Hockey

For the 378th straight year, this is the time when the Arizona Coyotes will be relevant. Their oh-so-smart and oh-so-young and oh-so-handsome GM has finally broken the code, and now all the young talent they’ve been amassing since I had hair is finally going to gel, take a huge leap forward, and save hockey in the desert. You heard it here first, motherfuckers! Actually, you’ve heard it every goddamn year from everywhere, and then by December you’re genuinely shocked when the Yotes pop up on the schedule because once again you’ve forgotten they exist.

So I’m just going to go ahead and say this year will be no different. It’s the safe bet.

2018-2019

39-35-8  86 points (4th in the Pacific

2.55 GF/G (28th)  2.68 GA/G (6th)  -11 GD

48.7 CF% (20th)  49.2 xGF% (17th)

16.3 PP% (26th)  86.0 PK% (3rd)

Goalies: Once again, the Yotes will roll it back with the hopes that Anttie Raanta can keep the loose grip on all the gremlins that form his body and muscles, and not see them go spilling off in every direction again and miss a large chuck of the season. It happened…never.  So when he once again finds himself in the infirmary, the starter’s role will be taken up by Darcy Kuemper again. Strange things happen to goalies in AZ, which is they turn good. They have a system for it. So you may remember Kuemper as the middling place-holder in Minnesota, which is what he was. But last year in Glendale he threw up a .925, which followed a season of .920 in both LA and Arizona. That doesn’t mean he’s definitively turned a corner or anything, because this is still Darcy Kuemper we’re talking about. But the Yotes seem to just get representative goaltending at worst the past few years, which they probably will again through the combo of DK and the times Raanta maintains oxygen intake.

Defense: Of course, the main problem has always been assembling skaters for Arizona. This defense still contains Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who were dominant last year (a single tear rolls down my cheek). Beyond that, I can’t help you. Jakob Chychrun has missed huge parts of the last two seasons through injury, so maybe this is the one where he really leaps into the main picture except I don’t know what it is he does that gets everyone with a breeze going between their legs. Even with that though, there is not much beyond this. Alex Goligoski is 34 now. Jordan Oesterle is…you know what? His name is enough. Jason Demers is solid but needs a dynamic partner, which may or may not be Chychrun. They basically need the latter to finally blossom for this to be a good unit, because they’ve had OEL for years now and all that’s gotten them is a handful of themselves and their face in the dirt.

Forwards: And here’s another issue. They hardly scored last year, and are hoping that an aging and cranky Phil Kessel will solve that problem on his lonesome. I guarantee he tries to murder Derek Stepan by Christmas when he’s not getting any passes on his tape. Nick Schmaltz is healthy after blowing out his knee, so Yotes fans can look for five great games followed by a month of him floating around the outside and avoiding contact and waiting for a breakaway pass. Clayton Keller is probably due for a step forward, and will certainly be tasked with feeding Kessel at least on the power play where the Yotes need all kinds of help. Nothing helps out a young player like having a moody sniper’s feelings weighing on him. Still, Keller’s second season was a step back, and he might not be a point-per-game player. Which the Coyotes have exactly none of.

Prediction: This team was able to goalie and defend its way to near a playoff spot last year. The hope is that Kessel and growth from Keller and one or two others will aid their scoring and power play problems, but I’m not convinced. Kessel will get you 25-30 goals until he can’t walk, but the Coyotes need more than that. He’s no longer a surefire top line winger, and there might not be another one on the roster. Keller has yet to prove that he is. Schmaltz most certainly isn’t. Everyone thought their pick of Barrett Haydon was a joke. And you’ll never convince any of us here that Rick Tocchet isn’t huffing paint and betting lines behind the bench. With the playoff bar certainly going to be higher this year than it was last year, it feels like the Yotes are still behind it. The top three spots in the Pacific are spoken for, which means scrapping for a wildcard spot. It could happen if either or both Kuemper and Raanta have great years, but that’s their most likely hope. Feels like they’re coming up short again. Which is their lot in life.

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vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 33-32-10   Coyotes 36-33-7

PUCK DROP: 9pm

TV: WGN

HI HOMER! FIND YOUR SOULMATE: Five For Howling

Only because the Western Conference refuses to let anyone die (at least outside Southern California), tonight’s tilt still has implications on the final wildcard spot. With their decisive win in Winnipeg last night, the Stars have probably extricated themselves from this Battle Stupid. The Wild still seem to be going the other way, though they’re three points up on the Hawks but having played two games more. The two combatants tonight are officially not dead, so this somehow clears the bar of “BIG GAME.” We know how that’s gone for the Hawks, with Sunday’s hail mary being their only reprieve.

Since you last saw the Coyotes, which was getting speed-bagged by Brendan Perlini, they’ve gone 2-4-1 and have lost those four all in a row leading to his one. Their last out was a cure of insomnia, shutout-loss to the Islanders, who have a habit of doing that. Getting pumped by the Lightning on the road is par for the course, but also eating it to the Panthers and Devils is not. It’s left the Yotes two points behind the Avalanche having played the same number of games. Let’s say their forlorn hopes are fading.

The problems for the Coyotes are hardly inconspicuous. Since putting up a touchdown on the Ducks, in this 0-4-1 stretch they’ve scored six goals. That’s not going to get it done, no matter what kind of holistic/satanic ceremonies Darcy Kuemper may be performing in the crease to put out numbers like this. And the Coyotes don’t score because they simply don’t have enough talent. Yes, Derek Stepan is back, but when you desperately need Derek Stepan to return, that says everything about what you are and where you still need to go.

I suppose the Coyotes can claim to be a little hard done by, as in those five games they’ve been on the positive side of the possession ledger. But they don’t do as much with that as most opponents will, so they’ve lost the chance battle. There’s not enough here to turn possession into threat consistently, and that will be their problem until they produce a star out of the kids they have or they convince one to sign there. Which ought to be a real trick. Worker bees need a queen, after all.

So the Yotes can be GO HARD all they want, and there is a decent amount of speed here, and they can gobble up points in the doldrums of the season when other teams are in the midst of, “I can’t be fucking bothered with this” phase. But when teams are trying, or just ramping up for the playoffs, they’re short. The Hawks will find this out themselves in a week, if not sooner. But it’s enough to put the Hawks off for sure, and the Yotes will definitely be looking for some get-back after getting it up them sideways on Madison St. a couple weeks back.

As for the Hawks, I guess if they’re still counting these as real games they need to run the table this week. That includes a trip to San Jose, a team that has treated them like a marrow bone twice already but is kind of a mess at the moment, can’t get a save anywhere, and is basically locked in where they are and is waiting for the playoffs to start. So maybe you can goof a win there, who knows? But beating the Yotes and Kings is an absolute must, because the last week is murder. But hey, if you’re going to pull a miracle, pull A MIRACLE.

Only changes tonight you’d see is the defensive rotation in some fashion that doesn’t really matter. One would think at home the Coyotes will come out far more aggressive, for one after what went on last time and after losing four in a row on the road. The Coyotes are faster than the Hawks and if they play up to that they can cause all sorts of headaches. If they’re on the heels and give the Hawks’s greater star power time and space to be the Hawks’ greater star power…well, you saw what happened last time. You’ll know how this will go by how out-and-up the Coyotes are playing.

Hey, it’s better to have games with minimal stakes on them than just running out the clock, I guess. Let’s take it a little further.

 

 

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Catherine Silverman covers the Yotes for The Athletic, as well as working as a goalie expert of In Goal Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @CatMSilverman. This is the Q&A we did with her a couple weeks ago when the Coyotes were here.

The Yotes have hung around the playoff picture, and yet they don’t have anyone who has scored over 42 points. Is this all or mostly Darcy Kuemper‘s resurgence?

So, let me preface this as saying that I think that Darcy Kuemper has been a really solid part of the team this year. He’s had his moments that put your heart in your throat, but he’s internalized the need to play well for the team’s playoff hopes and gotten the job done. 

That being said, I think that the biggest contributor to their success has been their scoring depth. They don’t have anyone over 42 points, but they have 11 players with 20 or more points and 10 players with 10 or more goals. In comparison, the Blackhawks have a 96-point getter, but also only have 10 players with 20 or more points — and they only have eight players with 10 or more goals. It’s why the Dallas Stars have a 61-point player in Tyler Seguin, but are still hanging around Arizona; they only have five players with 10 or more goals. 

While the more top-heavy teams live and die by the success of their stars, Arizona has been getting effective middle-six production from… well, everyone. Add in their injuries (if you project players like Schmaltz, Richardson, Galchenyuk, and Grabner onto an 82-game season, they’d all be sitting on much higher point totals) and their success makes a lot more sense. 

In my opinion

Look, we like Connor Murphy. We may be the only ones, but we’ll hold on. But we can’t help but notice the metrics that Niklas Hjalmarsson is turning in these days. Starting in his own zone most of the time, against the toughest competition, and turning it around. Is that to do with playing with Ekman-Larsson? Because Hammer was starting to turn here before the trade…

I think it has a bit to do with it, but Ekman-Larsson certainly isn’t propping Hjalmarsson up if that’s what you’re insinuating. Isolated on his own, Nik has been one of Arizona’s best players all year; he’s looking incredibly effective, and very much like the player that Chicago initially signed to his current deal. 

It’s possible that the rest from no playoffs last year combined with missed time for injury legitimately gave him enough rest to refuel his tank. Whatever it is, though, he’s looking fantastic.  

We were also Alex Galchenyuk fans and though Arizona got the better of that deal. He’s produced ok, been hurt a bit, but maybe not yet what we were thinking. What is he to someone who watches him far more?

He’s been exactly what the team traded for. After missing the start of the season for injury, he had a bit of a slow start — understandable when coming in with the season in full swing on a brand-new team. 

In the last few months, though, he’s been one of their best players. He’s excellent on the power-play, has 15 goals and 36 points in 57 games (which would be 43 points if he’d missed no time, putting him over that 42-point threshold), and has won 46 percent of his face-offs — his highest percentage in three years. 

Since February 1st, he’s put up seven goals and 11 points in 17 games. If he can continue to perform on the power-play like he has lately — and, frankly, continue to set up plays for Clayton Keller like he has been, even when it doesn’t get him a point on the board — he’ll continue to prove to be a fantastic add for the team. 

Three points out, game in hand on the Wild, 15 to go. Can the Yotes do it?

Three points out and two games in hand now, since the Wild forgot they were playing tonight. But I’d say at this point, it’s really anyone’s game — meaning that I won’t be putting money on Arizona, but I won’t be surprised at all if they make it either. 

Jason Demers is healthy again. Michael Grabner is healthy again. Antti Raanta is getting close. They’ve survived the first of potentially four to six weeks without Derek Stepan, and only lost one game in the process. I think if they put up the kind of performance they did down the back stretch last year, especially with Colorado losing one of their own top-heavy talents and Minnesota and Dallas struggling with consistency, they could easily slip their way in. 

 

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vs.

RECORDS: Coyotes 34-29-5   Hawks 29-30-9

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

THEY CALL THEM THE DESERT DOGS: Five For Howling

The Hawks are going to tell you they’re not done yet. They are, but we’ll excuse them if it makes doing their jobs easier if they believe it’s for something. So with the Yotes on the schedule twice, the Avs on the schedule twice, and the Canucks on their once in the next two weeks, the Hawks can at least make things passably interesting by winning all of those games, as well as finding a way to steal two points out of either Montreal or Toronto. Then we’ll just where they are, but that’s that kind of run it’s going to take. And no overtime bullshit, in the words of Cuervo Jones.

It starts tonight with the second visit of the Arizona Coyotes, who are sitting right on the shoulder of the Minnesota Wild in the last playoff spot, one point with one game in hand. If results go their way tonight they will wake up in the morning in the playoffs. It’s certainly not what you were expecting.

So how did they get here, with this beautiful house and beautiful wife? The headline is Darcy Kuemper, who is the latest goalie to find himself in the desert. Since the turn of the calendar he’s been unconscious, with a .925 SV% and having won nine of his last 10 starts. When you’re getting that goaltending, you don’t have to do too much else. Which is good, because the Coyotes don’t really.

They’re a middling possession team, and still have been since Kuemper went supernova. Even in the last month their in the bottom half of the league in Corsi and scoring chances and shooting-percentage. It’s Kuemper pulling an Atlas act for the most part. What they do have is just enough pieces to get just enough goals and just enough speed to make things uncomfortable for teams, especially ones as slow as the Hawks are. There’s Keller on the first line, Crouse and Archibald on the second, Galchenyuk on the third, and Vinnie Bag O’ Donuts on the 4th. All have 10 goals or more, along with Brad Richardson‘s 16, and though none are stars (there’s still hope for Keller) there’s competence everywhere. No black holes, as it were.

The only true star is on the back end in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who has combined wonderfully with Niklas Hjalmarsson. They take the hardest shifts in terms of place and opponent, and they still turn the ice over. It’s infuriating. Alex Goligoski has apparently gotten over just a rotten start to his Yotes career the past two years, with the help of possible-stalwart Jakob Chychrun and his missing vowels. Having Jason Demers on your third-pairing is a real treat, and this is the understated strength of the team. They’re not the Hurricanes or anything, but they’re a hell of a way ahead of the Hawks in that category.

For the Hawks, they’ll basically aim to keep things as they’ve been. Corey Crawford will get a chance to build on what was his easiest start of the year, as will the Hawks on that defensive effort. The only other change you might see is Slater Koekkoek in for either Dahlstrom or Forsling, but even that isn’t all that likely.

As strange as it may sound, the Yotes are a tougher match up for the Hawks than the Stars. Whereas Dallas has really nothing below the top two lines, the Coyotes at least have more speed than that. Galchenyuk, Richardson, Hinostroza, Fischer are all lurking in the bottom six, and the thought of Michael Grabner bearing down on Seabrook’s side at any point is one that will start to bend the dimensions in your mind. While they’re not lethal, they have potential, and with the way Kuemper is going they don’t need a lot. Then again, the Yotes are in St. Louis tomorrow night and may save Kuemper for that, and the Hawks could benefit from getting a look at a backup (Calvin Pickard) for the second straight game. The Blues one is clearly the harder one. We’ll see later on.

If they’re going to insist on doing something silly, then it started on Thursday. It’s going to be near impossible, but why should anything else make sense this season?

 

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Catherine Silverman covers the Yotes for The Athletic, as well as working as a goalie expert of In Goal Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @CatMSilverman. 

The Yotes have hung around the playoff picture, and yet they don’t have anyone who has scored over 42 points. Is this all or mostly Darcy Kuemper‘s resurgence?

So, let me preface this as saying that I think that Darcy Kuemper has been a really solid part of the team this year. He’s had his moments that put your heart in your throat, but he’s internalized the need to play well for the team’s playoff hopes and gotten the job done. 

That being said, I think that the biggest contributor to their success has been their scoring depth. They don’t have anyone over 42 points, but they have 11 players with 20 or more points and 10 players with 10 or more goals. In comparison, the Blackhawks have a 96-point getter, but also only have 10 players with 20 or more points — and they only have eight players with 10 or more goals. It’s why the Dallas Stars have a 61-point player in Tyler Seguin, but are still hanging around Arizona; they only have five players with 10 or more goals. 

While the more top-heavy teams live and die by the success of their stars, Arizona has been getting effective middle-six production from… well, everyone. Add in their injuries (if you project players like Schmaltz, Richardson, Galchenyuk, and Grabner onto an 82-game season, they’d all be sitting on much higher point totals) and their success makes a lot more sense. 

In my opinion

Look, we like Connor Murphy. We may be the only ones, but we’ll hold on. But we can’t help but notice the metrics that Niklas Hjalmarsson is turning in these days. Starting in his own zone most of the time, against the toughest competition, and turning it around. Is that to do with playing with Ekman-Larsson? Because Hammer was starting to turn here before the trade…

I think it has a bit to do with it, but Ekman-Larsson certainly isn’t propping Hjalmarsson up if that’s what you’re insinuating. Isolated on his own, Nik has been one of Arizona’s best players all year; he’s looking incredibly effective, and very much like the player that Chicago initially signed to his current deal. 

It’s possible that the rest from no playoffs last year combined with missed time for injury legitimately gave him enough rest to refuel his tank. Whatever it is, though, he’s looking fantastic.  

We were also Alex Galchenyuk fans and though Arizona got the better of that deal. He’s produced ok, been hurt a bit, but maybe not yet what we were thinking. What is he to someone who watches him far more?

He’s been exactly what the team traded for. After missing the start of the season for injury, he had a bit of a slow start — understandable when coming in with the season in full swing on a brand-new team. 

In the last few months, though, he’s been one of their best players. He’s excellent on the power-play, has 15 goals and 36 points in 57 games (which would be 43 points if he’d missed no time, putting him over that 42-point threshold), and has won 46 percent of his face-offs — his highest percentage in three years. 

Since February 1st, he’s put up seven goals and 11 points in 17 games. If he can continue to perform on the power-play like he has lately — and, frankly, continue to set up plays for Clayton Keller like he has been, even when it doesn’t get him a point on the board — he’ll continue to prove to be a fantastic add for the team. 

Three points out, game in hand on the Wild, 15 to go. Can the Yotes do it?

Three points out and two games in hand now, since the Wild forgot they were playing tonight. But I’d say at this point, it’s really anyone’s game — meaning that I won’t be putting money on Arizona, but I won’t be surprised at all if they make it either. 

Jason Demers is healthy again. Michael Grabner is healthy again. Antti Raanta is getting close. They’ve survived the first of potentially four to six weeks without Derek Stepan, and only lost one game in the process. I think if they put up the kind of performance they did down the back stretch last year, especially with Colorado losing one of their own top-heavy talents and Minnesota and Dallas struggling with consistency, they could easily slip their way in. 

 

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We used to spend a lot of our time, an alarming amount, devising trades to get our favorite players to the Hawks. Most of that time was devoted to Jarome Iginla back in the day. Darnell Nurse is another. This list could go on.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson made quite a few appearances in those fantasies. While he might not be the best skater in the league, he is certainly the most pleasing to the eye. To go along with his ever so smooth stride that just makes you weak in places you can’t be weak in, he has keen passing vision and the sense to run a power play from the point. He’s potted 20+ goals a couple times, so he had a good shot that he can get through. He’s managed 39 or more points (or that pace in the case of 2013) seven straight seasons. The underlying numbers are terrific. And he’s still somehow only 27.

And yet, the Coyotes always suck. So one has to wonder…do you have to give a shit about Ekman-Larsson?

To be sure, the Coyotes utter incompetence since 2012 doesn’t have much to do with OEL as it does their inability to put any talent around him, or all the trust they put in Mike Smith after whatever rabbits foot/horseshoe/monkey’s paw he had lodged in his colon in 2012 fell out and sunk the whole operation. There’s always been a “project” and a “plan,” but it never seems to get off the whiteboard. Everybody’s got a plan… as Mike Tyson told you.

You can’t help but wonder if OEL was THAT good, the Coyotes would have at least sniffed the playoffs somewhere around here. Erik Karlsson has certainly dragged not that much more to relevance. Ok, OEL isn’t Erik Karlsson. Who is? And he’s not going to be paid like him, as he signed on for an extension that will pay him $8.2M until 2025, whereas Karlsson will sign for something with eight digits. Fair, fine.

Digging in, OEL’s has always lifted what’s around him, no matter how much septic run-off it’s been. He’s run a relative-CF% of over 4.5% three times in the past six years, and consistently is above his team-rate. His relative-xGF% has consistently risen above those around him as well, including a ridiculous +9.74% in ’15-’16. But again, it didn’t matter.

Maybe it’s just the Coyotes haven’t had anyone to consistently finish the chances that OEL is either creating or providing the platform for. This is a team that had Radim Vrbata as a leading scorer as recently as two seasons ago. A d-man has led them in scoring in four of the past six seasons. No one has eclipsed Clayton Keller‘s 65 points from last year in that time. Clearly, OEL is the one standing around exclaiming, “I’m surrounded by assholes!”

OEL’s importance though can be debated. The last two Cup champs haven’t really had a #1 d-man to speak of. The first version of the Penguins one had Kris Letang, but not much else. This is in stark contrast to how the Hawks, Kings, and Bruins went about things. The Caps basically had four #2-3 d-men in their run last year, and the Knights couldn’t even claim that.

Maybe that’s an aberrations, and there are certainly a lot of ways to skin a cat. The game is moving toward a more forward-heavy system, where d-men are just asked to get the puck out to the neutral zone instead of carrying it themselves or passing it directly to someone. Are OEL’s skill going to be as valued going forward?

That’s hard to judge. The Predators have built through the blue line and got a conference championship and a Presidents’ Trophy out of it. They very well might have gotten a Cup out of it if their goalie hadn’t upchucked a kitten at the worst possible times in those playoff runs.

Still, one wonders if OEL has true, #1, foot-in-the-ass-of-the-world potential in him, if the Coyotes ever become relevant again. If he did, you feel like you would have seen it. Maybe we will in the coming years as Strome, Keller, Chychrun, and others start to finally develop. The Yotes had better hope so, otherwise they’re going to have to pay someone on top of Ekman-Larsson’s haul. And that can get itchy for a team that has an internal budget.

 

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Oh right, the Arizona Coyotes.

That’s how I feel every time I hear their name. Like that cousin you’ve met once. You never think about them, and quite often you forget they exist. And then you’re reminded that yes, they are in some small way part of your life and there are distant memories of them. They are connected, somehow, to your life, if only by the thinnest of threads. You’re not sure why they are, you’re definitely sure you don’t give a rat’s ass, and yet that string-connection is still there.

We’ve been assured that their GM, John Chayka, is a computer boy genius, and in that way I want to root for him. For hockey to ever change out of its thinking that causes the Flintstones to tug their collars (if they had collars), it’s going to need some analytical front office to be a consistent winner. Maybe the obstacles in Arizona are just too large; given an internal budget, lack of fans, uncertain future, etc. But we’ve been promised there’s a plan for years now, and the Yotes have failed to come within warp drive capability of a playoff spot in six seasons.

And it’s going to be a seventh. Let’s hop to it.

2017-2018: 29-41-12 70 points  208 GF 256 GA  48 CF% 46.1 xGF%  7.2 SH% .921 SV%

Goalies: Here’s something weird: You know how we say that if you have a good goalie it’s really hard to suck? Well, the Yotes have figured it out! Antti Raanta was really good last year! Sure, he only played half of a season due to injury, but he went .930 and .936 at evens. And I guess the Coyotes were decent enough when Raanta was in net, as they went 21-17-6 when he started, which is about an 85-point pace. Which isn’t good enough for a playoff spot or anywhere close, but it’s at least like…not remedial class. So I guess that’s what we’re counting on here if you’re counting on the Yotes. Which says something about you.

Sadly for the Yotes, everyone who tries to fill-in for him turned into basically a hallucination and might not have actually been there to stop pucks. No other goalie managed a SV% over .900 for Arizona.

What’s strange is this might be what Raanta is. This is two straight years he’s been really good, and three he’s been above league-average. As he’s 29, and this run started when he’s 27, this is his peak and this is what he looks like. So the Yotes can count on him pretty much.

The Yotes are trying to be a little more stable behind Raanta with Darcy Kuemper. He was pretty bad with the Yotes last year though, after being pretty all right with the Kings. Maybe he couldn’t handle the defensive-weakling team in front of him. Whatever, he’s probably not a .899 goalie. If he can get back to his career .912 mark, the Yotes can give Raanta a night off or survive a minor injury without needing the anti-anxiety meds every time Kemps skates to the blue paint.

Defense: So we mentioned this when Oliver Ekman-Larsson re-signed there, but the buzz was that the Coyotes had locked down one of the league’s best and could be the base for their future assault out of anonymity. But OEL has been around now for eight seasons. And all the numbers look good, both on the surface and the underlying ones. But if he were that good, would the Yotes always blow? You have to have this guy when you’re always finishing last with him? It’s curious. He’s definitely not a tomato can, and he’s almost certainly good. But great? Transcendent? Wouldn’t we have evidence of that already if he were those things? He’s going to be getting $8 mildo from here on out, and you kind of have to ask yourself for what?

All the baying and crying and lashing of innocents over the departure of Niklas Hjalmarsson last year ignored the fact that he wasn’t much good in his last year in Chicago and he was straight-up bad last year in Arizona, depending on how you look at it. If you go by strictly Corsi, he wasn’t anywhere near what you were used to, below water and below the team rate. If you go by expected goals, he was pretty good, keeping those attempts to the outside and non-threatening for the most part. With the clueless set of forwards, surrendering more attempts than you get is hardly a surprise. Keeping that from the roof caving in is probably a decent job, though now at 31 and with that mileage one has to wonder how long he can keep it up.

Jakob Chychrun came up for air last year and didn’t do much. The Yotes will expect more. Alex Goligoski was underrated in Dallas. He’s been elephant cage leavings in Arizona and is now 33. Jason Demers deserves better than the third-pairing here, and Kevin Connauton has been scenery for as long as I can remember. Jordan Oesterle is here in case you care, and you don’t. It’s not the worst unit you’ll ever see, but a lot hinges on Chychrun living up to the promise.

Forwards: The new addition here is Alex Galchenyuk, which I think could be a great trade for the Yotes if they play him at center. Fuck, given Derek Stepan‘s age and “Yeah But Who Gives A Shit?” production for at least five years now, it may be time to move him to wing. Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak occupy the other center spots, so you could see why they might want to acclimate The American With The Russian Name Who Used To Be A Canadien on a wing. Still, just because the Habs say he can’t play center is no reason to believe it. In fact, it’s a big reason you should try it.

Other than that, it’s Clayton Keller and a big bag of bums. They’ve been selling Dvorak for a while now, and he might be past his sell-by date. Michael Grabner is here to score 25 goals that you’ll see in March and go, “Wait that happened again?” It will and it won’t matter. If Nick Cousins and Brad Richardson are on your team your team isn’t any good. There are some more kids who could break through, and Yotes fans had better hope so if they want anything to watch. Again, they’re woefully short of scoring here.

Outlook: No matter what’s on the ice, it will be undone by the established moron Rick Tocchet behind the bench. I don’t know why the Coyotes haven’t taken more care of a coach to develop the young talent they keep claiming they have, but Tocchet doesn’t have to keep looking down the barrel of a 9mm wondering how it fires for us to know he doesn’t know what he’s doing. (Write in Tocchet for the Jack Adams Award now).

Even in this god-awful division, you can’t see a path for the Yotes out of it. They’re miles behind the Sharks and Knights, even with the expected regression of the latter. The Ducks are better, and they have no McDavid or Gaudreau to catch the Alberta Twins. The Kings will be boring and boorish enough to keep things tight and dry hump their way to more points.

The best the Yotes can hope for is that Keller, Dvorak, Strome, Chychrun take huge steps forward and provide hope for the near future. Maybe Barrett Hayton makes the team? Oh, and they can hope they don’t end up in Quebec, which at this point…

 

Previous Team Previews

Detroit Red Wings

Buffalo Sabres

Boston Bruins

Florida Panthers

Montreal Canadiens

Ottawa Senators

Tampa Bay Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs

Carolina Hurricanes

Columbus Blue Jackets

New Jersey Devils

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh Penguins

Washington Capitals

Anaheim Ducks

 

Everything Else

In running himself out of town by means of his performance and (allegedly) his mouth, Ryan Hartman turned into a late first-round pick and the towering Victor Ejdsell. Ejdsell impressed in his NHL debut, lining up between Saad and Kane to the tune of a 51+ CF% and three shots on goal. Then he sort of disappeared in his last five, primarily between DeBrincat and Sikura. Let’s see what we can pick out in a mere six games from our newest Éric Dazé–sized center.

Victor Ejdsell

6 GP, 0 Goals, 1 Assist, 1 Point, -1, 0 PIM

43.3 CF% (Evens), -2.7 CF% Rel (Evens), 37.88 SCF% (5v5), 35.96 xGF% (5v5), -8.66 xGF% Rel (5v5)

 60% oZ Start (Evens)

What We Said: Ejdsell comes with plus-hands . . . The big concern is whether or not he can skate enough to make any of it matter . . . The Hawks were after Ejdsell when he chose the Predators, and generally the European players they’ve been hot on tend to work out at least ok . . .

What We Got: Overall, we got a small feel for what Ejdsell might be able to provide in a sheltered role. His first two games were his best, as he managed four shots and his lone assist. After that, he disappeared completely for his next three, losing 66% of his faceoffs or more, and managing zero shots on goal. He took three shots in the very last game, then got sent down to Rockford for their playoff run.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Ejdsell’s cup of coffee was that he didn’t spend too much time playing the role of Annette Frontpresence. He’s got soft hands and good vision according to most scouting reports, and in his debut, he spent much more time in the high slot than in front of the goaltender. That’s a good thing, because by all accounts, Ejdsell’s play style is much smaller and more skilled than his frame suggests. There’s still plenty of time for Quenneville et al. to fuck that up and neuter him by cementing him in the crease because he happens to be large, but in his mini-audition, they seemed willing to let Ejdsell be Ejdsell and not Artem Anisimov.

There isn’t a ton more we can glean from his six games in terms of performance. While all of his advanced stats are downright awful, it’s over six mostly meaningless games, during which he played most of his time with DeBrincat and Sikura. More encouraging is how he’s playing in Rockford. He’s got two goals and two assists in three games, including a triple-overtime, series-sweep-clinching goal against the Wolves. Jon Fromi had some positive things to say about him:

Wasn’t bad in his own end and showed he can finish a scoring play in Game 3 [against the Wolves] . . . I haven’t seen any problems as far as him keeping up with the pace the Hogs like to play. He hasn’t looked out of place at all coming from the larger ice.

Fromi also said that the Ice Hogs are letting him play in transition, as he’s been at the front of some of the rushes. He’s also played a bit on the point during the power play with Dahlstrom, which might be encouraging.

Where We Go From Here: Given the Hawks’s makeup at center—with Toews and Schmaltz in the top two, Tommy Wingels all but guaranteed to come back, Artem Anisimov not yet traded, and our David Kampf in the background—it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of wiggle room for Ejdsell next year. But with his size and the supposed skill he’s got in his hands, there could be a spot for him somewhere in the bottom six—maybe next to Duclair and Sikura—assuming Saad, Kane, DeBrincat, and Vinnie round out the top six, as they should.

Realistically, he’ll find a home in the bottom six, making us wonder whether he’s actually two smaller hockey players underneath a trench coat sneaking into a movie they shouldn’t be at.

But you didn’t come to the Victor Ejdsell review for rational, stats-based analysis, and neither did I.

What you came for is a complete skullfuck of unbelievable and nearly impossible trades involving Ejdsell, and I’m here to give it to you.

Because the Blackhawks are running out of time with this core’s window, they’re going to make two moves to pry it back open, and they involve a ton of risk. But with the core aging and three consecutive disappointing years behind them, it’s time for Bowman to ride the snake.

The first move can come in one of three flavors, each one requiring more GENIOUS BRAIN neurons than the last to comprehend, to fill the big hole in the blue line. The second, of course, is a no-brainer. Everything that follows assumes the cap goes up to at least $80 million and that the Hawks either trade or LTIR Hossa before the draft.

1a. Package both first-round picks, Ejdsell, and Schmaltz for Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton. Throw in Rutta, and Anisimov and his 11 power play goals if you can get him to waive his NMC. According to Kent Wilson over at The Athletic, “The Flames will be looking to recoup some draft picks and find an impact right winger to solidify the attack up front. The team may be tempted to put Hamilton on the auction block to fill one or both of those needs, but that would likely turn out to be a mistake.”

Schmaltz’s 52 points and 21 goals last year might not be the high-level scoring Calgary would need to justify the trade, especially since Giordano–Hamilton is one of the best pairings in the league. Then again, Wilson pointed out that the Flames seemed to have trust issues with Dougie, using him both less than T.J. Brodie on average and rarely in higher-leverage defensive situations (penalty kill, overtime, as the sole defender on the power play). And this is a team that signed Jaromir Jagr as an offensive solution then acted surprised when he stopped giving a shit, and thought signing Michael Stone was a solution for defensive depth, so Flames GM Brad Treliving might be a moron.

2a. Sign John Tavares at $12 million. Our fearless leader, King of All Media, and overall maven already laid it out for you. If that went through, you’d have

DeBrincat–Tavares–Kane

Saad–Toews–Hinostroza

Duclair–Kampf–Sikura

Highmore/Jurco–Anisimov/Wingels–Hayden

Keith–Hamilton

Gustafsson–Murphy

Seabrook–Jokiharju

1b. Package both first-round picks, Ejdsell, Hinostroza, and Schmaltz for Erik Karlsson, and even that might not be enough for what Ottawa would need for the best D-man in the game (Bobby Ryan would probably be involved, making this impossible for the cap). But let’s assume Pierre Dorion is a special kind of moron, and Ryan isn’t involved.

2b. Sign John Tavares at $12 million. That leaves you

DeBrincat–Tavares–Kane

Saad–Toews–Duclair

Jurco–Kampf–Sikura

Highmore–Anisimov–Hayden

Keith–Karlsson

Gustafsson–Murphy

Seabrook–Jokiharju

1c. Package their #8 pick, Artem Anisimov, Victor Ejdsell, and Vinnie Hinostroza for Justin Faulk. The scuttlebutt is that Carolina is losing patience with with Faulk, and given Canes owner Tom Dundon’s questionable ability to properly value and compensate the people who work for him, he might be griftable. Dundon, a man with next to no professional experience in hockey, wants to play Mark Cuban, so maybe you sell him on Anisimov’s VETERAN PRESENCE and 20-goal season as a center, Vinnie’s offensive potential, and Ejdsell’s size and skillset. The problem here is Anisimov’s no-move clause doesn’t turn into a limited no-trade clause until after the draft. Maybe you get him to waive it by selling him on playing with Andrei Svechnikov, I don’t know.

2c. Sign John Tavares at $12 million. That gives you

DeBrincat–Tavares–Kane

Saad–Toews–Duclair

Jurco–Schmaltz–Sikura

Highmore–Kampf–Hayden

Keith–Faulk

Gustafsson–Murphy

Seabrook–Jokiharju

Ejdsell may not be a gun, but maybe he can be one of the bullets that get the Hawks the top-pairing D-man they need, based on his size alone and the coinflip that is NHL GM dipshittery. Though it’s 99.9% certain none of this will happen, especially since DeBrincat would probably need to go for most of these trades to even be plausible, a boy can dream.

Everything Else

When the Hawks brought Connor Murphy in, he was the presumptive favorite to replace the puck-pocked husk of what was once Niklas Hjalmarsson. And as the season went on, and the Hawks found their heads deeper and deeper in the toilet, the narrative began to range from “the Hawks will need a Top 4 defenseman next year” (true) to “the Hawks really miss Hjalmarsson this year” (categorically false in terms of on-ice performance).

After some early season struggles, a few confounding healthy scratches, and a mostly successful experiment on his off side, Murphy settled in to produce a couple of interesting career highs and team rankings. Let’s kick it.

Connor Murphy

76 GP, 2 Goals, 12 Assists, 14 Points, -3, 34 PIM

53.44 CF% (Evens), 1.2 CF% Rel (Evens), 53.47 SCF% (5v5), 51.57 xGF% (5v5), 2.99 xGF% Rel (5v5)

 50% oZ Start (Evens)

What We Said: Behind Keith and—if you look at him with enough glare from the sun—Seabrook, Murphy is probably the Hawks’s third best D-man. He’s fine if not underwhelming for the price ($3.85 million cap hit), but on the edge of 24, he will need to prove that his numbers really are the result of playing in America’s chafe rather than wasted potential. Given that the Hawks have won three Cups on the backs of their defensemen . . . Murphy will need to develop into a shutdown D-man fast.

What We Got: We’ll start with some numbers (feel free to skip the bullets if all you want is the explanation).

– Murphy posted an even-strength CF% of 53.44, finishing above water for the first time since his rookie year. Of Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games, he finished fourth, behind Franson (59.91), Gustafsson (55.39), and Kempný (53.95). If you bump the minimum threshold up to 40 games, Murphy is your leader in CF% for Hawks D-men.

– His 1.2 CF% Rel was only the second time he’s been in the positives on that ledger (1.0 last year). Of all Hawks defensemen who played at least 20 games, only Franson (9.2), Gustafsson (6.6), and Kempný (1.4) had higher CF% Rels. Again, bumping the threshold up to 40 games, Murphy’s your D-man leader for the Hawks.

– The caveat there is that Franson, Gustafsson, and Kempný started in the offensive zone at respective rates of 65.8%, 57.4%, and 55.4% to Murphy’s 50%.

– Murphy also finished with a High Danger Chances For Percentage (HDCF%) of 48.56. That’s fourth among Hawks D-men with at least 20 games—behind Kempný (52.86), Franson (52.34), and Gustafsson (50.59)—and above the team rate of 47.11. Once again, bumping the threshold to 40 games, Murphy leads all Hawks D-men.

– Murphy finished fourth in Expected Goals For Percentage (xGF%; 51.57) among Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games (behind Franson, Kempný, and Gustafsson). When bumped up to 40 games, Murphy was the leader.

– Finally, Murphy finished third in Expected Goals For Percentage Relative (xGF% Rel; 2.99) among Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games (behind Gustafsson and Franson). When bumped to 40 games, he’s the leader again.

All of this is to say that in terms of possession, Murphy was good if not great overall. He was better than the Hawks’s average in terms of giving up high-danger chances, but not great in a vacuum. And when he was on the ice, the Hawks could have expected more goals for than against.

That said, one of Murphy’s glaring weaknesses, especially at the beginning and end of the year, was his struggle to clear the puck in his own zone under pressure.

The above graph, which was tracked by Corey Sznajder, tells us that of these nine Blackhawks, only Brent Seabrook had more failed zone exits per 60 minutes of play. This means that the opposition was more likely to sustain pressure when Murphy had the puck in his own zone, which, of course, tends to lead to more opportunities to score goals. And while these data aren’t comprehensive (only tracked through 38 games), it does give us a good sample size for what’s pretty obvious through the eye test: When Murphy was pressured in his own zone, he sometimes panicked.

While Murphy absolutely must keep his spurs from jingling and jangling in his own zone if he’s going to develop into a true Top 4 shutdown D-man, it’s hard to ignore the carousel of D-men he was jerked around with this year and wonder whether that affected his play.

Murphy played primary time with five different defensemen this year.

All stats 5v5

Given how often he got jerked around, including playing his off side in his 25 games with Seabrook, one thing that stands out is the relative consistency in his possession numbers, aside from Keith. And despite the fact that the Hawks were the seventh worst team in giving up High Danger Chances, Murphy still managed well when away from Oesterle and Keith.

But therein lies the problem: Since the assumption is that Keith takes on the toughest competition (and he usually does), Murphy’s piss-poor numbers with him might suggest that he isn’t a Top 4 guy like Hjalmarsson was.

But this dovetails nicely with the overall point I want to make: The Murphy-for-Hjalmarsson trade wasn’t the loss for the Hawks some people want to say it is, and having Hjalmarsson over Murphy would have made things worse, not better.

Check out some of Hjalmarsson’s numbers when he played with Keith over his Hawks career:

All Stats 5v5

Like Murphy, Hjalmarsson had a rough go of it in the first 100 or so minutes with Keith, and that was when Keith was starting to go full Oppenheimer on the league. Coincidentally, it wasn’t until Hjalmarsson turned 25 that things really started to click any time he played with Keith, and next year Murphy will be 25.

Clearly, this is simply a coincidence, as raw age will have no effect on how (or whether) Murphy plays with Keith going forward. But this idea that Murphy doesn’t have Top 4 potential because he didn’t play well with a declining Keith over seven games this year is one of the more confusing implications I’ve heard this year.

The last point I’ll make regarding the implication that the Murphy-for-Hjalmarsson trade was a loss for the Hawks and that the Hawks miss Hjalmarsson is this:

Using more of Sznajder’s tracking data, it’s obvious that Murphy brought more to the table for the Hawks than Hjalmarsson did for the Coyotes this year. One of the two things that Hjalmarsson did that was marginally better was in terms of the breakups he caused at the blue line, preventing opponents from entering the zone with possession. (Note: They only tracked Hjalmarsson for 10 games this year against Murphy’s 38, so consider the sample size.)

Going even farther—because I have no sense of moderation whatsoever—even when comparing this year’s Murphy to last year’s Hjalmarsson, the differences aren’t as big as you’d think, mostly:

So even when we recognize and admit that Murphy had trouble with his exits from his own zone, the revisionist history that Hjalmarsson was an indispensable cog whose absence contributed to this year’s downfall doesn’t really hold water. Last year’s Hjalmarsson certainly had a better performance in terms of breakups and the percentage of entries he allowed, but he did it primarily with a not-yet-in-full-decline Duncan Keith covering him (or vice versa). Murphy spent most of his time with the glob of ambergris that is Brent Seabrook.

In short, Murphy had a good year with the Hawks despite his coach’s best efforts to jerk him around, was better than Hjalmarsson would have been, and stayed generally consistent despite spending almost a third of his year on his off side babysitting Seabrook. He’ll never be a game breaker, but he doesn’t have to be.

Where We Go From Here: Connor Murphy ought to open next year next to either Keith or Erik Gustafsson. If the Hawks are going to look at Keith as a Top Pairing Guy next year (they probably shouldn’t), they have to give him someone to cover his ass when his brain says he can make a play but his feet disagree, as we saw more often this year. I’d argue that Murphy, more than Oesterle, is that guy, despite how poorly they played together last year.

Whether you think Gustafsson is a second pairing guy is a conversation for another day (for the record, I can see it if I squint, and I’m willing to try it). But what’s undeniable is that in 135 minutes together at 5v5, Murphy and Gustafsson had a 57+ CF% while starting in the offensive zone at a 49.45% rate. With Murphy and Gustafsson entering their primes at 25 and 26, and each having paper that runs at least through 2020, pairing them might be worth an extended look, but it probably requires outside help to pair with Keith.

If the Hawks manage to sign a guy like John Carlson, or swing a trade for an OEL, Darnell Nurse, Justin Faulk, or maybe Oscar Klefbom, you’ll feel more comfortable about having the new guy and Keith as the top pairing, with Murphy covering Gustafsson. Or, you can pair the new guy with Murphy on the top pairing. This would let Keith slot in the second pairing with some iteration of Gustafsson on his off side, Forsling on his off side, Jokiharju (which is probably too much to ask), or Oesterle, because you know that’s going to happen again, despite our wailing.

Regardless, the Hawks have to saddle Murphy with more responsibility next year, whether they like it or not. The Hawks have a Top-4-potential guy in Murphy, and when he wasn’t getting the runaround, he showed flashes of it last year. Whether they use him that way is anyone’s guess.

All stats from hockey-reference.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, or corsica.hockey, unless otherwise noted.

Everything Else

 vs 

Game Time: 6:00
TV/Radio: WGN Ch. 9, WGN-AM 720
I Really Wish Joe Arpaio Would Have Been Brutally Murdered In Prison: Five For Howling

It’s once again time for another tearful montage as a returning Hawks player appears in the United Center in an opposing uniform for the first time, one of the underrated aspects of how this championship window has played out, somehow being actually heartwarming, nauseating, sad, and hilarious all at the same time. Tonight would  have been that for the injured Niklas Hjalmarsson,  and this is the thanks he would have received for the absolute pounding he took while wearing red on West Madison for years, as he returns with the dog-ass (GET IT?) Coyotes.