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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

Coyotes commit to Antti Raanta with three-year extension

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After four seasons of playing the backup role in Chicago and New York, Antti Raanta came to Arizona with the goal of owning the No. 1 goalie job for the Coyotes. He’s done just that and has been rewarded with a three-year extension, as 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro reported Thursday night. The deal carries a $4.25 million cap hit, per TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

When the Coyotes decided against trading Raanta before the February trade deadline, which could have brought back assets to build on for the future, it was a clear sign they wanted to retain him going forward. In 45 starts this season, the 28-year-old netminder has posted a .935 even strength save percentage, and while the team has playing better of late, he’s put up a .952 in his last 25 starts.

While he was bothered by an early-season injury and banged up from a car accident, Raanta, who was acquired along with Derek Stepan via trade during the 2017 NHL draft, has managed to reach career highs in minutes and wins this season. With a young core that’s been gelling and productive since March 1, locking up the goaltending position is an important move for the franchise as the off-season arrives in the desert.

This summer could also see some answers develop in what the future holds for Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He’s eligible to sign an extension on July 1 as he enters the final year of his deal and the Swedish blue liner continues to express his happiness in Arizona.

“It’s just money. It’s not going to make you happier. It might make your life a little bit easier but it’s not going to make you happier,” Ekman-Larsson said last month when asked how big of a factor the dollar amount will be in his next contract. “I feel if you’re around good people, that’s what makes you happy. I feel like I have that here. This is where I want to be.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Raanta shutout, Brassard showcase, Blackhawks finally win

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Players of the Night:

Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes: Raanta shutout Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, stopping all 40 shots sent his way for his first goose egg as a member of the Coyotes.

Derick Brassard, Ottawa Senators: The Derick Brassard Showcase continued on Saturday night. The Senators forward, who has been the subject of trade speculation leading up to the trade deadline in two weeks, scored in his fourth straight game and added two helpers in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers.

Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights: Smith extended his point streak to seven games, scoring twice and adding a helper in a 6-3 win against the Montreal Canadiens. Smith has five goals and seven assists during his streak and now has 51 points in 58 games this season.

Anders Nilsson, Vancouver Canucks: Nilsson turned aside 44 of the 45 shots he faced from one of the league’s hottest teams in the Boston Bruins. The Canucks obliged their goaltender, scoring six and chasing Tuukka Rask in a 6-1 win.

Jonathan Toews and the rest of the Chicago Blackhawks: Losers of eight straight coming into Saturday, the Blackhawks finally ended the streak, putting up seven goals against the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals. Toews had a goal and two assists in the game. It was Chicago’s first win of the month and their seven goals were half of the number they scored in their previous eight games.

Eddie Lack, New Jersey Devils: Lack wasn’t supposed to be playing against the league’s top team. But there he was on Saturday, stopping 48 of 51 shots against Stamkos, Kucherov and Co. He even out-dueled Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will likely win the Vezina in June. Impressive stuff.

Highlights of the Night:

Ryan Hartman, untouchable:

Nikita Scherbak’d:

Matt Murray did this two nights ago. Deja vu:

Two-pad stack alert:

Factoids of the Night:

The season can’t end fast enough for the Oilers:

The Golden Knights are creeping toward another record:

Evgeni Malkin hits 900:

MISC:

Scores:

Kings 4, Sabres 2

Ducks 3, Wild 2 (SO)

Senators 6, Rangers 3

Coyotes 1, Oilers 0

Golden Knights 3, Canadiens 3

Devils 4, Lightning 3

Penguins 5, Maple Leafs 3

Red Wings 3, Predators 1

Blackhawks 7, Capitals 1

Canucks 6, Bruins 1

Panthers 6, Flames 3


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

The Arizona Coyotes’ season is only getting worse

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WINNIPEG — The Arizona Coyotes’ start to the 2017-18 season — a complete tire fire by all accounts — managed to burn a little brighter on Tuesday.

After dropping a 4-1 decision to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the Coyotes, now 2-15-3, became the first team in National Hockey League history to play their first 20 games and not register a regulation win.

It’s not the first time the Coyotes have flirted with the unfortunate side of the history books through the first quarter of the season.

Arizona’s first win came just in time to partially save their own blushes after ending an 11-game slide to start the year (partially, because they still tied a league record set back during the 1943-43 season for most games without a win to start a season) and prevented them from becoming the sole owners of a piece of history coveted by no one.

“I’ve been saying it all year: You can’t complain, you can’t moan,” Coyotes forward Brandon Perlini said on Tuesday after the loss. “Like, just go play, work hard. There’s no other special secret or special juice. You just have to work your way out of it everyone shift after shift … and eventually I believe it will turn.”

Perlini’s frustration, despite trying to remain positive, was evident, and while the results for the Coyotes are borderline shocking, to say the least, they might not be all that surprising.

The Coyotes have been bleeding for a while now, missing the playoffs in their past five seasons since their remarkable run to the Western Conference finals in 2012.

They lost veteran captain Shane Doan to retirement over the offseason and traded away Mike Smith, who had backstopped the ‘Yotes for six seasons as they entered full-fledged rebuild mode.

They gained Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta via trade with the New York Rangers and have watched Clayton Keller blossom into the league’s best rookie early this season, although he’s been held off the scoresheet in four straight games.

Adding three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson didn’t hurt either, but he hasn’t played since Halloween due to an upper-body injury.

Arizona is in the middle of the pack in terms of goals for but last in goals against. They’re second last in expected goals for and have the second-worst team save percentage.

None of that equates to wins and the Coyotes aren’t even getting lucky from time to time.

“It’s been a rough start,” said Raanta, who got the yank in Tuesday’s game. “When you have a young team and lots of new things going on, you need that confidence that comes from those wins. We haven’t gotten that early on in the season. But we’re still working hard. It’s the only way we can get over it.”

Raanta, who was arguably considered the best goalie without a starting role in the NHL over the past couple of seasons, said he’s had to battle his own demons this year amid all the losing.

“It’s tough when you’re a goalie and you lose a couple games in a row, you start looking at yourself and wondering what is going on,” said Raanta, who missed nine games with a lower-body ailment earlier this year. “For me, I just have to give us a chance to win. If I can look in the mirror after the game and say that I did whatever I could, of course, you can’t be satisfied, but you can find a positive.”

The land where the Coyotes are a contending team in the Western Conference seems like its far, far away at this point.

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.

Interviewer: Raanta’s rooting against Hawks quote is real, but needs context

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A report from Ilta-Sanomat claimed that goaltender Antti Raanta hoped that the Nashville Predators would sweep his Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. Raanta has since denied making those comments, but the man who interviewed him, Juha Luotola, says he has it on tape.

At the same time, Luotola feels that the quote being passed around lacks context as it was just one line from a talk that lasted hours.

“Antti was frustrated after Chicago send him [a] second time [to the] AHL and he told me truly how he felt,” Luotola said, per CSN Chicago. “Statement looks bad if you read only one line from story. It’s easy to [be] misunderstood and get away from the full story. But I also know that Antti didn’t mean that in bad way. It was just his way to explain how frustrated he was: bad feeling last couple hours and after that, he was happy to be a part of team again.”

Luotola also noted that the goaltender had a lot of great things to say about his time with the Blackhawks.

Although Raanta had a 1.89 GAA and .936 save percentage in 14 games last season, he ultimately lost the backup job to Scott Darling. Chicago dealt him to the New York Rangers in exchange for Ryan Haggerty this summer.