Antti Raanta

Predators tie series with Coyotes, take advantage of tough Game 2 for Kuemper

With the Predators winning Game 2 by a score of 4-2 and tying the series 1-1, the script got flipped on the Coyotes.

In Game 1, it was Nashville that needed to fight uphill after playoff-inexperienced-but-impressive goalie Juuse Saros had a tough start. As great as Darcy Kuemper has been for the Coyotes for some time, Game 2 was not kind to an impressive goalie who still doesn’t have much of a playoff resume.

There was even a faint, late push to make Game 2 more competitive. The Coyotes sanded down a 4-0 deficit to a more respectable 4-2 score with two goals in the final minute, but it merely blemished Saros’ stats.

(Granted, maybe it gave the Coyotes a moderate confidence boost?)

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Saros outplays Kuemper in Game 2, helping Predators tie series vs. Coyotes

Despite opening with a 14-5 shots on goal edge, the Coyotes found themselves down 2-0 to the Predators after the first period. It was really only after Calle Jarnkrok put Nashville up 3-0 that the Predators even started to level the possession game. Eventually, Nashville did just that, evening things out with a pretty strong second period.

Saros looked sharp in Game 2, justifying John Hynes’ decision to stick with Saros even with pressure from some to turn to Pekka Rinne. That might be something for Coyotes fans and observers to keep in mind, then. Kuemper’s been a saving grace at times for Arizona, though he was a detriment to start Game 2.

Granted, some of that position also leans on the possibility that Antti Raanta might not be a much of an option, anyway.

After being a force with two assists in Game 1, Taylor Hall struggled in Game 2. Not only was Hall held off of the scoreboard, but he was also a detriment to his team in some ways. Hall was whistled for eight minutes worth of penalty time in Game 2 alone. Things got physical between Hall and Ryan Ellis during Game 2, and you can expect things to go that way as the series only intensifies.

For better or worse for the Coyotes, they won’t have much time to lick their wounds, as they’ll face the Predators in Game 3 on Wednesday afternoon. We’ll see if this series will continue to be unpredictable — right down to the play of the goalies.

(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes (Series tied 1-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes 4, Predators 3 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Predators 4, Coyotes 2
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Predators vs. Coyotes, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Coyotes vs. Predators*, TBD

* – If necessary

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.

Coyotes vs. Predators: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifier Preview

The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups. In this case, it’s Coyotes vs. Predators.

(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes: TV schedule, start times, channels

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Predators vs. Coyotes*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Coyotes vs. Predators*, TBD

Coyotes – Predators preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series

Taylor Hall and the Chayka Elephant in the Room

Wow, the Coyotes sure had a weekend, huh?

At this point, the he-said, they-said arguments are mainly for boardrooms and executives. Even Gary Bettman may need to intervene.

As with a lot of things in sports, the strange John Chayka situation probably won’t affect much of what happens on the ice. After all, this isn’t the Coyotes’ offseason. A GM’s job during the NHL Return to Play mainly boils down to observing, at least after training camp rosters were already determined.

But Chayka’s strange, messy departure does hammer at maybe the biggest storyline of this series: what about Taylor Hall?

While Hall brings almost comical draft lottery luck to his teams, the player himself seems star-crossed in almost Shakespearean ways. With that in mind, it’s all too (painfully) fitting that Hall seems primed to hit the free agent market at the worst possible time.

This messy behind-the-scenes situation seemingly makes it that much less likely for Hall to return to the Coyotes.

But who knows? Maybe the Coyotes would throw their checkbook at Hall to try to save face? Interim GM Steve Sullivan could have pushed the hardest for Hall, for all we know.

Hall’s future with the Coyotes is already a story, yet the bigger one is if he can drive up his value — or not. We’ll just need to wait to find out if it will be a happy story for Hall, for once.

Rinne vs. Saros: who should be Predators’ starting goalie?

Rinne or Saros Predators starting goalie vs. Coyotes
(Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bad news for people who hate any trace of politics in their sports. When it comes to goaltending situations, it’s not always about “let the best goalie win.” Sometimes teams lean on an old hand out of a feeling of loyalty, or a fear for the unknown.

Frankly, that’s naive, because the same goalie can produce wildly different results from year to year.

Pekka Rinne‘s done some great things for the Predators, and he’s not that far removed from some of his best work. (See: Rinne’s 2017-18 Vezina win.) Even so, it’s tough to ignore a rough 2019-20 season where Rinne managed a putrid .895 save percentage.

If you go based on recency alone, Juuse Saros demands the No. 1 spot. Saros outplayed Rinne in full season stats (.914 save percentage), but the smaller, younger Finnish goalie was especially proficient down the stretch. In 17 games after the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, Saros managed a tremendous .936 save percentage.

Yet, even then, there’s room for debate. While it’s most likely a coincidence, Saros experienced slow starts to both of the past two seasons before righting the ship. If he’s a slow starter, then maybe Rinne would be the better choice, especially as the far more experienced goalie?

Overall, maybe it’s a plus that John Hynes is here instead of Peter Laviolette. If nothing else, Hynes might be more open-minded about going with the hot hand. After all, Hynes wouldn’t cherish memories of Rinne’s best runs like Laviolette maybe would.

For all we know, that goalie battle may simply drag on as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers go on. Either way, it would be refreshing if the No. 1 choice came down to perceived merit, rather than bowing down to puck politics.

Will the Coyotes continue to be the team with the dominant goalie tandem?

Despite the time, effort, and money sunk into improving the Coyotes on offense, this team continues to live and die by goaltending lately.

Luckily, that goaltending ranks among the best in the NHL basically since the calendar hit 2019.

Darcy Kuemper headlines that group, as he quietly put together tremendous work between the latter half of 2018-19 and early part of 2019-20. Things seemed to go sideways with expected starter Antti Raanta … until Raanta held down the fort while Kuemper got hurt.

Frankly, even with often-elite goaltending, the Coyotes had to scratch and claw to win games. What if the pandemic pause (understandably) threw Kuemper and/or Raanta off of their games? Mere marginal slippage might mar the Coyotes’ slim margin of error.

Will either coach make a big difference in Coyotes – Predators?

Months later, I’m still a little confounded by how emphatically the Predators chose John Hynes to succeed Laviolette.

Sure, it sounds like Hynes comes across as a nice guy. It’s also true that the Devils didn’t exactly provide Hynes with a fool-proof roster loaded with talent.

Still, it strikes as odd that the Predators reportedly didn’t interview other coaches. They confidently hired a coach who, frankly, didn’t enjoy much success as an NHL head coach. Maybe that makes sense for a rebuilding team, but for an aging, underachieving one like the Predators? One whose window to contend could close soon if certain things break the wrong way?

Yeah, it’s all confusing. But maybe Hynes will shine during the NHL Return to Play, both during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers and (the Predators hope) beyond? The early results have been mixed, and Rick Tocchet has his own credible doubters, so we’ll see.

(We haven’t really seen Tocchet be a Phil Kessel whisperer, for example.)

Who’s out, Who might return for Coyotes, Predators?

Predators: While Nashville dealt with issues during the season, they entered the pause already getting healthier. So far, it looks like they’ll be close to full-strength.

Coyotes: It looks like Conor Garland and Jakob Chychrun are both over their pre-pause problems. Both Raanta and Kuemper dealt with in-season issues, so while rust might be a challenge, at least they’re likely to be healthy.

More on 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, NHL Return to Play series:

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.

Coyotes banking on two goalies when season resumes

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes embraced a two-goalie system to start the season, relying on Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta to put them in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

When injuries hit both goalies, Arizona slid down the standings, faced with needing a big push before the season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now that the puck is about to drop again in a rejiggered playoff format, the Coyotes may have an advantage with Kuemper and Raanta healthy again.

”I’m not quite sure you can just run a goalie all the way through and win a Stanley Cup,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”I’m not saying some goalies can’t do it, but in this format, it’s going to be tough. We’re lucky, like I said, to have that option and not have that drop-off in a sense.”

The Coyotes got off to one of the franchise’s best starts this season behind Raanta and Kuemper, who were among the NHL’s leaders in save percentage.

Then Kuemper went down with a lower-body injury in December and Raanta suffered a lower-body injury less than three weeks later, leaving Arizona without its top two goalies.

The Coyotes labored through January to drop down the standings and had a hard time making up the ground, even after Raanta returned. Arizona was 11th in the Western Conference, five points out of the final playoff spot when the season was halted March 12.

The break gave Kuemper and Raanta time to heal, and the new, one-time playoff format gave the Coyotes a chance to play in the postseason for the first time since reaching the 2012 Western Conference finals.

Having two quality goalies could be an advantage for Arizona in the condensed playoff format. The Coyotes open the Stanley Cup qualifiers against Nashville on Aug. 2 in Edmonton and will play four games in a span of six days.

”What’s going on, the way the format is and what’s been thrown at us, I think if you’re going to go all the way, you need two goalies,” Tocchet said. ”And they’re going to play, I think.”

Raanta was brought in to be Arizona’s No. 1 goalie after Mike Smith was traded to Calgary in 2017. Acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers, the Finnish goalie was superb early his first season in the desert, finishing with a 2.24 goals-against average.

Raanta suffered a lower-body injury early in the 2018-19 season and was limited to 12 games, opening the door for Kuemper.

Acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings in 2017, Kuemper arrived in the desert as a career backup in parts of six NHL seasons. He was thrust into the No. 1 slot when Raanta got hurt and thrived, earning his first All-Star game nod in 2019, even though he couldn’t play due to injury.

Kuemper finished with 27 wins and a 2.22 goals-against average last season and got off to a good start this season before being injured.

He and Raanta had time to heal during the pandemic-caused break in the season, so now the Coyotes have two options in the condensed version of the postseason.

”Nowadays in the league, I think you need to have two strong goalies to be able to win something,” Raanta said. ”You can see on other teams also, they’re doing that a lot . So I think it’s only a good thing.”

The Coyotes are banking on it as the season is set to resume.

Long-term outlook for the Arizona Coyotes

Long-term outlook Coyotes Keller Ekman-Larsson
Getty Images
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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.

Arizona Coyotes: This season’s biggest surprise, disappointment

Kessel Coyotes surprise disappointment
Getty Images

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.

Goaltending delivering for another season a crucial surprise for Coyotes

The most crucial surprise wasn’t necessarily out of left field: once again, the Coyotes received brilliant goaltending.

Darcy Kuemper basically transformed into a Vezina-worthy goalie from January 2019 on in 2018-19, but it seemed like a lot to ask for him to do it again.

Yet, for much of the first few months, Kuemper managed to be just as good, generating a tremendous .928 save percentage over 29 games this season. But you’ll notice that injury-reduced workload of 29 games and realize that it was about more than Kuemper.

[PHT Q&A with Kuemper]

After his own troubling run of injuries, Antti Raanta answered the call. Raanta played almost as well as Kuemper (including a .921 save percentage) over 33 appearances. Remarkably, Adin Hill quietly put together strong work (.918 in 13 GP) of his own, too.

Do the Coyotes help their goalies out a bit? Sure, but they don’t necessarily stand out among the best-of-the-best in every defensive category. In a league where netminding feels random, the Coyotes received (almost) two seasons of stellar work, injuries and all.

Garland’s ascent the biggest surprise for Coyotes, though

But the purest surprise is the rise of Conor Garland.

Garland spent part of last season with the Coyotes, managing 18 points in 47 games. The 25-year-old is skyrocketing up Arizona’s depth chart now, though. Garland currently ranks third in team scoring with 39 points, one more than Phil Kessel and Christian Dvorak. Not bad for a player who’s full season time-on-ice average sits just about 14 minutes per game.

There’s evidence that he’s getting a boost in ice time (about 16 minutes per night in January and February), so his days of sneaking up on people are likely numbered.

Garland provided evidence that he could be a hidden gem with solid possession stats and prolific QMJHL production. It’s nonetheless still surprising to see him soar like this.

Biggest Coyotes disappointment so far

Plenty of people pointed out that Phil Kessel’s lost a step/multiple steps, but he’s been a letdown even considering lowered expectations. No, it’s not surprising that Kessel is living off of the power play, especially when it comes to goals (nine of his 17 on the PP), but 38 points in 70 games is a bummer for a player who increasingly struggles to outscore his problems.

Seeing Kessel finish dead last on this GAR chart (by Charting Hockey via Evolving Hockey’s stats) is troubling:

Any defensive-minded team hopes to find ways to add offense to their recipe without spoiling what made their dishes work in the first place.

It’s clear that Kessel wasn’t the missing ingredient to spice things up for the Coyotes. The team seems to realize that it’s better to sprinkle him in lately, at least. After averaging 17:38 TOI heading into the All-Star break, the Coyotes only deployed Kessel for 15:52 per night in 19 games since.

Taylor Hall: Coyotes disappointment, or not?

As far as Taylor Hall goes, the winger’s generated 10 goals and 27 points in 35 games with Arizona. That output ranks him 10th overall in team scoring already. (Somewhat amusingly, Hall’s main stumbling point is the power play, where Kessel’s made his living.)

Maybe the Coyotes will regret paying a price to trade for Hall and/or not flipping Hall before the trade deadline, but considering how their offense isn’t necessarily a locomotive, I’d say he’s delivered more or less what someone can reasonably expect.

Kessel, though? As much as we love the nice guy who tries hard and loves his dog, he simply hasn’t been the catalyst the Desert Dogs were hoping for.

At least it was a delight to see Kessel in those “Peyote” throwbacks, though:

(Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

MORE:

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.