Niklas Hjalmarsson

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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

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.

With Hamilton on board, Flames can keep defensemen fresh

The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, but there’s one aspect of their game that the Calgary Flames don’t want to emulate.

During the 2015 playoffs, Chicago leaned heavily on defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. In early May Michal Rozsival suffered an ankle injury and that led to the Blackhawks using their top-four defensemen even more extensively as no other blueliners averaged more than 10 minutes per contest.

That worked out, but it was also a big burden on those four players. Calgary had a group that, when healthy, could similarly carry that kind of load in T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman, and Kris Russell, but after acquiring Dougie Hamilton over the summer, Calgary won’t have to resort to that. The Flames should be able to use all three pairings with confidence, which has the potential to pay off as the campaign progresses.

“When we throw a defenseman on the ice, he will be 100% rested because part of our style is go, go, go,” Flames coach Bob Hartley told the Calgary Sun.

The main question now is what the Flames’ defensive pairings will look like as Hamilton potentially throws a wrench in their old setup. It’s a good problem for Hartley to have and he’ll deal with it by trying a lot of different combinations over the preseason.

Blackhawks ’15-16 Outlook

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Despite the plethora of changes made to their roster this summer, the Chicago Blackhawks should once again be contenders in this season. Immediately following their third Stanley Cup victory in six years, oddsmakers chose Chicago as the favorite to win the cup again.

Chicago’s success this season will depend on how newcomers fair. The Blackhawks lost four key pieces of their team in the offseason with Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Brad Richards all finding new homes.

Salary cap constraints will force the Blackhawks to rely on younger players such as Teuvo Teravainen this season. The 20-year-old appeared in 34 games with the ‘Hawks last season, scoring four goals and nine points.

Artem Anisimov, acquired in the Saad deal, will likely slot in behind Jonathan Toews as the ‘Hawks second line center. Newcomers Ryan Garbutt and Marko Dano will also fill holes in the Blackhawks roster this season.

Rookies Kyle Baun, Ryan Hartman and Artemi Panarin could also challenge for roster spots.

“I think change is good, and I think we’ve embraced that in the past and been able to bring in some players that now are household names … but at one point they were new,” GM Stan Bowman told NHL.com. “It’s going to be the same thing for some of the new guys that are part of this group next year. They might be new to the fans and media, but as you’ll see in time, I think we’re really going to fall in love with some of these guys.”

Chicago will also have new regulars on the blue line with the likes of Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad vying for roster spots behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor Daley. Erik Gustafsson and Ville Pokka will also battle for spots on the back end.

In goal, Corey Crawford is the clear cut No. 1 while Scott Darling beat out Antti Raanta for the backup role. Raanta was dealt to the New York Rangers during the offseason.

One wild card for the Blackhawks is, of course, Patrick Kane. The 26-year-old is currently the subject of a police investigation. Kane would’ve challenged for the scoring title last season, if a shoulder injury hadn’t forced him to miss the final 21 games of the regular season.

Chicago will once again be a threat in the Western Conference, but how deep they go will depend on how well the newcomers fit.

‘Hawks would like to re-sign Oduya, but still working through ‘financial hurdles’

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Johnny Oduya is still waiting for the Blackhawks to clear enough cap space to re-sign him, according to Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune.

But the ‘Hawks may have to clear it soon, because Oduya won’t wait forever.

ESPN’s Craig Custance reported on July 1 that the 33-year-old defenseman was “sitting on a very good offer.”

Presumably that “very good offer” wasn’t from Chicago; otherwise, he would’ve signed it.

“We would like to try to bring him back,” GM Stan Bowman said of Oduya, per CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers. “We have financial hurdles we’re working through.”

Even though the Blackhawks traded Brandon Saad, they added Artem Anisimov’s $3.3 million cap hit for next season, and they still haven’t dealt Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell, or any of the other players rumored to be out the door.

The ‘Hawks have five NHL defenseman under contract for 2015-16 — Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, David Rundblad, and Trevor van Riemsdyk.

If they can’t re-sign Oduya, they could either look elsewhere for a cheaper free agent, or commit to giving roster spots to youngsters like Stephen Johns and Ville Pokka.

Related: UFA of the Day: Johnny Oduya