Clayton Keller

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Coyotes betting big on questionable core

The Arizona Coyotes are the NHL’s strange beasts.

For years, they suffered through shoestring budgets as their ownership and arena woes continued into infinity. While there still seems to be some turmoil in that area – their majority owner once again changed this summer – they’re now becoming a team that raises your eyebrows for seemingly spending more than expected.

Wednesday’s announcement of Clayton Keller‘s eight-year, $57.2 million extension serves as the exclamation point on that sentence.

Consider the players who are now under long-term deals in Arizona:

Keller ($7.15M cap hit starting in 2020-21; runs through 2027-28): Many are pointing out that Keller’s contract now makes William Nylander‘s often-criticized deal look quite reasonable, while others groan that with Keller set to carry a $7.15M cap hit, it sets a higher floor for other RFAs, from Kyle Connor this summer to Nico Hischier entering his contract year.

As PHT’s writeup notes, the Coyotes are betting that the 21-year-old has a high ceiling, thus making this a signing with foresight.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($8.25M starting this season, goes through 2026-27): For quite some time, there was angst about OEL leaving the lowly Coyotes for greener pastures. Then the Coyotes sent all of that green his way, really setting the table for this run of early extensions, as they signed Ekman-Larsson at basically the first possible moment in July 2018.

So, the good news is that they kept the Swede in Arizona for the long-term future. The bad news is that it’s possible OEL might not be quite the difference-maker they’re paying for. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn listed Ekman-Larsson as an honorable mention for one of the worst contracts in the NHL (sub required).

None of this is to say that OEL is a bad player. Instead, it keeps with the theme that it seems like the Coyotes are paying premiums for players who haven’t yet produced truly premium all-around results.

Nick Schmaltz ($5.85M through 2025-26), Jakob Chychrun ($4.6M through 2024-25), Christian Dvorak ($4.45M through 2024-25): Again, these players aren’t necessarily “bad,” it’s just surprising to see so many of them get so much term without overly obvious savings right off the bat. It’s the sort of hastiness you’d expect from a team that’s been contending, not one that’s had money troubles for ages and has missed the playoffs for seven seasons in a row.

Beyond that questionable core, the Coyotes are also spending a considerable chunk of change on veteran players like Phil Kessel, Derek Stepan, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Raanta, and Jason Demers.

Even if you give the Coyotes some leeway for absorbing Marian Hossa‘s dead contract, it’s honestly jarring that they technically are out of cap space heading into 2019-20, according to Cap Friendly.

Now, sure, this is a team that nearly made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs despite a plague of injuries, and with all of this youth and the potential boost of Kessel’s sniping, could very well make it in 2019-20 — particularly in a Pacific Division that seems weak on paper.

Still, it remains a bit baffling that the Coyotes are spending this much for a team that doesn’t necessarily wow you with its overall talent.

That said, the Coyotes seem like they’re approaching RFAs as a market inefficiency, and if any players will prove your risks right, it’s young ones. While OEL is already 28, Keller is 21, Chychrun’s run of injuries make him a mystery of sorts at 21, and so on. As we’ve seen with Leon Draisaitl at $8.5M per year, seemingly shaky contracts can end up looking like steals, at least when it comes to players entering their primes.

The Coyotes have to hope this all works out as planned, as they’re gambling big on all of this term for young players, and some pretty big bucks for veterans.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 sign Keller to massive eight-year, $57.2M extension

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Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka described Clayton Keller as “elite in every sense of the word” in Wednesday’s press release. Considering the eight-year, $57.2 million extension Keller was handed, the Coyotes certainly are paying him as such.

This means that Keller, 21, will carry a whopping $7.15M cap hit beginning in the 2020-21 season, as he’s about to enter the final year of his entry-level contract.

“Clayton is elite in every sense of the word,” Chayka said. “He is not only an All-Star and one of the premiere offensive playmakers in the league, but he is equally special as a person with his drive and determination to be great. We are thankful to Clayton for believing in our future and look forward to him playing a vital role on this team for many years to come. We are also very appreciative of Mr. Meruelo’s willingness to invest in our future and solidify one of our core players here in Arizona for a long time.”

Keller’s agent confirmed details, including the structure (cue ominous music for lockout protection):

After bursting onto the NHL scene with a 23-goal, 65-point rookie campaign, Keller suffered through a sophomore slump in 2018-19, sinking to 14 goals and 47 points. Clearly, that regression — and any other potential pitfalls – did not sway the Coyotes from making this bold investment.

Chayka continues to be a fascinating GM, as while he has something of an analytics background, he also seems to walk to the beat of his own drum. In many cases, that means making sometimes surprising investments, like signing Christian Dvorak through 2024-25.

The analytics community has not been kind to handing Keller such a massive deal, some going as far as to call it “disastrous.”

Evolving Hockey doesn’t love Keller’s chances of justifying a $6.4M cap hit, let alone a $7.15M mark:

Of course, Keller is very young, and could see growth that makes criticisms look unfair in retrospect. Maybe Keller would have driven his leverage through the ceiling by combining his splendid playmaking skills with Phil Kessel‘s elite sniping?

Again, the Coyotes are spending big while hoping that they’re right, and others are wrong.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Bounce-back candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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After looking at the top breakout and regression candidates in our previous offseason PHT Power Rankings, we shift our focus this week to more established players that should be better (and maybe significantly better) than they were a year ago.

Who are among our top-10 bounce-back candidates for the 2019-20 NHL season?

To the rankings!

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. For the majority of NHL players scoring 30 goals in a season would be a huge accomplishment. For Patrik Laine in 2018-19 it was probably a hugee disappointment. He was supposed to challenge Alex Ovechkin for the goal-scoring crown but never really came close to doing so. His season was made by one 12-game hot streak in November where he scored 18 goals, then managed just 12 goals in the other 70 games thanks mostly to an uncharacteristically low 6 percent shooting percentage in those games. That is a fluke and will not last. He is too good, too talented, and has too good of shot for it continue.

2. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. He missed the first quarter of the season due to an extended contract negotiation and never really had a chance to get rolling once he returned. Despite the poor production, there were a lot of positive signs that indicate he can (and will) bounce back. HIs possession numbers were outstanding and he still generated a fair number of shots, he was just crushed by a 5.6 shooting percentage. A fresh start and a full season will do him well.

3. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings. There is really no way to sugarcoat Doughty’s 2018-19 season — it was bad. Maybe it was the result of playing on a terrible Kings team that had nothing going for it. Maybe it was the fact he is inching closer to his 30th birthday and reaching a point where he will inevitably start to slow down. Maybe it was just a down year. It was probably a combination of all three. Whatever the case, he had a miserable year as the Kings were absolutely steamrolled when he was on the ice. He is too good and has too much of a track record for that to happen two years in a row.

4. James Neal, Edmonton Oilers. His days as a 35-or 40-goal scorer are probably done but did his career really fall of a cliff that quickly? Scoring 20-25 goals shouldn’t be an unrealistic expectation, and if he manages to do that it will be a nice bounce back season and really help a painfully thin Oilers roster.

[Related: Can James Neal bounce-back after tough year in Calgary?]

5. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins. The raw numbers point to a strong season offensively, but there weree a lot of flaws to his game in a lot of areas (5-on-5 and defensively, to be specific). He wasn’t *bad* but he can definitely be a lot better and will no doubt be motivated to show he is still one of the elite players in the league. It is a big year for him in Pittsburgh.

6. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings. Quick has always been a polarizing player because he’s never been as good as his loudest supporters think he is or as bad as his loudest critics think he is. He’s a perfectly fine starting goalie that’s had two amazing playoff runs. That’s it. He’s not an all-time great and he’s not bad. He’s just … good. For some reason that is difficult for people to accept. No matter what side of the Quick argument you fall on you should probably be willing to acknowledge he is not going to repeat the .888 save percentage he finished last season with. He is WAY better than that.

7. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders. There were a lot of shocking things about the Islanders’ turnaround a year ago. One of the more overlooked storylines is that they were able to make the playoffs despite their best and most important returning player — Barzal — regressing almost entirely across the board. After one of the finest rookie seasons we have seen in years, expectations were through the roof for Barzal in year two. He was good, but probably fell short of what was expected of him.

8. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars. Benn’s slower than expected start drew the ire of team CEO Jim Lites even though he was still one of the four or five players on the team that actually produced. Still, it wasn’t the typical Jamie Benn season in Dallas. His 0.68 point per game average was the second lowest of his career (only his rookie season was worse) and a sharp decline from what we are used to seeing from him. The fact that is considered a “down” year is a testament to how good he has been. He is not finished as an elite scorer just yet.

9. Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks. During the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons Rakell was one of the best and most overlooked goal-scorers in the league, scoring at a 37-goal pace per 82 games. He was one of the go-to players for the Ducks offensively and looked to be ready for another huge year this past season. But his down year was one of the many things to go wrong in Anaheim as his offensive production plummeted. A lot of the decline was shooting percentage driven and he should be able to recover from that this season.

10. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes. Like Barzal in New York, Keller went through a bit of a sophomore slump for the Coyotes. The good news is he didn’t regress all that much, is still only 21 years old, and has already demonstrated an ability to be a top-line player in the league. If he gets back to the level he was at during his rookie season (or even takes a step forward) it will go a long way toward ending the Coyotes’ playoff drought.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Power Rankings: Breakout candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 potential breakout candidates for the 2019-20 NHL season.

We are looking for young players who have already made their NHL debut (so no Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko) and could be on the verge of taking a big step toward stardom.

Who makes the cut? Let’s find out. To the rankings!

1. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. He is one of just eight players since the start of the 2000-01 season to score at least 20 goals as an 18-year-old in the NHL. The previous seven (Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jordan Staal, Nathan MacKinnon, Steven Stamkos, Jeff Skinner, and Patrik Laine) scored an average of 31 goals in year two. With his talent and rocket shot don’t be surprised if Svechnikov tops the 30-goal mark and becomes a top-line player for the Hurricanes.

2. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are loaded with young talent and with the offseason trade of Tyson Barrie are going to be relying on a lot of youth on defense. Makar made his NHL debut in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and never really looked out of place, showing the type of skill and potential that could make him a Calder Trophy favorite entering the 2019-20 season.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers. Flyers fans have reason to believe their long-time goaltending headache could finally be going away. Hart finished with a .917 save percentage as a 20-year-old and is going to enter the season as the team’s starter. He could be a franchise-changing player.

4. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. Not every No. 1 pick is going to enter the NHL and immediately become a superstar. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. Hischier has been really good his first two years in the league and probably still has another level he can reach, and with the Devils adding some impact talent to their roster this offseason he should have a little more help in getting there.

5. Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks. There is an argument to be made that Labanc already had his “breakout” season this past year (17 goals, 56 assists) but it might still yet be ahead of him. He not only should get a bigger role this season for the Sharks but he also kind of bet on himself to have a big year with a one-year, $1 million contract. He has talent, he is already productive, and he has a lot to play for.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

6. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning. Ton of talent, potential and already productive at a young age. He just turned 21 and has already played 150 games and has averaged 0.36 points per game. Only six other active defenders have had a similar start to their careers: Drew Doughty, Zach Werenski, Morgan Rielly, Aaron Ekblad, Tyler Myers and Cam Fowler. Hopefully for the Lightning’s sake he follows the path of the first four.

7. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens. There was a lot to like about Kotkaniemi’s rookie season. Not only did he produce at a respectable level for a teenager, but he also posted dominant possession numbers (57 percent Corsi) that were among the league’s best. Was it a sheltered role? Sure it was, he was an 18-year-old rookie. But there is still something to be said for a player that age stepping right into the NHL and holding his own the way he did.

8. Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues. A first-round pick by the Blues in 2017, Thomas has been a highly anticipated prospect in the Blues organization and, in making the jump from the OHL straight to the NHL, made a strong first impression for the Stanley Cup champions. Great talent and likely to be a core building block for the Blues in the coming seasons.

9. Henri Jokiharju, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have added a lot of talent to their blue line over the past two years, drafting Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 overall in 2018 and then acquiring Colin Miller and Jokiharju. Jokiharju is definitely the more intriguing out of the latter two because he is still only 20 years old, was a first-round pick just a couple of years ago, and looked really good at times in the first half of the 2018-19 season for the Chicago Blackhawks. He never seemed to get the trust of new coach Jeremy Colliton and was eventually traded this summer for Alex Nylander. If he reaches his potential in Buffalo the Sabres might finally have the start of a playoff caliber defense.

10. Devon Toews, New York Islanders. Toews is an interesting one because he is the oldest player on this list (25) and only has 56 games of NHL experience (regular season and playoffs combined) on his resume. It took him a few years to get his first look with the Islanders, but he absolutely made the most of it and looked more impressive with each game.

Honorable mentionsRyan Donato, Minnesota Wild; Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes; Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars; Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers; Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche; David Rittich, Calgary Flames; Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers; Filip Zadina, Detroit Red Wings.

MORE: Top regression candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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