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Three questions facing Arizona Coyotes

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Can Antti Raanta put together a complete season as a starting NHL goalie?

Raanta’s numbers from last season look quite good at a first glance. On a poor Coyotes team, he posted a 21-17-6 record with a very solid .930 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average.

Truth be told, however, he was horrible in the first half of the season but rebounded in a huge way in the second half of the season, posting 13 wins in his final 17 starts.

His impressive run earned him a three-year, $12.75 million deal in April, and a renewed commitment from the goaltender to spend the offseason working at becoming a bona fide starter.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Questions of Raanta’s fitness heading into last year’s training camp were a concern of head coach Rick Tocchet.

“It’s going to be good for me to know what it takes to play lots of games and it’s going to be good for me to kind of see what I need to do more in the summertime, what I want to improve, and come back stronger next year,” Raanta told the Associated Press after he signed his contract.

A .930 starting goaltender playing 60-plus games will very likely put the Coyotes in the playoffs and would just as likely have Raanta in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.

Can Dylan Strome build off the end of the season and make an impact as a full-time player?

Strome struggled to find a spot in the Coyotes’ roster last season.

Here’s a quick timeline:

Oct. 5-7 – plays the first two games of the season and is held pointless.

Oct. 9 – Sent down to Tucson of the American Hockey League.

Oct. 9 – Nov. 25 – tears up the AHL with 26 points in 15 games.

Nov. 26 – Earns recall back to Arizona

Nov. 27 – Dec. 18 – Scores his first NHL goal but that’s all in nine more games with the Coyote.

Dec. 19 – Sent back to Tucson

Mar. 20 – Called back up to Arizona, this time for the rest of the season.

From that point on, Strome seemed to find his stride, amassing three goals and five assists in 10 games to close out the year.

For everyone involved with the former third-overall pick, it was a sigh of relief.

“We’ve made him earn things, and playing a top-six center position as a 20-year-old is a very hard thing to do,” GM John Chayka told the team’s website in May. I think in his latest segment where he came up and played, I thought he showed a lot of improvement. I thought he proved a lot to himself and his teammates that he can handle that type of role and be productive. He’s been productive his whole life. It’s always good to see progression, and I think we’ve seen that with Dylan.”

A center by trade, Strome could make the jump to the wing.

Do the additions of Vinnie Hinostroza, Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk put them into the playoff discussion, or do they need more?

Those moves certainly point Arizona in that direction.

That’s 53 goals being injected to the Coyotes forward group based on last year’s numbers, and based on that, it would move the Coyotes from 30th place in the league to near the top-10 in goals-for.

That’s an excellent upgrade.

Couple that with Strome turning into the player they franchise wants him to be and Keller taking another step forward (and Raanta playing at his best), and the Coyotes could very much be in the playoff discussion providing they can reduce their goals against from last season. They gave up 251 — 11th most in the NHL.

That issue gets partially fixed if Raanta doesn’t get off to a poor start.

A healthy Jakob Chychrun (knee) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (core) would certainly help matters. Both missed significant time last year as a result of injuries.

The simple truth here is that the Coyotes look better on paper this year.

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

Canadiens looking to spark, not ‘bury’ Alex Galchenyuk after move to fourth line

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Alex Galchenyuk won’t be playing center for the Montreal Canadiens this year. At least that’s what general manager Marc Bergevin said last month just before training camp opened up.

Wanting to ease the drama around the Galchenyuk’s place in the lineup, Bergevin’s statement was odd given how thin the Habs are down the middle, even with the acquisition of Jonathan Drouin.

Through four games, the 23-year-old Galchenyuk has zero points and eight shots on goal while grabbing 16:21 of ice time. And after playing 18 minutes in Montreal’s opening two games, he saw a little over 14 minutes in losses to the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks.

Head coach Claude Julien has his hands full trying to spark a listless Canadiens offense that’ is averaging a goal per game through four games and is also dead last in even strength goals (two). Unlocking Galchenyuk is certainly one issue of many that the team is trying to solve.

Galchenyuk, who signed a three-year, $14.7 million extension over the summer, found himself on the fourth-line during Wednesday’s practice with Torrey Mitchell and Ales Hemsky, a move Julien is hoping will help the forward find his scoring touch again.

“Alex is having a tough start,” said Julien on Friday. “With the amount of ice time he’s had on the power play and everything else it just doesn’t seem like he’s getting scoring chances right now. I have to do what I have to do as a coach and it’s certainly not indicative of him only because there’s other guys that we think can help produce as well and they’re not.”

Averaging 3:49 of power play time (third-most on the Habs), Galchenyuk, who missed Friday’s practice with the flu, has generated four shots, tied with Jonathan Drouin just behind team leader Max Pacioretty (six).

“I think with him, as usual when you have Hemsky on your right side you’re not playing with guys who have no skill,” Julien said. “So it’s not about a situation where we’re trying to bury him. I think it’s just a situation where we need to make decisions and move players around for the time being to get us going in the right direction.”

According to Left Wing Lock, Galchenyuk has played nearly 20 percent of the time with Andrew Shaw and Phillip Danault at even strength. That hasn’t worked, so why would bumping him down the lineup be the ideal situation? He might get the ice time against an opponents’ lesser lines, but Hemsky and Mitchell haven’t created much where they’ve played with two shots combined between them.

Despite the struggle to find a regular home for Galchenyuk within the Canadiens’ lineup, this is no time for Bergevin to give up on his young forward. History hasn’t been kind to teams who have done that.

As Arpon Basu of The Athletic noted earlier this week, Galchenyuk is Julien’s new Tyler Seguin: a young, talented player who’s struggling to find consistency. The Boston Bruins could certainly use a Seguin in their lineup right now while the Dallas Stars are enjoying the fruits of a team not showing enough patience.

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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.

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Montreal Canadiens ’15-16 Outlook

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The Montreal Canadiens feature two of the things you look for in a championship contender: an elite goalie (Carey Price) and an outstanding, versatile defenseman (P.K. Subban).

Management seems pretty even-keeled about the team’s flaws, especially on offense. Perhaps a division title (not to mention league-wide trends of lower scoring) can breed patience/complacency.*

To most people, P.K. Subban (26 years old) and Carey Price (28) still seem enviably fresh-faced, yet it’s important to remember that windows of greatness can close with cruel quickness in sports.

One can reasonably expect goalies to age a bit more gracefully, yet Price would need to stand on his head to top the award-hogging season he generated in 2014-15. Subban may still have some upside even considering his current level of brilliance, but for how long will either one remain elite?

Look, it’s true that the Canadiens boast a ton of players who are in or around their primes. Max Pacioretty is just 26. Alex Galchenyuk could rocket up the charts, as he’s only 21, while Brendan Gallagher could very well pester for more than a decade considering the fact that he’s merely 23. Heck, Alexander Semin isn’t even that old at 31.

Even so, there’s a cut-off point where a slow-and-steady approach risks throwing away the best years of two of the most talented players on the planet.

If the coming 2015-16 season isn’t a pivotal one for GM Marc Bergevin to decide if he has the right supporting cast around Subban and Price – coach included – then it sure should be.

* – Feel free to use whichever word you think applies to Habs’ management.

Habs’ biggest question: Scoring

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Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien seem pretty low-key about their team’s underwhelming offense.

Therrien: “We scored just eight fewer goals than the Chicago Blackhawks.”

Bergevin (paraphrasing): “Hey, the New York Rangers were winning a bunch of 2-1 games, so let’s keep doing what we’re doing.”

Yes, the NHL is a league where defense and goaltending are highly important facets of the game, but at what point does the balance go off?

There are plenty of warning signs that the Canadiens could face a severe dip if the current “Carey can handle it” plan falls through.

They’ve been a weak possession team. Spin goal totals whichever way you’d like, but the bottom line is that their 221 goals for tied the Pittsburgh Penguins for the least of any playoff team last season.

While the Penguins acquired in-his-prime polarizing sniper Phil Kessel this summer, the Canadiens didn’t do much beyond adding fading polarizing sniper Alexander Semin and polarizing pest Zach Kassian to the mix.

Yes, Max Pacioretty deserves the accolades heaped upon him from sources including Jonathan Quick. It’s true that P.K. Subban can lead the charge on offense to an often dazzling degree. Semin could regain his self-confidence and upstarts like Alex Galchenyuk could make significant strides in their game.

Still, Therrien is considered a taskmaster and defense first-second-and-third sort of coach, so it wouldn’t be prudent to expect him to implement changes that would drastically boost offense.

If goals come, it will be in some combination of better shooting luck, nice work from the likes of Semin and improvement from within.

When you take everything under consideration, it’s tough to shake the impression that Montreal is more or less asking Price to repeat his all-world work from 2014-15.

Looking to make the leap: Michael McCarron

Michael McCarron will be playing professional hockey next year.

The question is where.

According to Habs GM Marc Bergevin, McCarron — Montreal’s first-round pick (25th overall) in 2013 — will likely start the season with the club’s AHL affiliate in St. John’s.

But in early July, he opened the door ever so slightly.

“There’s room for a young player [in Montreal] if they perform,” Bergevin explained, per the Gazette. “It’s up to them.”

There’s reason to believe McCarron could be that young player. At 20, he boasts tremendous size — 6-foot-6, 225 pounds — and is coming off a banner junior campaign, in which he scored 68 points in 56 games for OHL London and Oshawa, then another 18 in 21 playoff games, helping the Generals win the Memorial Cup while earning a spot on the tournament all-star team.

As for his NHL prospects… well, McCarron isn’t lacking confidence.

“The way I look at it is, nobody can stop me when I’m going full speed and nobody can take the puck off me. That’s the way I think,” he said, per NHL.com. “I don’t know if that’s being cocky or not, but I just want to hold the puck as long as I can and take pucks to the net and be strong on pucks.”

McCarron’s size, strength and skill set certainly makes him a candidate for an NHL gig this fall.

Also helping his cause? A position switch.

McCarron moved to center last season and proved to be a dynamic force, while also becoming a more well-rounded player. He prides himself on versatility — “I can play on the wing or at center,” he told the Globe and Mail back in May — but that ability to play down the middle could really be to his advantage.

Right now, Montreal has Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller and Torrey Mitchell at center — hardly a dynamic group, and not especially deep. What’s more, Bergevin has expressed doubt that Alex Galchenyuk — the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, once thought to be the top-line pivot of the future — will ever play there.

“[Galchenyuk] is not there yet,” Bergevin explained at Montreal’s end-of-year presser. “He might never be a centerman.”

So yeah, a few factors working in McCarron’s favor.

The reality, though, is that making the leap from junior to the NHL is a tall task, even for a tantalizing prospect. McCarron will have to show remarkably well in training camp and the preseason — probably at center and wing — just to crack the Canadiens’ opening-night roster.