Alexander Galchenyuk

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.

Biggest surprises, disappointments for 2019-20 Canadiens

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 surprises and disappointments for the Montreal Canadiens.

Carey Price couldn’t sustain last season’s rebound

Few goalies dominate like Price did from 2013-14 through 2016-17. At least in the modern NHL, where steady and elite goaltending is hard to come by.

The downside to that dominance is that the Canadiens paid for the Price of that run, while they’ve instead received a fading talent.

Then again, after a disappointing 2017-18 season, Price showed plenty of flashes of his elite self in 2018-19, going 35-24-6 with a .918 save percentage. That .918 mark actually slightly exceeds Price’s career average of .917. Unfortunately, Price fell in the middle in 2019-20, producing a .909 save percentage with a middling 27-25-6 record.

Placing all the blame on Price is unfair. Yet, when you hand a goalie a contract that carries a $10.5 million AAV (and whopping $15M salary this season), people are going to expect outstanding netminding. Considering how much cap space that eats up on a team with quite a bit of quality but not much true star power, you kind of give yourself little choice but to demand star-level work from Price.

It’s probably a wise idea for the Canadiens to end this stretch of trying to get their money’s worth by sheer volume, though.

Price has already shown signs of wear and tear at age 32. Leaning on Price for 58 appearances in 71 games isn’t exactly ideal in an age of load management. Price tied Connor Hellebuyck for the NHL lead with 58 games played, and Hellebuyck is 26.

The Habs would be wise to dip into what looks like a strong goalie market to give Price some help — and competition.

Drouin ranks as one of the (other) biggest disappointments for Canadiens

GM Marc Bergevin’s reputation as a shrewd trader rises to the point that executives might not want to return his calls. Flipping Marco Scandella and others already seemed strong. Winning the Max Domi trade keeps looking better with every subsequent Alex Galchenyuk trade. Even the Shea WeberP.K. Subban swap looks a lot more reasonable with Subban’s sad slippage.

But they weren’t all homers, and things seem grim regarding Jonathan Drouin, who Bergevin landed for still-intriguing defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.

Not all of Drouin’s struggles were his fault, as injuries limited Drouin to 27 games played in 2019-20.

It would be overly optimistic to chalk up Drouin being in trade rumors to injuries alone, though. As exciting as Drouin’s skills can be, he gives up as much — if not more — than he creates. Just look at this rather unsettling even-strength comparison between Drouin and Galchenyuk, via Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts.

Keeping it even-strength is actually kinder to Drouin, too, as Galchenyuk’s generally been more effective on the PP.

(Speaking of the power play, Montreal’s unit was better than the 2018-19 version, but that’s damning with faint praise because that group was a disaster.)

Suzuki among rare positive surprises for Canadiens

PHT will break down some reasons for optimism regarding the Canadiens’ future. Of course, with any such endeavor, a lot of that talk hinges on projections. The more you dive into hypotheticals and subjective measures, the less you know.

So it’s often nice to see a young player deliver at the NHL level, right now.

The Canadiens continue to make lemonade from the lemons of trading Max Pacioretty. While Tomas Tatar led the team with 61 points, Nick Suzuki ranked fifth with 41. Tatar was an outlier for the Habs points-wise, as Suzuki really was far behind Phillip Danault (47 points), Max Domi (44), or Brendan Gallagher (43).

Suzuki climbing the ranks is especially soothing since Jesperi Kotkaniemi took a significant step back as a sophomore.

With Cole Caulfield highlighting a widely-praised farm system, the Canadiens could close their eyes and picture things all coming together. Seeing Suzuki actually deliver makes those dreams seem more feasible, too.

Maybe the Canadiens can pull off more positive surprises around the 2020 NHL Draft?

MORE ON THE CANADIENS:

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.

OHL teammates Nail Yakupov, Alexander Galchenyuk could be in debate for No.1 pick of 2012 draft

If NHL draft history teaches us anything, it’s that forecasting the race to be the No. 1 pick of most drafts is risky at best. Sure, there are can’t-miss top picks like Sidney Crosby every now and then, but there are many times in which a could-be top prospect falls far. Sean Couturier’s descent from possibly being the top pick to being drafted eighth overall in 2011 and Cam Fowler’s fall from being the odds-on No. 3 pick to going No. 12 in 2010 are two recent examples, but those are far from the most precipitous drops.

Again, it’s true that predicting the top prospects of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft can be a risky proposition, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun trying. Gare Joyce is one of the best at doing just that (or at least attempting to do so in an entertaining way), so let’s take a second to pour over his latest insights about what could be one of the most interesting storylines going into the next year’s draft.

Although Joyce himself ranks Nail Yakupov (pictured) as the odds-on pick to go first and places his teammate Alexander Galchenyuk eighth (subscription required), Joyce writes that “positional bias” could produce some serious debates regarding the two forwards. Yakupov is a right wing who broke the Sarnia Sting’s rookie record (previously held by Steven Stamkos) by scoring 49 goals, 18 more than Galchenyuk. That being said, Galchenyuk might gather more interest because he plays the more complete game one might expect from a center (subscription required).

Just as it was with the Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin debate, opinions are divided, at least for now. If Yakupov had been eligible for this year’s draft, some scouts would have taken him ahead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but others think that Galchenyuk will turn out to be a better pro than his winger.

Said one scout: “Galchenyuk has off-the-charts hockey intelligence and vision. He’s more of a complete player at both ends of the rink than Yakupov.” That motion was seconded by one OHL opponent: “If it comes down to who’s harder to play against, I’d go with Galchenyuk. Yakupov is a better skater and he might have some better skills, but he doesn’t control the game the way Galchenyuk does.”

If you talk to defensemen who face Yakupov in one-on-one situations, you hear another story entirely. One described him as “the most dangerous guy in the whole Ontario league.”

Either way, it seems like both players are gearing up to make the NHL sooner rather than later, which is a concern with many Russian prospects. After all, it’s tough to imagine Yakupov making the sacrifice to learn the North American game for two seasons only to go back to Russia. (That’s no guarantee, though, because these things are rarely stable.)

Assuming both are poised to eventually make the NHL, the two teammates could be a prime example of the mystery involved with drafting teenagers. Do you go for the guy who might be more well-rounded right ow (Galchenyuk) or the one whose sublime skills could create a higher ceiling (Yakupov)?

A lot can change between today and June 2012, but if the two players maintain their current paths, the answer to that question might also tell us which guy ends up being the top pick.