darts, especially when you get the added precision of picks in earlier rounds.

The Lightning were adept at finding quality talent off-the-beaten-path under Yzerman,* most notably identifying Brayden Point as a third-rounder (79th in 2014) and Nikita Kucherov in a second round (58th in 2011). If Yzerman can carry that success over to Detroit, even partially, the Red Wings could really make some exciting leaps.

Cleanup duty

Which brings us to the messier part.

For all of Holland’s accomplishments, he left behind a shaggy salary structure. There’s dead money (Stephen Weiss’ buyout lingers through 2020-21), scary contracts (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser), and, erm, maybe too much of a “veteran presence.”

By that I mean this team is old, at least beyond the core. Niklas Kronwall is 38 with a (mercifully) expiring contract, both Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley are 35, and Mike Green is a very banged-up 33. DeKeyser is oft-criticized and not really a spring chicken, either, at 29.

The goalie duo is also creaky. Jimmy Howard was fantastic in 2018-19, but at 35, it’s still surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade him, even with the understanding that they’d come calling during free agency time in July. Jonathan Bernier is 30 and his $3M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.

Most of those trends are disturbing, and while the Red Wings need more talent basically everywhere, the defense and goaltending likely need the most strenuous surgery.

The good news is that a significant chunk of those contracts aren’t lingering too long after Yzerman takes the reins. Kronwall is headed to free agency (or retirement?), while Ericsson, Green, and Daley come off the books after 2019-20. Howard’s extension only lasts through 2019-20, so maybe Yzerman will get trade value out of the veteran where Holland could or would not.

In the short term, and in the case of a few lengthier deals, there’s a significant mess to clean up. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t too dim, however.

Some pain for future gains

I’ve seen at least mild arguments to try to win now, with at least a portion of The Athletic’s Craig Custance piece (sub required) mentioning certain surprise stories in the NHL. And, sure, if the goal were only to make it back to the playoffs (and maybe even win a series), then speeding up the rebuild would make sense.

My guess is that mega-winner Stevie Y wants his best chance at a Stanley Cup, not merely getting the Red Wings to the playoff bubble.

The free agent market dries up pretty quickly when you realize that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky likely wouldn’t find much of a lure to join a rebuilding team in a cold weather city (heck, “Detroiters” even got canceled).

So, instead of chasing mid-tier free agents and settling for mid-tier expectations, Yzerman should use his clout to absorb another rebuild year or two. Doing so would raise the ceiling on this rebuild, for a few reasons:

  • Most directly and obviously, tanking for an even better pick in 2020. If you look at the teams who regularly contend, virtually all of them required high-end talent found early in drafts.
  • Rather than giving valuable playing time to long-in-the-tooth veterans, why not let younger players learn on the job? You might just get an idea of what you have in, say, Michael Rasmussen. Difference-making players are hitting the NHL earlier and earlier, so why not find out which players can actually make a difference?
  • Allow the Red Wings to be a short-term receptacle to clear cap space, with Detroit taking a bribe, whether that means quality draft picks or useful players. See: the Coyotes landing an important scorer in Vinnie Hinostroza in exchange for keeping Marian Hossa‘s contract warm. Yzerman could even call up his buddies in Tampa Bay and offer to absorb the final year of Ryan Callahan‘s contract ($5.8M cap hit). Boy, Anthony Cirelli and/or Mathieu Joseph would look nice with a winged wheel …
  • Going further, getting more cap space means that the Red Wings could position themselves to land better players in trades than they’d likely entice in free agency. Perhaps teams would ready for the expansion draft by sending good, would-be-exposed players to Detroit for something? Maybe the Hurricanes would sour on Dougie Hamilton, or something similar would happen with P.K. Subban, considering his hefty $9M price tag? Could the Red Wings echo former exec Jim Nill in being the next team to say “Why, yes, we’d love to take Tyler Seguin for 25 cents on the dollar, thank you.”

***

This isn’t an easy job, and again, some of this comes down to luck. Still, it’s easy to see why Red Wings fans are excited.

Make no mistake about it, though: Yzerman has his work cut out for him. It could be the fun sort of work that you’d get from tinkering with a car in the garage, and it should be fascinating for those of us who are dorks when it comes to studying how teams are put together.

* – And his staff, including current GM Julien BriseBois. We could have a lengthy, basically impossible-to-resolve discussion about who was most responsible for the great building in Tampa Bay, but it would be pretty fruitless. And, really, wouldn’t all smart GMs want to surround themselves with other smart people?

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.

Grubauer extraordinary as Avalanche extend wildcard lead

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‘Gruuuuu’ will be the soundtrack to the Arizona Coyotes’ nightmares tonight when they lay their heads down to sleep tonight.

Enter Sandman? Nah. Enter Philipp Grubauer.

An incredible 42-save effort, one that included Grubauer shaking off two third-period goals that brought the Coyotes level with the Colorado Avalanche in the final eight minutes game, gave the Avalanche a crucial 2-1 shootout win in a pivotal game that may have just settled the wildcard race in the Western Conference.

Colorado’s big offseason acquisition pulled through in the clutch. He survived a 20-shot barrage in the third, stopped three shots in overtime and then turned aside Nick Cousins, Alex Galchenyuk and then Vinnie Hinostroza with a sprawling right-pad save in the shootout to put the Avs three points ahead of the Coyotes with four games to go.

Is it over for the Coyotes? It’s probably a bit too early to say that, but the Avalanche hold the keys to their own playoff destiny now, and no one but themselves and prevent them from unlocking that final spot in the Western Conference.

Arizona certainly showed some poise facing a 2-0 deficit in the second half of the third frame.

Here’s a quick synopsis:

With exactly 8:01 remaining in the third period, the Coyotes and their season appeared to be evaporating quickly.

With exactly 8:00 left in the frame, their Oliver Ekman-Larsson threw them a lifeline.

A captain’s goals if there ever was one, OEL pulled the Coyotes to 2-1. But the Coyotes were still in need of another here. Or the same one. That’d work.

And with exactly 49 seconds left and the net empty 200 feet the other way, OEL did it again to at least secure a point.

Darcy Kuemper turned in a big performance of his own, making 25 saves, including a couple biggies on Nathan MacKinnon, who was flying.

The return of Gabriel Landeskog after a nine-game absence with an upper-body injury was a big boon to the Avs, who are also without Mikko Rantanen. Landeskog provided the assist on MacKinnon’s 1-0 goal.

Derick Brassard even scored, with the trade deadline acquisition finding a big goal.

Both of Colorado’s goals came on the power play, significant because the Coyotes came into the game with the NHL’s best penalty kill. Arizona didn’t give the Avs much five-on-five, so the extra room to breathe on the power play played a critical role.

Colorado has St. Louis, Edmonton, Winnipeg and San Jose left on their schedule. The way Friday’s game shook out was the worst-case scenario for the Minnesota Wild, who are also in the fight four points back after a big win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday. Minnesota meets Arizona on Sunday.

The race isn’t over, but some clarity was gained.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck