Derek Stepan

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Burning questions for Coyotes in 2019-20

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Let’s ponder three questions about the Coyotes, beyond Phil Kessel handling the pressure and how luck has been such a factor in their recent results …

1. Can the Coyotes stay healthy?

Whether you judge injuries by quantity or quality, the Coyotes rank as one of the teams that were hit hardest by injuries last season.

Sometimes injuries just happen, and pile up, only to regress back to league average over time. Sometimes teams enjoy peculiar luck – good or bad – such as the Capitals’ bewilderingly long stretch of mostly avoiding injuries under Barry Trotz.

The Coyotes have to hope that 2018-19 was a mere anomaly.

In some cases, that’s likely true, and it has to be heartening that Phil Kessel was a borderline ironman on a Penguins team that’s dealt with recurring injury headaches through much of the Sidney Crosby era.

On the other hand, there are certain instances where you fear the worst. Antti Raanta is the clearest example, as there are reasons to worry that last year wasn’t a blip, but was instead a red flag that Raanta simply may not be able to avoid the nagging injuries that can hound a goalie, pushing a would-be starter down to a platoon level, or worse.

Raanta was limited to 47 games in 2017-18, but the 2018-19 campaign was especially grim, as the former Blackhawks and Rangers goalie only suited up for 12 games. While Raanta isn’t ancient, he also isn’t a spring chicken, as he turned 30 in May.

Sometimes injuries morph from sporadic bad luck to just the sad, status quo, so here’s hoping that Raanta can put that behind him.

Either way, the Coyotes should examine how they rest, and how they train. If there are any signs that they’re pushing players too hard, or could improve their odds of avoiding injuries, they should lean into opportunities with sports science.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | 2018-19 in review | X-factor]

2. What will they get from their goalies?

That Raanta discussion bleeds into this question: as unlucky as the Coyotes were with injuries, they were almost as lucky when it came to the surprisingly elite play of Darcy Kuemper, who’s otherwise been a career backup.

In a more ideal scenario, there could still be some uncertainty, as the dreamy picture would be the Coyotes essentially rolling out two starting-quality goalies in Kuemper and Raanta. That would really be something, especially since they combine for a cap hit barely over $6M.

Other scenarios are far cloudier. What if Raanta simply can’t hold up physically, whether that means that his workload would be limited, or that his career is unraveling in an even more profound way? It’s tough to imagine Kuemper matching his brilliant work from 2018-19, although he does have some potential to be an asset for Arizona.

If the goaltending sinks to a league average level or worse, then it could nullify gains made in other areas.

3. Will their offense sputter again?

Much like the Ducks, the Coyotes’ scoring stats were pretty depressing last season. When it’s 2018-19 and your leading scorer failed to hit 50 points (Clayton Keller generated 47), and no one reached 20 goals, you know that you’re not exactly overflowing with firepower.

Keller suffered through an unlucky year, and Kessel is the type of weapon the Coyotes have rarely deployed over the years, but it’s fair to wonder if they’ll still be able to score enough to compete in the modern NHL.

Last season, the Coyotes almost made the playoffs, but succeeded with a tiny margin for error (209 goals scored, 200 allowed), and more offense could help them gain something that’s often underrated in the NHL: easy wins.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

The Arizona Coyotes’ season is only getting worse

Associated Press
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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.

New York Rangers ’15-16 Outlook

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If you’re fascinated by athletes chasing big numbers in contract years, then the New York Rangers have been a go-to source of entertainment in recent years.

It’s difficult (if not nebulous) to try to quantify the impact of “greed is good,” but the Rangers are a hungry team with plenty of motivation in 2015-16. That’s what happens when you mortgage bits of your future via trades and employ some players chasing their next checks.

You never really know how wide open a Stanley Cup window might be.

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault saw that in action in Vancouver, as the franchise declined from a huge contender to a bubble team in little time.

We’ve asked more than once if Henrik Lundqist’s elite days are numbered. It’s also worth noting that at 31, Rick Nash is in the middle of that age in which snipers see a slide in production.

The contract year situations aren’t of “uh oh, we better re-sign Henrik Lundqvist/our current captain/Derek Stepan” enormity, but they’re still intriguing.

On defense, you have veteran Keith Yandle and fading graybeard (literally) Dan Boyle. Antti Raanta also enters a pivotal year as an NHL backup.

The forward group might be the most intriguing.

Just look at the pending RFAs alone: Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T Miller and Emerson Etem. There’s some fascinating potential for all four of those players.

Even with Boyle’s $4.5 million cap hit set to expire, salary cap gymnastic may be required once again in the summer of 2016.

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Paying players after strong years – and learning to let some of the less essential ones go – has been a pretty rewarding process for the Rangers, even if there’s been the occasional miss (see: Anton Stralman).

Under pressure: Derek Stepan

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It’s conceivable that Derek Stepan wanted even more than he received from the New York Rangers, but a six-year extension with a $6.5 million cap hit still stands as an enormous deal.

The 25-year-old’s contract is worth a total of $39 million, and he’ll see his highest salary in 2015-16 and 2016-17, as the Rangers will pay him $8 million (and a $1 million signing bonus) each year.

When the deal went down, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton explained that the team wanted to lock up a big-time player.

“[You] want players who can play big in the big moments on the biggest stage — and there is no bigger stage than New York City,” Gorton said, via Blueshirts United. “Derek has proven he can do that.”

Well, now Stepan will face a different kind of pressure: proving that he’s worth the money.

Rangers history is littered with the shattered expectations of Rangers who ended up being cap catastrophes, something that once defined the tenure of long-time GM Glen Sather. On the bright side, the team’s had better luck when they shell out big cash to homegrown talent, most obviously with Henrik Lundqvist.

Stepan’s scoring continues to come along each season. Despite being limited to 68 games in 2014-15, Stepan generated 55 points, nearly matching his 2013-14 output (57 points in 82 games).

Stepan’s been a strong playoff performer, as well, and that will need to continue after some key personnel losses this summer.

One of those changes came in the retirement of Martin St. Louis, a situation that could be quite interesting for Stepan, his frequent linemate.

Stepan’s possession numbers were downright ghastly in 2014-15, but it’s plausible that some of those struggles may be attributed to his veteran partner’s decline.

The American forward is in the prime of his career, so he’s in a solid position to live up to expectations. That’s good, because they’ll rise in a big way with that big contract.

It’s New York Rangers Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The New York Rangers.

The New York Rangers earned their third Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history with a 53-22-7 record last season.

New York then eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games of the first round and edged the Washington Capitals in seven games in the conference semifinals. However, Tampa Bay cut New York’s bid for a second straight Stanley Cup Final appearance short defeating the Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final.

Rick Nash led the way offensively for the Rangers scoring a career-high 42 goals and 69 points in 79 games. Center Derick Brassard also had a career year notching a personal best for goals (19) and points (60).

In what was his final NHL season, Martin St. Louis reached the 20-goal plateau for the 10th time in his career. The 40-year-old announced his retirement in July.

In goal, Henrik Lundqvist went 30-13-3 while posting a 2.25 G.A.A. and a .922 save percentage in 46 appearances. Despite missing 25 games due to a vascular injury, the 33-year-old finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting.

Cam Talbot took over in Lundqvist’s absence. The 28-year-old finished the season with a 21-9-4 record to go along with a 2.21 G.A.A. and a .926 save percentage.

Off-season recap

It was a busy off-season for the Rangers.

After 15 years as the general manager of the Rangers, Glen Sather stepped down in July and handed the duties to Jeff Gorton.

On the ice, the Rangers dealt Talbot to the Edmonton Oilers and filled his spot with Antti Raanta.

New York also acquired Emerson Etem from the Ducks for Carl Hagelin on the second day of the NHL Draft.

Earlier this month the Rangers added depth at center inking free agent Jarret Stoll to a one-year deal.

The Rangers also took care of their own.

Restricted free agents J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast got new deals and Derek Stepan avoided arbitration signing a new six-year $39 million contract.

James Sheppard, who scored two goals and registered nine penalty minutes in 14 games after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks, remains unsigned.

Several Rangers are still recovering from injuries suffered last season.

Brassard had wrist surgery in late June and was expected to require four-to-six weeks of recovery time. Captain Ryan McDonagh, who led all Rangers’ blue liners with 33 points in 71 games last season, is still recovering from a broken foot suffered in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Mats Zuccarello has been cleared to resume skating and have contact after taking a shot to the head from McDonagh in Game 5 of the Rangers’ first round series against the Penguins.

Mackenzie Skapski is still recovering from off-season hip surgery.