Arizona Coyotes: 2021-22 NHL season preview

Arizona Coyotes
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Arizona Coyotes.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 24-26-6 (54 points; fifth place in West Division)
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; selected Dylan Guenther No. 9 overall
• Offensive leader: Phil Kessel (20 goals, 23 assists, 43 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Ryan Dzingel, Carter Hutton, Dmitij Jaskin, Conor Timmins (trade from Colorado), Anton Stralman (trade from Florida), Antoine Roussel (trade from Vancouver), Jay Beagle (trade from Vancouver), Loui Eriksson (trade from Vancouver), Shayne Gostisbehere (trade from Philadelphia), Josef Korenar (trade from San Jose), Travis Boyd, Andrew Ladd (trade from New York Islanders)
• Free Agent Subtractions: Darcy Kuemper (trade to Colorado), Antti Raanta, Adin Hill (trade to San Jose), Christian Dvorak (trade to Montreal), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (trade to Vancouver), Alex Goligoski, Conor Garland (trade to Vancouver)

Biggest Question Facing the Coyotes

• Who will be the next player traded?

The Coyotes’ offseason has been all about completely overhauling the roster and purging it of, well, everything. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, all of the goalies, Alex Goligoski, and Christian Dvorak have all been traded or let go in free agency with nothing but future assets and draft picks coming back in return.

Given that it seems obvious that Phil Kessel is one of the next to go given his status as a pending free agent.

But will he be it?

Will it extend to more players that actually have term on their contract? Is Clayton Keller part of the rebuild, or is he a trade chip? Does Nick Schmaltz have value? What about any of the other pending unrestricted free agents on the roster (of which they are many)? The trades may have only just begun, and by the end of the season the Coyotes could have have an obscene number of draft picks at their disposal.

The only player on the roster that seems safe is defenseman Jakob Chychrun.

What’s the salary cap situation?

The salary cap situation is great, because the Coyotes not only have space to work with this season, they have almost no long-term commitments on the books. Outside of Keller they have no significant salary cap hits of any kind.

Now, what they do with that is yet to be seen.

Given the uncertain future of the team, at least regarding its arena situation, it is difficult to imagine them being major players for superstars. But it does give them flexibility to continue to be a contract dumping ground that allows them to take on more future assets. They have shown time and time again they are not afraid to do that and will weaponize their salary cap space, and there is nothing stopping them from continuing to do that.

Breakout Candidate

• Conor Timmins

He’s an intriguing player after coming over from Colorado in the Kuemper trade. He was never going to get a major role with the Avalanche given the top-heavy nature of their defense, and Arizona should present an opportunity for him to play real minutes. He put up great numbers in the American Hockey League and did not look out of place in his limited cup of coffee in the NHL.

Best-Case Scenario

The playoffs are probably not a realistic scenario here. They are moving to the Central Division where competition is going to be way more fierce than it would have been in the Pacific, and it is a roster that is clearly being torn down to the foundation. They also do not have the goaltending that kept them in games for the past couple of seasons. Going from Kuemper and Raanta to Carter Hutton and Josef Korenar is a big drop.

The best hope here is that the pending free agents play well enough to be traded elsewhere for strong returns, and that young players like Chychrun, Timmins, and Keller take big steps forward. The latter one is extremely important. The Coyotes have a huge investment in Keller and right now he does not look like a cornerstone player or a trade chip. They need him to bounce back.

Worst-Case Scenario

The worst-case scenario here might not even really be that bad in the long run. But if the goaltending does not hold out, the roster continues to get purged, potential trade assets do not perform and tank their value, and players like Keller or Timmins do not take any step forward this could quickly turn into an ugly season in the standings. The positive there is that it could lead to some draft lottery luck and maybe a franchise-changing player. But even that is far from a given because then it is in the hands of ping pong balls and the lottery.

Bottom line is they need to be able to flip some players for more assets and they need Keller to have a big year.

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    Trade: Canadiens acquire Christian Dvorak from Coyotes for draft picks

    Montreal Canadiens Trade
    Getty

    The Montreal Canadiens did not waste any time in trying to replace Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

    Less than an hour after they announced they would not be matching the offer sheet from Carolina, the Canadiens acquired center Christian Dvorak from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for two draft picks, a first-round pick in 2022 and a second-round draft pick in 2024.

    There are some conditions on that first-round pick changing hands this season since Montreal owns two picks — its own, as well as Carolina’s pick as part of the compensation for Kotkaniemi.

    • Arizona will receive the higher of the two first-round picks. Unless…
    • As per the Canadiens release: “either or both of Montreal’s own 1st round pick and/or Carolina’s 1st round pick are Top 10 picks in the 2022 NHL Draft (after the final Draft order has been established in accordance with the results of the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery), then Montreal will instead transfer to Arizona: i) the worse of Montreal’s own pick and Carolina’s pick (previously acquired by Montreal); and ii) Montreal’s own 2nd round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft.”

    In other words, if either Montreal or Carolina’s pick ends up in the top-10, Arizona gets the lower pick. If neither pick is in the top-10, Arizona gets the higher pick.

    Dvorak is signed for four more seasons at a salary cap number of $4.45 million.

    [Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

    The 25-year-old center is coming off a 2020-21 season that saw him score 17 goals and 31 total points in 56 games. He spent the first five years of his career with the Coyotes and has pretty consistently scored at a 15-20 goal pace over 82 games.

    The Montreal perspective

    It was pretty obvious that the Canadiens were going to have to do something here.

    With Phillip Danault and Kotkaniemi leaving this offseason they had a glaring weakness at center after Nick Suzuki, and they were loaded with draft pick capital to use as trade chips. A trade was the most inevitable conclusion, and Dvorak was a player that was rumored to Montreal even before the Kotkaniemi offer sheet drama started.

    In the short-term, this is not the worst situation for Montreal. Based on their most recent performances Dvorak is a better, more productive player than Kotkaniemi, is signed long-term, and comes at a cheaper salary cap number for this season.

    [Related: Canadiens do not match Kotkaniemi offer sheet]

    The risk is that Kotkaniemi still has more upside and could become something more. But that has not happened yet, and if it was going to happen we probably would have seen a little more evidence of it by now.

    Potentially surrendering the higher draft pick is a risk because there is a good chance that Montreal misses the playoffs this season, even after its Stanley Cup Final run. But the top-10 protection (in which case Montreal would surrender the lower pick) is a nice safety net.

    The Arizona perspective

    The massive rebuild continues.

    This entire offseason for Arizona has been about purging long-term contracts and salary and collecting as many draft picks as possible.

    The Coyotes now have 12 picks in the 2022 class, including three first-round picks and five second round picks. That means Arizona possesses eight of the first 64 picks in the draft.

    They also now have three second-round picks in 2024.

    The only question that remains now is where this all stops over the next few months. It seems like a safe assumption that Phil Kessel, in the last year of his contract, will eventually be moved. But will Clayton Keller go as well? Nick Schmaltz? They also have 12 pending unrestricted free agents, some of which are almost guaranteed to be traded for more draft picks this season.

    Projecting the 2022 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey roster

    usa hockey
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    We finally have an Olympic agreement! The NHL, IIHF, and IOC worked out a deal that will allow the league to send players to Beijing, the first time they will participate since the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

    Individual federations have until Oct. 15 to submit their “long lists” before announcing final rosters in early January.

    Now that we know players will be back at the Olympics, it’s time to give some early roster projections. We’ll re-visit this exercise in December as we get closer to final roster announcements.

    The PHT team have submitted our initial rosters for both the U.S. and Canadian teams. Some very tough decisions were made!

    First up, the United States. You can see our picks for Team Canada here.

    Sean Leahy, NHL Writer

    FORWARDS

    Kyle Connor – Auston MatthewsPatrick Kane
    Matthew Tkachuk  – Jack EichelAlex DeBrincat
    Johnny GaudreauJ.T. MillerJake Guentzel
    Max PaciorettyJoe PavelskiBrock Boeser
    T.J. Oshie, Jack Hughes

    Creating a U.S. roster in the past used to be an easy job. But that is no longer a case. While Canada might have tougher decisions, the American program has developed enough stars that some good names will likely be left off the final roster that will head to Beijing in February. The deep talent pool means that my roster sees the likes of Dylan Larkin, Blake Wheeler, Chris Kreider, Brady Tkachuk, and James van Riemsdyk watching from home.

    U.S. general manager Stan Bowman will have the first three months of the NHL season to make those tough decisions and find line combinations that could potentially lead to success. For example: Jack Hughes made big strides last season and is likely a lock for future American international teams, but will he be able to do enough through December to earn a spot in the top 12?

    DEFENSE

    Jaccob SlavinCharlie McAvoy
    Quinn HughesAdam Fox
    Zach WerenskiSeth Jones
    John Carlson, Ryan McDonagh

    The blue line might be an area where the U.S. edges the Canadians. It’s a solid top-six with a pair of solid veterans who can serve as extra bodies. McAvoy, Fox, Werenski and Hughes are all 24-year-old and younger, setting up for a promising future internationally for the program. USA Hockey likes players who have been part of previous teams, which gives Jones a boost here — plus the fact that his GM is picking the team.

    GOALIES

    Connor HellebuyckJohn GibsonThatcher Demko

    Both Gibson and Hellebuyck are 28 years old, but lurking in the shadows, maybe forcing a battle if NHL players go to the 2026 Olympics in Milan is Spencer Knight. For now, the two vets will fight for the No. 1 job in Beijing.

    USA Olympics
    Sergei FadeichevTASS via Getty Images

    James O’Brien, NHL Writer

    FORWARDS

    Jake Guentzel – Auston Matthews – Jack Eichel
    Alex DeBrincat – Dylan Larkin – Patrick Kane
    Johnny Gaudreau – Joe Pavelski – Max Pacioretty
    Matthew Tkachuk – Jack Hughes – Brady Tkachuk
    T.J. Oshie, J.T. Miller

    One big assumption, and a dangerous one, is that Jack Eichel can at least be close to 100%. This setup would at least move him to the wing, instead of at center, but there’s a huge chance he won’t be available at all.

    Beyond that, this is about a mix of fun and symmetry. Specific line designation wasn’t always about who is “the best.” (Jake Guentzel is underrated, but maybe not that underrated.)

    Picture a healthy Eichel transporting the puck, then setting up Matthews. Larkin can do the dirty work for the Kane and DeBrincat, who have built-in chemistry. And, of course, the greatest indulgence of all: unleashing the Brothers Tkachuk. Would their skills be too redundant on the same line? Let’s find out, although hopefully that doesn’t translate into an international incident.

    DEFENSE

    Zach Werenski – Charlie McAvoy
    Jaccob Slavin – Adam Fox
    Quinn Hughes – Jeff Petry
    Seth Jones, John Carlson

    Holy smokes, it’s pretty mind-blowing just how far this country’s defensemen have come along. Charlie McAvoy and Adam Fox both had legitimate claims to the 2020-21 Norris Trophy, with Fox actually winning it. Petry’s an outstanding find. My guess is politics would boost both Carlson and Jones up the lineup, and that’s fine enough … maybe Jones will look a bit more like a defenseman worth $9.5M by the 2022 Winter Olympics?

    GOALIES

    Connor Hellebuyck – Thatcher Demko – John Gibson

    If it weren’t for Andrei Vasilevskiy, Hellebuyck would be my reflex answer for best goalie in the world. He’s propped up some truly dismal Jets defenses for multiple seasons; honestly, he’s done so to the point that I worry a bit about an eventual breakdown. Demko basically put on a Hellebuyck costume for the 2020-21 season, so he gets the young upstart spot. On the other end, Gibson’s nomination hinges on him performing at his previous elite level before everything unraveled with the Ducks. Things can change rapidly with goalies, but as of this moment, netminding looks like a significant strength for the U.S.

    usa hockey
    RvS.Media/Monika Majer/Getty Images

    Adam Gretz, NHL Writer

    FORWARDS

    Alex DeBrincat – Auston Matthews – Patrick Kane
    Kyle Connor – Jack Eichel – Brock Boeser
    Jake Guentzel – J.T. Miller – Max Pacioretty
    Matthew Tkachuk – Jack Hughes – Johnny Gaudreau
    Dylan Larkin, Brady Tkachuk

    Assuming Jack Eichel is healthy and 100% and able to play, there is at least some really outstanding center depth here. Matthews, Eichel, Miller, Hughes, and all the way down to Larkin if you get there is a good enough group to medal with.

    I thought the U.S. options on the right side are a little thin because I was trying to turn the page on the old guard of Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, and T.J. Oshie, so I am going to play Pacioretty and Gaudreau on their off sides and see how that goes. Not only because I want them on the team because they are among the 12-best American-born forwards right now, but also because the left side is actually really stacked with talent. Is it on Canada’s level? Maybe not. But there are not many counties in the tournament that can match up that left side.

    DEFENSE

    Adam Fox – Charlie McAvoy
    Jaccob Slavin – Jeff Petry
    Quinn Hughes – Zach Werenski
    Ryan McDonagh, John Carlson

    The top-three of Fox, McAvoy and Slavin is sensational. There are two Norris contenders in there with Fox and McAvoy (Fox already won it) and one of the better two-way defenders in the league in Slavin. Petry is no slouch, either to round out the top-four. One of the most underrated players in the league.

    I do feel like McDonagh and Carlson will probably play a lot more than I would play them because that is how Team USA tends to work, and Jones will probably make his way onto the roster as well. But this is the group I am going with and I am happy with it.

    GOALIES

    Connor Hellebuyck – John Gibson – Thatcher Demko

    John Gibson will probably be ecstatic to be playing behind a team that can support him, but the story here is Hellebuyck. He can be a game-changer for the United States and give them a chance against any opponent in the tournament. Including Canada. One of the best goalies in the world.

    usa hockey
    Martin Rose/Getty Images

    Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor

    FORWARDS

    Kyle Connor – Auston Matthews – Patrick Kane
    Johnny Gaudreau – Jack Eichel – Alex DeBrincat
    Matthew Tkachuk – Jack Hughes – Brady Tkachuk
    Jake Guentzel – Dylan Larkin – Blake Wheeler
    J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser

    You have to love the first line with Matthews centering Connor and Kane. Eichel’s health is still up in the air but if healthy, he absolutely deserves to go. I like the Tkachuk brothers taking care of Hughes, which will allow us to really see how good Hughes is with plenty of room.

    DEFENSE

    Zach Werenski – Seth Jones
    Charlie McAvoy – John Carlson
    Adam Fox – Jaccob Slavin
    Jacob Trouba, Torey Krug

    I would keep Jones and Werenski together as they have spent the last few seasons playing together in Columbus. McAvoy and Slavin provide great defensive play for offensive defenseman Carlson and Fox. 

    GOALIES

    Connor Hellebuyck – John Gibson – Spencer Knight

    Hellebuyck is a no-brainer and Gibson is a lot better than his record of late indicates, on a poor Anaheim team. Knight is the future of the USA in goal and should gain valuable experience just observing.

    Central Division review: Unmatched Avalanche, busy Blackhawks, and more

    Central Division review: Unmatched Avalanche, busy Blackhawks, and more
    via Blackhawks on Twitter

    Throughout this week, PHT will review each of the NHL’s (restored) four divisions. Who’s the favorite, who’s rising, and who’s in decline? How did the offseason affect the outlook? Today, PHT reviews the Central Division.

    Current Central Division Favorite: Avalanche

    Yes, you can debate the Avalanche’s place as Stanley Cup favorites. Some might feel burned by making them the sexy choice last season, being that Colorado hasn’t managed that great playoff leap just yet.

    But as far as the Central Division title race goes? For all the potential depth in the Central Division, and all of the inherent uncertainty of hockey, it’s hard to imagine any team even really making the Avalanche sweat.

    Truly, the most realistic scenario would be injuries piling up. Really, though, we’ve seen the Avalanche prosper during recent years even without the greatest health-related luck. If anything, those bounces might go their way in 2021-22. If so, this already frightening array of mostly prime-age talent could get even scarier.

    Sure, losses like Philipp Grubauer, Brandon Saad, Joonas Donskoi, and Ryan Graves could sting. The Avs still look like the team to beat in the Central Division, however — and possibly the entire league.

    (As an aside: it’s hard to believe that the Dallas Stars aren’t that far removed from a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Heading into 2021-22, it’s truly difficult to assign them as rising or falling. Instead, the Stars are just sort of … there?)

    Biggest Offseason Move: Seth Jones/the Blackhawks’ offseason, in general

    If the group is grumpy enough, you could probably start a fight by asking if Seth Jones is actually an elite defenseman. That’s a question that’s difficult to answer, especially if you’re inflexibly in favor of analytics or “the eye test.”

    But just about everyone can agree that the Blackhawks went for it with Seth Jones. Before the sometimes-polarizing defenseman played a single shift for Chicago, the Blackhawks gambled on an enormous eight-year extension with a $9.5 million cap hit. That Jones trade-then-sign was part of an absolutely staggering gold rush for defensemen who may or may not actually be elite.

    That alone would make for a busy offseason.

    The Blackhawks didn’t stop there, though.

    Eventually, Marc-Andre Fleury decided to play for the Blackhawks after they traded for him. For whatever reason, the Blackhawks allowed a nice young player in Pius Suter walk. They traded Duncan Keith, and also coughed up Adam Boqvist during the Seth Jones courting process.

    It’s easy to forget that they took Tyler Johnson off of the Lightning’s hands. And, frankly, one of their best moves might be one of their quietest (investing in underrated former Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe).

    It’s all a lot to take in, really. Almost enough to distract you from an extremely ugly lawsuit.

    (If you’re talking about different kind of biggest moves … well, the Coyotes are now members of the Central Division. That’s pretty big, too.)

    Central Division team on the rise: Blackhawks

    Again, we can debate Seth Jones’ value into we’re Blue-Jackets-blue in the face. He could rebound to Norris-ish-form merely thanks to a change of scenery. It could also become uncomfortably clear that Chicago should’ve waited to see if criticisms were valid before that max-term, $9.5M per-year-commitment.

    But the Blackhawks improved more than any Central Division team. Sometimes, it was “improving by default.”

    • Their goaltending survived more than expected in 2020-21, thanks to Kevin Lankinen. Aging or not, Marc-Andre Fleury is the defending Vezina Trophy winner, and it wasn’t just a reptuation nod. A MAF-Lankinen duo looks like a big upgrade on paper. Maybe a really big one.
    • Even if Seth Jones fails to justify a $9.5M cap hit that kicks in starting in 2022-23, the Blackhawks improved their defensive personnel.

    Frankly, by trading Duncan Keith, they might protect themselves from their worst habits. When the Oilers traded for Keith, the most confident optimists projected better things in a smaller role. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks insisted on playing him as a 23-to-24-minute defenseman, even though his days as such had passed him.

    It’s basically like throwing away ice cream if you simply can’t resist dessert. Those minutes can go to more appropriate players.

    Really, the McCabe signing could enhance Jones, allowing the skilled defenseman to “rove” with less damaging consequences.

    The Blackhawks might also get Jonathan Toews back, which is sort of cheating, but hey … that would be a nice upgrade.

    Time will tell if the Blackhawks opened themselves up to long-term pain for these short-term gains. They should be better either way, though. (It’s just a question of how much better.)

    If you want a runner-up: the Jets have a chance to look better on defense. The question there is the same: how much better, though?

    Central Division team on the decline: Coyotes

    Technically, some things do change for the Phoenix-then-Arizona Coyotes. They’re now in the Central Division after years in the Pacific (and one in the West).

    On the other hand, the Coyotes continue to endure arena-related headaches. It’s telling, too, that it feels strangely safe to say that the playoffs aren’t much of a concern if the 2021-22 season really serves as the Coyotes’ final campaign at Gila River Arena in Glendale.

    To casual observers, that dim outlook might look like more of the same. The Coyotes have struggled on the ice for ages, even if things sometimes look brighter than the off-the-ice drama.

    [Glendale opts out of arena deal; Bettman, Coyotes hopeful to negotiate]

    But, during the later stages of John Chayka’s doomed era, the Coyotes actually eye-balled the salary cap ceiling. They tried to make pushes to compete, including trading for Phil Kessel, and signing Oliver Ekman-Larsson to the sort of contract that made you think the ‘Yotes wanted to be taken seriously.

    Unfortunately, it all fell apart, and the franchise now is in a dramatic rebuild. They sold off OEL, Conor Garland, and other prominent players. While the moves honestly might be smart in the grand scheme of things — including maybe selling high on Darcy Kuemper — it paints a grim picture for this specific season.

    Few expect the duo of Carter Hutton and Josef Korenar to steal too many games.

    Under normal circumstances, Central Division teams might be bummed about an added team. For a nice run, seven teams vied for the three automatic playoff spots. Now it’s the standard eight going for three, but let’s face it: most Central Division teams will probably view the Coyotes as a chance to cushion their points totals.

    In losing Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson, the Predators are at risk of declining, too. They didn’t tear it down like the Coyotes did, though. In the short-term, that means less of a decline for Nashville. In the bigger picture, they could end up bigger losers for taking very underwhelming half-measures.

    With some savvy drafting and development — and maybe an arena resolution (stop laughing) — the Coyotes might eventually become a factor in the Central Division. Just not anytime soon. It could get ugly this season.

    Blues, Wild face huge questions that need to be answered

    Yes, this is a slow time for the NHL offseason. Merely look at this recent list of lingering RFAs, and you’ll realize that teams still have work to do. Central Division teams are not immune to having to-do lists looming in the distance.

    • The Wild still need to work out a contract for star RFA Kirill Kaprizov. To put things mildly, it hasn’t been a smooth process. Even if the Wild sign Kaprizov, the asking price might make it tougher for them to be competitive after the stunning Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts.

    It’s fair to wonder if the Wild can improve upon, or at least match, last season’s breakthrough. That’s even with Kaprizov in the fold. Getting some answers on that issue will be huge.

    • Are the Blues going to be able to trade Vladimir Tarasenko? If so, will it be for NHL-ready players, picks, prospects, or something in between? If not, what kind of player can Tarasenko be … and can they at least coexist enough to get the most out of him?

    These are crucial questions for a Blues team that’s experienced upheaval even beyond Tarasenko.

    Jaden Schwartz signed with the Kraken. That expansion team also snatched Vince Dunn, whose value inspired debates for some time. You might argue there are still some growing pains moving on from Alex Pietrangelo‘s departure last offseason.

    It’s not all bad, though. Pavel Buchnevich could replace a lot of value as a wildly underrated forward. In Brandon Saad, the Avalanche’s loss is the Blues’ gain.

    Ultimately, that Tarasenko situation is a huge, potentially awkward wild card. Could a wild card also be what the Blues shoot for, or do they have a chance at one of the three Central Division spots? It’s difficult to say without that Tarasenko trade settled (or postponed).

    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.

    Sabres stuff: Eichel’s emoji, Power likely to return to Michigan

    Sabres stuff: Eichel's emoji, Power likely to return to Michigan
    Getty Images

    Two very different bits of Buffalo Sabres news are worth touching on from Thursday. One involves a mysterious Jack Eichel emoji tweet, while the other revolves around Owen Power’s short-term future.

    Report: Top pick Owen Power likely to return to Michigan this season

    Reporters, including the Buffalo News’ Lance Lysowski, indicate that 2021 top pick Owen Power will return to Michigan in 2021-22, rather than jumping right to the NHL with the Sabres.

    On one hand, it’s been a while since the first pick of an NHL Draft didn’t jump immediately to the top level. You need to go all the way back to 2006, when Erik Johnson didn’t debut for the Blues after going first overall.

    (The Sabres have to hope that Owen Power doesn’t get surpassed by other picks in the same dramatic way Johnson did. As you may recall, Johnson was selected ahead of Jonathan Toews [third overall], Nicklas Backstrom [fourth], and Phil Kessel [fifth]. We’d needle the Blues about Claude Giroux [22nd], too, if Bobby Clarke didn’t forget his name.)

    While this is unusual, Owen Power’s decision to return to Michigan makes a lot of sense. Consider a few talking points:

    • Generally speaking, defensemen take more time to acclimate to the NHL game. By staying in Michigan, Power can refine his game.
    • The consensus is that Power probably wouldn’t be an immediately productive defensemen, offensively, in a way that Rasmus Dahlin, Cale Makar, and Quinn Hughes have been. Power can build that scoring confidence with another season at Michigan (theoretically, at least).
    • This time around, the Sabres aren’t really even talking themselves into thinking they’ll be competitive. Why expose Power to the sort of atmosphere that sucked the joy out of hockey life for the likes of Ryan O'Reilly?
    • Rather than wasting a year from his rookie deal, the Sabres might take better advantage of Power’s entry-level contract by starting to burn seasons off of it later.
    • Frankly, other NHL teams might have been better off not burning off ELC years. Did Nail Yakupov get rushed? Both Alexis Lafreniere and Jack Hughes struggled enough to at least inspire questions, even if saving their ELC years wasn’t necessarily realistic, PR-wise.

    So … this seems like a wise idea. If Power’s ultimate choice defies reports of returning to Michigan, it will be noted on PHT.

    Eichel emoji enigma

    Still-quite-new to Twitter, Jack Eichel left people buzzing by tweeting a simple emoji on Thursday:

    The open-ended nature of Eichel’s emoji tweet inspired plenty of questions. Was this Eichel expressing dismay at his unresolved surgery and/or trade situation with the Sabres? Were specific rumored trade destinations leaving him uneasy?

    Naturally, the simplicity of that Eichel emoji tweet allowed people to make plenty of jokes.

    Specifically, there were a lot of Flames – Eichel jokes(?) following the emoji tweet.

    Hopefully Eichel’s having some fun on Twitter, and people are having fun with (at?) him. Because it can’t be enjoyable for Eichel to sit idly by without a Sabres trade, especially with a surgery choice possibly dictating how he approaches his offseason.

    Almost makes you want to add a cringe emoji to the mix.

    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.