Rick Tocchet

Coyotes aiming to stay focused following Chayka resignation

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The Arizona Coyotes caught a break when the NHL opted to expand the postseason and return from the pandemic-related shutdown in a pair of Canadian bubbles.

Arizona was a long shot to make the playoffs when the season was halted in March and the rejiggered format puts them in the postseason for the first time since 2012.

The Coyotes also suffered a setback even before they got to the Edmonton bubble.

John Chayka, considered one of the NHL’s top general mangers, resigned from his position and was called a quitter by the franchise in a sternly worded news release Sunday.

The news broke the day the Coyotes left for Edmonton. So along with trying to prepare for their Stanley Cup qualifier series against Nashville, which opens Sunday, the Coyotes have to add avoiding outside distractions to their list.

”Yeah, that’s been said. A bunch of times. Trust me,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said from Edmonton. ”Guys have been great, we’re focused. It’s a focused group and they know how to deal with stuff like that, and we’re ready to go.”

The Coyotes have certainly had their share of off-ice distractions in recent years.

The NHL ran the franchise for four years after former owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy in 2009. The Coyotes reached the 2012 Western Conference Finals but the financial constraints of being run by the league took a toll, in part leading to an eight-year playoff drought.

A new ownership group brought new hope in 2013, but turmoil surfaced again in 2015, when the city of Glendale voted to terminate a 15-year, $225 million lease agreement with the Coyotes for Gila River Arena.

Plans for a new shared arena with Arizona State University fell through in 2017 and the franchise’s future in the Phoenix area continued to remain in doubt.

Andrew Barroway gave the Coyotes a bit more financial flexibility when he bought a majority stake in the team in 2017. Current owner Alex Meruelo kept the franchise on an upward climb when he bought the team last year, clearing the way for Arizona to trade for high-scoring forwards Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall.

The Coyotes played well early in the season, but injuries to goalies Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta sent them tumbling down the standings to 11th in the Western Conference when the season was halted due to the pandemic.

The new-look postseason put Arizona in the Edmonton bubble and appearing to be in good shape with both goalies, along with Kessel, able to heal.

Then drama hit again.

Chayka, who became the youngest general manager in Northern American sports history at 31 four years ago, reportedly asked Meruelo permission to pursue another professional opportunity. The relationship apparently strained, Chayka was not invited to a dinner with Meruelo and new CEO Xavier Gutierrez to talk with Hall about a contract extension.

Chayka, who signed a contract extension through 2024 earlier this season, tendered his resignation Friday and the team did not hold back in its news release announcing the decision two days later.

”Chayka has chosen to quit on a strong and competitive team, a dedicated staff, and the Arizona Coyotes fans, the greatest fans in the NHL,” the team said.

The inopportune timing puts the Coyotes in the position of having to prepare for what should be a tough postseason series against the Predators while trying to shake off yet another off-ice distraction.

Being in a bubble should help them keep focus. So should their history of playing while uncertainty hangs over the franchise, especially in a playoff format that will be new to everyone.

”You work pretty hard to put yourself in position to play in the playoffs and with everything that went on, we’re in,” Coyotes forward Conor Garland said. ”We’ve just got to take advantage of it. Obviously, our first game, everyone’s going to be excited and it’s going to be a different situation than anyone’s ever had, but it’s new to everyone so it’s an even playing field.”

It will be – if the Coyotes can overcome the outside distractions.

Coyotes vs. Predators: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifier Preview

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The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups. In this case, it’s Coyotes vs. Predators.

(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes: TV schedule, start times, channels

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Predators vs. Coyotes*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Coyotes vs. Predators*, TBD

Coyotes – Predators preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series

Taylor Hall and the Chayka Elephant in the Room

Wow, the Coyotes sure had a weekend, huh?

At this point, the he-said, they-said arguments are mainly for boardrooms and executives. Even Gary Bettman may need to intervene.

As with a lot of things in sports, the strange John Chayka situation probably won’t affect much of what happens on the ice. After all, this isn’t the Coyotes’ offseason. A GM’s job during the NHL Return to Play mainly boils down to observing, at least after training camp rosters were already determined.

But Chayka’s strange, messy departure does hammer at maybe the biggest storyline of this series: what about Taylor Hall?

While Hall brings almost comical draft lottery luck to his teams, the player himself seems star-crossed in almost Shakespearean ways. With that in mind, it’s all too (painfully) fitting that Hall seems primed to hit the free agent market at the worst possible time.

This messy behind-the-scenes situation seemingly makes it that much less likely for Hall to return to the Coyotes.

But who knows? Maybe the Coyotes would throw their checkbook at Hall to try to save face? Interim GM Steve Sullivan could have pushed the hardest for Hall, for all we know.

Hall’s future with the Coyotes is already a story, yet the bigger one is if he can drive up his value — or not. We’ll just need to wait to find out if it will be a happy story for Hall, for once.

Rinne vs. Saros: who should be Predators’ starting goalie?

Rinne or Saros Predators starting goalie vs. Coyotes
(Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bad news for people who hate any trace of politics in their sports. When it comes to goaltending situations, it’s not always about “let the best goalie win.” Sometimes teams lean on an old hand out of a feeling of loyalty, or a fear for the unknown.

Frankly, that’s naive, because the same goalie can produce wildly different results from year to year.

Pekka Rinne‘s done some great things for the Predators, and he’s not that far removed from some of his best work. (See: Rinne’s 2017-18 Vezina win.) Even so, it’s tough to ignore a rough 2019-20 season where Rinne managed a putrid .895 save percentage.

If you go based on recency alone, Juuse Saros demands the No. 1 spot. Saros outplayed Rinne in full season stats (.914 save percentage), but the smaller, younger Finnish goalie was especially proficient down the stretch. In 17 games after the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, Saros managed a tremendous .936 save percentage.

Yet, even then, there’s room for debate. While it’s most likely a coincidence, Saros experienced slow starts to both of the past two seasons before righting the ship. If he’s a slow starter, then maybe Rinne would be the better choice, especially as the far more experienced goalie?

Overall, maybe it’s a plus that John Hynes is here instead of Peter Laviolette. If nothing else, Hynes might be more open-minded about going with the hot hand. After all, Hynes wouldn’t cherish memories of Rinne’s best runs like Laviolette maybe would.

For all we know, that goalie battle may simply drag on as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers go on. Either way, it would be refreshing if the No. 1 choice came down to perceived merit, rather than bowing down to puck politics.

Will the Coyotes continue to be the team with the dominant goalie tandem?

Despite the time, effort, and money sunk into improving the Coyotes on offense, this team continues to live and die by goaltending lately.

Luckily, that goaltending ranks among the best in the NHL basically since the calendar hit 2019.

Darcy Kuemper headlines that group, as he quietly put together tremendous work between the latter half of 2018-19 and early part of 2019-20. Things seemed to go sideways with expected starter Antti Raanta … until Raanta held down the fort while Kuemper got hurt.

Frankly, even with often-elite goaltending, the Coyotes had to scratch and claw to win games. What if the pandemic pause (understandably) threw Kuemper and/or Raanta off of their games? Mere marginal slippage might mar the Coyotes’ slim margin of error.

Will either coach make a big difference in Coyotes – Predators?

Months later, I’m still a little confounded by how emphatically the Predators chose John Hynes to succeed Laviolette.

Sure, it sounds like Hynes comes across as a nice guy. It’s also true that the Devils didn’t exactly provide Hynes with a fool-proof roster loaded with talent.

Still, it strikes as odd that the Predators reportedly didn’t interview other coaches. They confidently hired a coach who, frankly, didn’t enjoy much success as an NHL head coach. Maybe that makes sense for a rebuilding team, but for an aging, underachieving one like the Predators? One whose window to contend could close soon if certain things break the wrong way?

Yeah, it’s all confusing. But maybe Hynes will shine during the NHL Return to Play, both during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers and (the Predators hope) beyond? The early results have been mixed, and Rick Tocchet has his own credible doubters, so we’ll see.

(We haven’t really seen Tocchet be a Phil Kessel whisperer, for example.)

Who’s out, Who might return for Coyotes, Predators?

Predators: While Nashville dealt with issues during the season, they entered the pause already getting healthier. So far, it looks like they’ll be close to full-strength.

Coyotes: It looks like Conor Garland and Jakob Chychrun are both over their pre-pause problems. Both Raanta and Kuemper dealt with in-season issues, so while rust might be a challenge, at least they’re likely to be healthy.

More on 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, NHL Return to Play series:

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Tocchet on ’87 Canada Cup, Taylor Hall’s future

Liam McHugh and Keith Jones are joined by Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet for a wide-ranging and entertaining discussion. Tocchet provides updates on the health of the Coyotes who were injured at the pause, and also comments on the future of pending UFA Taylor Hall. Plus, don’t miss Tocchet’s best stories from his playing career, including an incredible toll-booth prank during his time in Philadelphia, admiring Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, the 1987 Canada Cup, and what it was like participating in the Flyers-Penguins five overtime game in 2000.

0-0:30 Intros
0:30-2:35 Jones tells Dale Hunter’s legendary lottery ticket prank
2:35-5:10 Discussing neutral sites for potential playoff games
5:35-7:25 Rick Tocchet remembers an incredible toll booth prank
7:50-11:40 Coaching in self-quarantine; Arizona’s playoff hopes; team getting healthy
11:40-12:55 Tocchet addresses Taylor Hall’s future
17:05-20:40 Tocchet on Gretzky, Lemieux, and the ’87 Canada Cup
20:40-23:35 Tocchet and Jones playing in a five OT game
23:35-25:00 Jones’ broadcasting advice

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Long-term outlook for the Arizona Coyotes

Long-term outlook Coyotes Keller Ekman-Larsson
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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 Arizona Coyotes.

Pending free agents

The Core

A pressing question — one of the most important in franchise history, frankly — is if the Coyotes should re-sign Taylor Hall, and if Hall would actually want to become part of the core.

Because, whether you feel convinced that this is the sort of group you can win a Stanley Cup with or not, there’s definitely a core to this team.

Extending Oliver Ekman-Larsson was crucial to the Coyotes, but he didn’t really look like an $8.25M defenseman during his first season being paid that way. Time will tell if Clayton Keller is really worth $7.15M per year, himself. (It’s fair to mention that big prices for prominent forwards almost always look better as time goes on.)

The Coyotes have handed big term to some interesting players, including Nick Schmaltz, who they received in moving out former third overall pick (2015) Dylan Strome. Christian Dvorak‘s contract was a little surprising at the time, but will probably be fine.

There are some other interesting questions to answer. Can Jakob Chychrun stay healthy enough to realize his potential? As great as Darcy Kuemper has been, will he be the goalie beyond his extension (running through 2021-22)? Will they retain Antti Raanta beyond 2020-21 to maintain a potentially outstanding platoon?

Clearly, the Coyotes also hope that Barrett Hayton will not just be part of the core, but a star for them. File another one under “We’ll see.”

Long-term needs for Coyotes

The Coyotes still lack that “game-breaking talent,” so to speak.

For all that the Coyotes do well (they’re quite viable), it’s not a great sign when your top two scorers are at 45 points (Schmaltz) and 44 (Keller) this late in the season. At least now that we’ve exited the dreadful “Dead Puck Era.”

Circling back to an earlier point, Taylor Hall lingers as a tough question.

While still a strong player, Hall might not quite be the guy anymore. Hall nonetheless is the closest answer Arizona currently possesses. (Opinion: Keller and Hayton seem more likely to settle in as “stars” rather than “superstars.”)

Also, for a team that’s missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons and stands at risk of an eighth, their prospect cupboard doesn’t bowl you over. The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked their farm system 20th in late January (sub required), for example. While some might chalk that up to “early graduations,” Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed Arizona’s 23-and-under core at a middling 16th place.

The defense is also getting a little older in spots, particularly Alex Goligoski (34). Even OEL turns 29 on July 17.

Long-term strengths of Coyotes

Goalies are an unpredictable lot, but the Coyotes have done as well as anyone in acing these tests.

They’ve successfully targeted two backups in Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper. While receiving top-notch goaltending, the Coyotes also haven’t signed scary contracts like other teams. They merely signed Raanta for three years ($4.25M) and Kuemper’s extension ($4.5M for 2020-21 and 2021-22) looks like a super-steal right now. Even if Kuemper slides, few teams have made safer bets.

There are Plans C and on, too. Adin Hill has shown some potential, and Arizona boasts an interesting prospect in the pipeline in Ivan Prosvetov.

If Chychrun can get through this rough patch of injuries and Victor Soderstrom develops, the Coyotes’ defense looks pretty solid, too.

Yes, lots of “solid” can feel like a curse when “great” is usually the difference between clearing a hurdle and crashing. (Well, great matched with lucky, at least in this often-random sport.)

Still, the Coyotes keep putting themselves in a spot where they can get that extra boost. With plenty of Pacific Division teams looking to be in waning periods, there might just be an opening for the Coyotes.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes
Coyotes’ biggest surprises, disappointments so far

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.

Why Stars’ Benn avoided suspension for boarding Ekman-Larsson

Stars forward Jamie Benn avoided a suspension for boarding Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

The hit happened during Wednesday’s 3-2 win for Dallas. Taylor Hall scored on the ensuing five-minute major opportunity, but Arizona didn’t make the Stars pay beyond that. The Stars won the special teams battle overall, going 2-for-2 on their chances. That loss, and a lack of suspension, could leave Coyotes fans feeling extra bitter.

Explaining why Benn avoided suspension

Reporters did pass along the league’s potential reasoning for no further discipline, though.

To start, TSN/The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun explained some of the logic:

Matthew DeFranks of The Dallas Morning News passes along the league’s lengthy video explaining “contact along the boards,” including this portion:

Stars coach Rick Bowness shared a take that lines up with the Department of Player Safety.

“That’s a tough call,” Bowness said, via The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub required). “Two guys are going for the puck, and one guy turns into the boards, and they are going to bang. It probably looks a lot worse than it is. I hope the guy is OK, and he finished the game, so he must be OK. It’s one of those — sometimes, you put a referee in a tough position. I think that’s one of those.”

Ekman-Larsson returned to Wednesday’s game, which likely also helped Benn’s cause. Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet told reporters that OEL’s neck was sore, but it doesn’t sound major.

Overall, there seems to be some precedent for not providing further discipline. Now, should the NHL consider setting new standards as we learn more about head or neck injuries? I’d say yes, but the league isn’t showing much haste in making sweeping changes.

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.