Hockey

With the calendar soon to turn to April, the NHL lumberingly rounds its corner into the true home stretch, with this Blackhawks season mercifully coming to an end in just 16 more games. As a general rule, the post-deadline undead period for those teams who have stripped the roster for parts such as the Hawks should in theory offer a look at some of the youth that has been toiling in the AHL for 6 months now. But as has been apparently for years now, the Hawks don’t necessarily follow conventional wisdom. The only forward worth giving a shit about, Lukas Reichel, is being artificially held back for contract purposes, as exceeding 9 games in the show will allow his first pro year to slide til next year, and if this team were going to be competitive, it could sort of be understood. But there is a very real chance that we are all also observing the final games of the franchise pillars in Hawks uniforms, and Alex DeBrincat certainly has no reason to stick around beyond next season if they don’t. Add to the fact that none of the defensemen that had ARRIVED last season under Coach Jeremy Bevington can seem to break the lineup here even beyond the trade deadline and with Connor Murphy hurt, and things are beyond desolate. There is literally no reason for Connor Murphy not to be shut down after being knocked out cold, or for pending UFAs Calvin de Haan and Erik Gustafsson to be on the ice anymore, yet the general public is subjected to them on a nightly basis because Derek King and his Sith Master Marc Crawford are laboring under the delusion that they could be brought back for next season. Which is to say that this is an entertaining product and can’t-miss television.

3/28 – vs Buffalo

Game Time: 7:30PM CDT
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago+, WGN-AM 720
The Pegulas Are Vile – Die By The Blade

Given the slow-motion Armageddon that has been the past two calendar years and the commensurate scheduling considerations, this will be the Sabres first visit to the UC since 2019. And for them, not much has changed other than sending their malcontent captain Jack Eichel to Vegas for Alex Tuch and some magic beans. To be fair, the Hawks are probably about the same level of bad as they were at that time two, but it’s been a far more eventful and circuitous path getting there. To their credit, LOCAL GUY Don Granato at least has this team playing hard even if they don’t do anything particularly well, and will occasionally jump up and bit a contending team in the dick as they did outdoors against Toronto, or just this past week against both Calgary and Pittsburgh while needing extra time to do so. The Sabres are finally getting something out of the lumbering and unfortunately named Tage Thompson, who originally came over in the Ryan O’Reilly deal and is likely to hit 30 goals while currently sitting on 27. It of course remains to be seen if this is something he can sustain at the NHL level or this is merely a function of SOMEONE having to score on a bad team. Former #1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin is still here and doing well enough to apparently make the all star game, but again, it was mandatory the Sabres be represented. LOCAL GUY Craig Anderson will be 41 in May and somehow he has the most starts for the Sabres at 22 (along with Dustin Tokarksi), and has 12 of the Sabres 23 wins. He played yesterday afternoon against the Rangers so who knows if he’ll get one last hometown start or not, but it’s no guarantee he’ll be done after this year either.  These are two evenly matched bad teams, so it’s likely they pull off an improbably entertaining game this even as has been the case with the Hawks all year, but it means nothing to either team.

3/31 – at Panthers

Game Time: 6:00PM CDT
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, TVA-S, WGN-AM 720
Bienvenidos A Miami – Litter Box Cats

The Cats probably spent the most capital to fortify themselves for a long cup run in acquiring both Ben Chiarot from the Habs (for what reasons is anyone’s guess, he’s never been anything more than A GUY), and landing the prize of the deadline in prying Claude Giroux away from the Cold Ones about 10 seconds after his 1000th game with the club ended. Since the trades they’ve gone 2-1, most recently losing in Tronna to the Leafs 5-2, but beating the woeful Habs and Sens. While obtaining both of Chiarot and Giroux are nice additions to an already potent offense, they do nothing to address the two biggest issues that would preclude a deep Cats run – 1) how healthy is Aaron Ekblad going to be, and 2) will Sergei Bobrovsky shit himself again in the spring or not?

4/1 – at Tampa

Game Time: 6:00PM CDT
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, TVA-S, WGN-AM 720
Feel The Void: Raw Charge

Will Jonathan Toews give Brandon Hagel a tearful, emotional embrace at any point during the game, similar to any of the 45 times Frodo and Sam are reunited throughout the course of the Lord of The Rings? Tune in and find out! Do not tune in to find out if the Blackhawks will win or not, however, because they are not going to.

4/3 – vs Arizona

Game Time: 6:00PM CDT
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
Evicted Dogs: Five For Howling

So the Arizona Coyotes are basically a Ponzi scheme organization who have been evicted from their current arena in Glendale come season’s end and will have to rent time out of Arizona State’s new arena, which seats approximately 4-5K. They have been a Troubled Asset Relief Program for years where teams send millstone contracts of elderly players who are effectively retired but only exist as basically a no show job on their roster, like so many retiree “residents” of the state. They have been willfully trying to lose for years on a minimal payroll in order to maximize the profitability of league revenue sharing and taking advantage of Gary Bettman’s seemingly pathological need to keep this franchise afloat and in Arizona despite every shred of evidence they need to be relocated. As of the time of this writing they have the exact same number of regulation wins (15) as the Chicago Blackhawks, whose previous GM made moves last off season thinking they were going to be in the playoff picture.

Hockey

Just about two years ago, we wrote a spotlight on Arizona GM John Chayka and how we hoped that one day the NHL would finally have a front office that did things differently and broke through the old ways. We wanted our Moneyball, so that the sport might actually move into the 21st century. At the time, Kyle Dubas was being Phantom of The Opera’d in Toronto, though he’s finally ascended to the actual GM chair. There aren’t too many other candidate of GMs who come from the more executive or analyst side of the ledger. Chayka is one. And two years on, we don’t see anything that will make up hope he’s going to change anything.

Oh sure, the Coyotes are tussling with the Oilers for first place in an increasingly weird Pacific Division. Do any looking under the hood though, and you’ll see that’s merely the product of having Darcy Kuemper throw a .937 at the world. The Yotes lead the league in save-percentage, and that’s enough sometimes admittedly, but are pretty terrible anywhere else you look. They’re not even a good defensive team, they just have the goalies bail them out all the time.

And worse yet, this collection of whosits and whatsits are a cap team. Sure, some of that is taking on Marian Hossa’s salary as a favor to the Hawks really, but you shouldn’t be spilling into LTIR territory to ice a team with no genuine star. Look over this team and it’s hard to find a genuine top line/pairing player. Sure, Oliver Ekman-Larsson sure has all the appearance of that and maybe the smoothest skater in the league, but he hasn’t played a game that matters in eight seasons. Didn’t Erik Karlsson drag worse teams to the playoffs in Ottawa?

Clayton Keller maybe? We’ll give you that one, but after that it’s perfect that Nick Schmaltz was an acquisition last year. This is a team full of Nick Schmatlzes. Small, fast forwards who pass through your vision without ever doing much to make you remember them as soon as they fade out of view.

Strangely, this team is already capped out for next year as well. It only has $750K in cap space for next season with 17 players signed. What’s the plan here to get a genuine star? They probably won’t be bad enough to get into the top three draft-wise, and they have no room to lure a big free agent.

Chayka brought in Phil Kessel this summer, possibly to fill in that gap, but at 32 that’s hardly likely. And that only made up for the bad trade of Alex Galchenyuk in return for sending the little mutant Max Domi to Montreal. The Canadiens certainly aren’t complaining.

Chayka has yet to get anything out of the past two drafts other than 12 games out of Barrett Hayton, and his first round pick from ’17 was part of the Kessel trade. As it was when we last looked at this, Keller and Jakob Chychrun remain his only hits in the draft, and they look to be more second line/pairing products. Which you need, but you also need the stars they support.

Clearly money is not a problem in the desert, because of their cap status the next two years. Maybe Chayka can move along Demers and Goligoski in the last years of their deals to open up about $7M, but is that enough? Dvorak, Schmaltz, Fischer, and Keller have all been given reasonable extensions, but one might want to ask why? Where is this going?

Maybe it’s two years down the line that Chayka has circled, when Stepan, Grabner, Hjalmarsson, and the vets mentioned above come off the books and the kids should be entering their prime. Perhaps no final judgements can be made until then. Brayden Burke will join up by then, as will one or two other kids. But does Chayka have two more years without a playoff berth? If Kuemper drags them to one this year it’ll buy him the time. Maybe the Pacific’s remedial nature this year will also help. But building a fringe playoff team shouldn’t be the long-term goal. The playoffs are merely a step. Do you see a contender in the offing here?

Everything Else

We’re so sorry.

All right, on with it. The Coyotes would like you to believe that they got back into the playoff race–one they’re falling out of now–due to the collective. That even though they don’t have any stars, or anyone close at forward, because they all worked together just so damn hard and man aren’t they adorable they’ve managed to find the swarm method to points and competitiveness.

It’s all utter horseshit, of course. The Yotes are here because Darcy Kuemper got them here.

Kuemper took over the starter’s job at the end of November when something on Antti Raanta went TWANG!. Since the turn of the year, he’s been marvelous. He’s made 32 starts in 2019, going 19-8-5 with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .927 save-percentage. Since January 1st, the only goalies to have a better SV% than Kuemper are Ben Bishop, Thomas Greiss, Jordan Binnington, Andre Vasilevskiy, Carey Price, and Juuse Saros. That’s the two Vezina frontrunners, the highest-paid goalie in the league, and one behind a Trotz defensive team. All of them are backstopping playoff teams at the moment as well, so it’s no secret what the Yotes are doing loitering around the West’s wildcard spots.

Kuemper flashed something like this last year, as Jonathan Quick‘s backup in Los Angeles. He made 19 appearances and amassed a .938 SV% behind the still-stingy (and utterly boring) Kings defense. That earned him a deadline deal to the Coyotes, where he wasn’t nearly as effective filling in for the seemingly perma-crocked Antti Raanta. Still, as an insurance plan, you could do way worse. Instead, the Coyotes got a reason for being.

Arizona has needed it. While their record since the calendar change is good to better than good, their methods are not. They’re bottom-10 in attempts, scoring-chances, and high danger chances since January 1st, so they’ve basically needed every Kuemper save they’ve gotten. They’re also bottom-10 in goals scored at even-strength in that time, so again, the margins for error are extremely thin. Which might be why they’ve lost five in a row with Kuemper’s level dropping every so slightly.

The Coyotes do limit what Kuemper has to do in one fashion. They give up a ton of attempts but block a ton of shots, as they’re middle of the pack in shots-against and scoring-chances-against since the turn of the year while being bottom-five in attempts against. So Kuemper doesn’t have to perform a high amount of miracles, but he does have to perform a high-percentage of the ones asked because the Coyotes just don’t score much.

Which puts brain-boy John Chayka in something of a quandary next season. Raanta will be coming back, but can’t be trusted to stay upright in a stiff breeze. The Coyotes have to do something eventually other than promise a future, and next year would seem the bills come due. Kuemper is signed through next season at a very cheap $1.8M, so the simple answer is to keep him around as Raanta insurance.

On the other side of the coin, you could never sell higher on him than now, especially with that very reasonable salary. Raanta’s injury history make him unmovable, or at least for nothing more than whatever’s left in the truck after cleaning. This is far and away the best regular season Kuemper has had, and his only one as a full-time starter. He also remains DARCY KUEMPER. Raanta was awfully good last year when healthy, and the Yotes could use some pieces at forward. Would the Flames or Sharks or someone else who bites it early due to a giant sucking sound in the crease come calling? You have to think they would, and the free agent class has Bobrovsky, Varlamov, and that’s just about it. Kuemper’s going to be a more attractive trade piece than he will ever be.

He might not be done yet. The Coyotes face the Avs and Wild after tonight, which are direct competitors. Their three games to close the season are the Kings, Knights, and Jets, and while the latter two are much better than the Coyotes, they almost might not have anything to play for by then. If he’s got one more spurt in him, he could goof the Yotes a playoff spot. Which would only drive up his value even more.

Let’s see how galaxy brain Chayka really is.

 

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It’s not going to work out for the Yotes again, but there was a time when it looked like it might. And hey, if they run the table the rest of the season, they just might sneak a playoff spot. Which would actually be the wrong reinforcement for what they do down there.

But whenever a team like this is just a little better than it was thought they’d be (and we leave it to you to decide whether the Yotes are better or the conference is just that much worse), their supporters and media like to trumpet and champion their faceless nature. That they don’t need stars or have somehow found a way to do it through group effort. Their total is greater than the sum of their parts and more cockameemee gobbledygook like that.

It’s not true, of course. The Coyotes haven’t been able to produce “a star” with their bevy of top-10 picks, which is a failure. Clayton Keller might be that one day, though even in just his second year you’d probably know by now. The reason the Coyotes suck–and let’s be real, if you’re outside the playoffs in the West you suck–is that they don’t score enough. 4th least amount of goals in the entire league. And they don’t score enough because they don’t have the talent.

As much as hockey likes to bill itself as the ultimate team game and 4th liners get over-glorified on Cup winners, you win the important games at times because you have one or two guys the other team doesn’t. There’s a game or two on the run where your best player just decides you’re going to win. You’ve seen enough of them around here to know what they look like. Fuck, Duncan Keith did it for a whole spring.

Name the last Cup champ to not have that guy. You can’t do it. Maybe the Bruins of ’11, except they had a goalie throwing a .945 in the playoffs. And they still had Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand, Chara in front of that, players better than anything the Coyotes have managed to find or develop.

Arizona is not going to rise out of the muck they’ve resided in for their entire existence until they find one or two or three of those guys. They can play the “team” card all they want, so can their fans, in a bid to justify their existence or dedication. It’s kind of a Stockholm Syndrom. And as long as they do that, the 8th-seed is the best they can hope for. They should be offer-sheeting the shit out of Mitch Marner or throwing everything at Erik Karlsson or the like.

Until then, feel free to pretty much ignore.

 

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If you’re one of those freaks like us that hopes one day hockey management might be moved out of the caves and stop being afraid of the sun, there’s a part of you that wants the John Chayka’s of the world to succeed. Someone is going to have to be first through the wall. It’s not Kyle Dubas in Toronto, who apparently is locked in a dark room 20 hours a day and is only let out to bathe and eat. There aren’t really any other stat-boys in GM chairs or even listened to by those in the GM chairs. The Florida experiment crashed and burned already and now Dale Tallon is trying to light the ashes on fire.

The early returns on Chayka aren’t wholly promising, though not a clear disaster either.

Chayka’s first draft saw the Coyotes with two first round picks, and both have been mainstays in the NHL this season. Clayton Keller and Jakob Chychrun have both flashed being top line/top pairing talent at times as well. So on that end, that’s a success. But it takes more than getting first round picks right. No other pick from the 2016 draft has come up for air yet, and neither has anyone from the last draft. Fine, whatever.

Chayka got a chance to set a new direction for the team when he got to hire his own coach this past summer. Dave Tippett finally had enough of losing in the desert and organizational chaos. And on the evidence we have so far, Chayka whiffed on this one to the point where he Javy Baez’ed and fell down. While Rick Tocchet might not have a ton of talent to work with, it’s got to be better than this. The Yotes are the worst team in the league, and basically their underlying numbers say they should be. They can’t even pin it on goaltending, as Antti Raanta has been fine when healthy, though his fill-ins haven’t been. Still, there have to be better trends for us to conclude that Tocchet has any idea what he’s doing after another “huh?” stint in Tampa. Then again, there might not have been too many coaches lining up to take over what has been a basketcase organization for a decade now. Though you could also argue that would be the perfect setting to give a younger, non-old boys club candidate a chance.

Worse yet for the Yotes, he’s not developing the young talent that’s there. Max Domi had a very promising rookie year two seasons ago. He had an injury-marred one last year. He has three goals this year, and now there are whispers that the Yotes are kicking the tires on finding him a new home. Anthony Duclair asked out as he didn’t want to be a part of this mess anymore. Dvorak and Rieder look to have stalled out a bit. It’s not enough.

Chayka’s trades and signings have been…strange. Yes, Duclair asked out and that handcuffs a GM a bit. But for an older player like Richard Panik who’s going to continue to be Richard Panik? At least take on someone else’s project so there’s hope. Alex Goligoski has been nothing short of a disaster. Derek Stepan has been ok, and if he’s here to just be an example to younger kids that’s fine. He at least grifted Tallon for Jason Demers, and if he really wants he can probably cash that chip in at the deadline too. Again, he decided to get older by swapping out Connor Murphy for Niklas Hjalmarsson, perhaps at the behest of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. But now he might have to ship out OEL, too. And just what the fuck is Zac Rinaldo doing here at all?

So far, OEL has made no noise about wanting to leave. If he were to, this deadline is when his value would be at its highest. A team acquiring him would get two playoff runs with him before he breaks the bank at 27. Otherwise you’re getting 75-cents on the dollar. Or you’re keeping him, but then you’d better draft really well and soon.

The Coyotes, if they’re on an upswing, don’t appear to be on nearly as quick of one as other rebuilding teams like the Avs or Devils. At some point this has to be kicked into high gear. Are you doing that if you lose all of Domi, Murphy, and Duclair? Is Keller enough?

And we wait for our hockey Billy Beane some more…

 

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