Keith Yandle

Rested Phil Kessel thinks he can get back on track as Coyotes await NHL return

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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.

Keith Yandle seems very nonchalant about his iron man streak of 866 games

Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle discussed his “iron man streak” of 866 consecutive games played with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.” And Yandle discussed the pain he’s gone through to maintain that streak in such a deadpan way, it was kind of funny, and can also add to the brimming binder titled “hockey players are tough.”

Maybe that’s simply necessary to play 866 games in a row in the modern NHL. Yandle’s mark, by the way, ranks fourth all-time in league history. To be fair, Yandle has some immediate competition among active players Patrick Marleau and Phil Kessel, though:

1. Doug Jarvis – 964
2. Garry Unger – 914
3. Steve Larmer – 884
4. Yandle – 866
5. Marleau – 854
6. Kessel – 844

(Andrew Cogliano’s seventh-ranked 830-game streak ended controversially with a suspension.)

It’s interesting to note how many modern players own some of the biggest streaks, as Jay Bouwmeester (737, ninth) and Henrik Sedin (679, 10th) saw their runs end recently.

Perhaps it’s a testament to modern conditioning and diet; Yandle noted to Alex Prewitt in 2018 that he also holds a distinction of not ordering room service on the road. In the cases of Sedin and Kessel, maybe you attribute some of that to style. Staying healthy doesn’t usually come down to being the “hitter” rather than receiving the brunt of the abuse. In many cases, it’s about avoiding contact altogether.

Yet, while Yandle plays more of a finesse style, his interview with Tirico reminds that it hasn’t always been easy.

Biggest threats to Yandle maintaining his iron man streak

Again, Yandle quite nonchalantly discussed some of the near-missed-games. (Maybe it’s that “Boston dry funny sense of humor?”)

Yandle faced arguably the biggest threat to his iron man streak this season, in November. The Panthers defenseman took a puck to the face during the first period of a Nov. 23, 2019 game against the Hurricanes. Despite losing multiple teeth, Yandle didn’t just keep his iron man streak alive, he actually returned during the game against Carolina.

During the interview with Tirico, Yandle’s expression rarely changed while discussing those agonizing events. Again, Yandle ranks among tough hockey players, whether his sometimes downright odd critics want to admit it or not.

Yandle went through hours of painful dental work, and still managed to complete a back-to-back set. Remarkable.

Also, back in December 2016, then-Panthers coach Tom Rowe expected Yandle to be out “a while” after what looked like a bad foot injury. In the Tirico interview, Yandle said an Aaron Ekblad shot “shattered” the back of his foot.

Naturally, “out for a while” meant not missing a single game.

It all makes me wonder: will Yandle’s streak eventually end as a “coach’s decision?”

The 33-year-old’s still an important piece of the Panthers’ puzzle. While he’s seen his ice time plummet over the years (24:29 TOI in 2017-18; 22:27 in 2018-19; 19:42 in 2019-20), Yandle remains prominent.

But with the Panthers struggling to support Sergei Bobrovsky — and/or struggling to justify the cost of Bob — might they decide that Yandle’s too much of a “double-edged sword?” Yandle’s puck movement, skating, and offensive acumen might make him a “net positive,” but the criticisms of his defense aren’t mere myths.

His Evolving Hockey RAPM chart from 2019-20 isn’t really out of line with Yandle’s usual work:

Could poor defense threaten Keith Yandle iron man streak
via Evolving Hockey

It’s never a popular move to sit someone who’s on a Ripken-of-hockey streak, but it’s a scenario worth considering, especially since Joel Quenneville has the political clout to make such a decision. Even if it’s probably ultimately unlikely, and painful.

You know, like returning to the same game when you got about 20 percent of your teeth knocked out by a puck.

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.

What is the Panthers’ long-term outlook?

Florida Panthers
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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 Florida Panthers

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Everything about this team in the immediate future is going to be built around the forward duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.

They are two of the best and most productive players in the league, while Barkov has developed into one of the NHL’s most complete two-way centers. Barkov is signed for two more seasons after this one, while Huberdeau is locked in for another three. They have matching salary cap hits of $5.9 million per season.

Beyond them, the core gets a little cloudier because all of their long-term investments come with some pretty significant risks.

Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is signed for another six seasons at a salary cap hit of $10 million per season. They are going to need him to be significantly better than he has been so far if there is any chance of him playing out the remainder of that deal in Florida.

In front of him they have invested heavily in their defense with Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman, and Mike Matheson all signed for at least the next two seasons, while Ekblad, Yandle, and Matheson go for at least the next three years. Ekblad and Matheson are both signed for the next five. They have a ton of money invested in that quartet, but they haven’t really received a great return on that investment at this point.

Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, two of their best forwards, are unsigned beyond this season and eligible for unrestricted free agency. If they can not re-sign one — or both — that would be a significant amount of offense going out the door.

Long-Term Needs

Even though the Panthers have made a huge long-term financial investment in their defense and goaltending, they are still one of the worst defensive teams in the league right now.

Ekblad and Yandle are a solid duo at the top, and maybe even a little underrated. Ekblad’s status as a former No. 1 overall pick definitely raises the expectations around him, but he has been an extremely productive player offensively and shown improvement in his all-around game. He may not win the Norris Trophy, but he’s a good player.

But once you get beyond that top duo there are a lot of flaws and question marks with the defense as a whole, and not a lot of immediate help on the horizon to help fix it. That is one of the things that made the in-season trade of Vincent Trocheck so confusing. It was a deal that did not need to be made, and they did not even use it to address their biggest flaw.

They could also be looking at a depth issue at forward if they can not get Hoffman and Dadonov re-signed.

Long-Term Strengths

The biggest strength for the Panthers is probably the simple fact they not only have two elite players in Barkov and Huberdeau, but that they have them both signed for multiple seasons at a combined salary cap hit of less than $11 million per season. They are exceptional bargains against the cap, they are both elite players, and they are both in the middle of their prime years in the NHL. Having that sort of situation at the top of the lineup should be a massive advantage for a front office to work with. Those are the hardest players to find (the elite, game-changers on offense) and they tend to cost the most money. The Panthers not only already have them in place, they have them for far less than they should ordinarily cost. That is a gift and a bonus you do not want to waste.

It also might seem weird saying this given how much Bobrovsky struggled in his debut season with the team, but they do seem to have a lot of goaltending options in the short-and long-term.

Even if Bobrovsky’s contract turns into a problem in a few years, he should be better than he was this season and at least give them a few seasons of high level play. Chris Driedger has also been a pleasant surprise in net this season and could settle in as a nice back-up option, while they also have one of the top goaltending prospects in the league in Spencer Knight after using a top-15 pick on him in the draft a year ago.

They also have one of the NHL’s best coaches in Joel Quenneville.

More:

• Looking at the 2019-20 Florida Panthers
• Panthers’ surprises and disappointments

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.

Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs

Panthers face test in Atlantic third seed race vs. Maple Leafs
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What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.

There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.

Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]

Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses

When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.

The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet … from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).

* – OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?

Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so … again, not many excuses

The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.

A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:

Panthers Maple Leafs Atlantic standings

But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.

Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.

The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.

Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.

Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.

Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).

No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.

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 Buzzer: Panthers get last-gasp winner; Kadri, Makar lead Avs

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THREE STARS

1. Keith Yandle, Panthers

A wild game in Minnesota ended with the Panthers topping the Wild 5-4 and Yandle finishing with a goal and four points. Noel Acciari tipped home a shot with 5.6 seconds left for the win. The final period began with the game tied at two. Evgenii Dadonov put home his 22nd of the season and Minnesota scored twice to make it a 4-3 Wild lead. Then it was Vincent Trocheck tying the game with 4:08 to go and Acciari giving Florida the two points with the late winner:

2. Nazem Kadri, Avalanche

Kadri had two goals and an assist during a 6-3 Monday matinee win over the Red Wings. With his pair of goals Kadri now has 17 on the season, surpassing his total from 2018-19. His career high is 32, which was reached in back-to-back seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 with the Maple Leafs.

3. Cale Makar, Avalanche

One of the favorites for the Calder Trophy, Makar picked up two primary assists in the Avs’ win. He’s now in sole possession of first place in the rookie scoring race with 37 points and is three helpers behind Quinn Hughes for tops among rookies. Per the NHL, Makar’s multi-point day helped him match Bruce Bell for most points in a single season by a rookie defenseman in Avalanche/Nordiques history.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

• This was a pretty setup by the Red Wings for Givani Smith‘s second career NHL goal:

Nathan MacKinnon scored twice and reached the 30th goal mark for the third straight season:

Aleksander Barkov keeps doing wonderful things:

• The Wild’s pup, Breezer, took care of some business pregame:

STAT OF THE NIGHT

SCORES
Avalanche 6, Red Wings 3
Panthers 5, Wild 4

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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.