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Neutral Zone: Coyotes' Clayton Keller suffers gruesome leg injury

Craig Morgan Avatar
March 31, 2022

With 5:15 remaining in a 5-2 win against the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena on Wednesday, Coyotes forward Clayton Keller lost his balance and crashed, feet-first into the end boards behind the Sharks net, suffering what the team termed a fractured leg. The sight of Keller writhing in pain as trainers attended to him rendered everything else about the game moot.

“I think we are all sad to see him not just get hurt but being in pain like that; we all feel for him,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said in the postgame news conference. “I think the game is completely irrelevant right now and our thoughts and prayers are with him.”

A large team of medical personnel tended to Keller on the ice for several minutes before stretchering him off. He gave the customary thumbs up sign to the crowd as he was taken off the ice.

The team reported that the timeframe for recovery is four to six months. Tourigny later said that the specific injury was a completely broken femur.

“We know it will be long-term but he will recover,” Tourigny said. “You could see the guys were in shock. They were lining up at the (medical area) just to touch him, just to tell him ‘We’re there for you’.”

Keller’s mom, Kelley, was in attendance at the game and was with him afterward. She and Clayton’s father, Bryan, own a house in Arizona where they regularly stay. Bryan is also in Arizona.

Keller was taken to a nearby hospital where further tests were conducted. He had surgery on Wednesday night. Tourigny visited Keller in the hospital on Thursday morning. Keller was smiling and upbeat and the doctors told Tourigny that the surgery went well and the prognosis for recovery is good.

Keller was in the midst of his best season as a pro. By adding seven pounds of lean muscle mass in the offseason and working on various skills sets, he was producing at a level corresponding to his contract. When he left the game he was just two points short of his career high (65), and he had already set a career-high in goals with 28. He had been the Coyotes’ best player for most of the season, but that was not what was on Tourigny’s mind.

“To see a guy who cares as much as Kells and who is a huge leader on our team, seeing him in pain like that like, that is what hurts,” Tourigny said. “I don’t have words. We’re all in shock.”

Other injury updates

Keller’s injury was just the latest in the Coyotes’ growing host of injured players. GM Bill Armstrong provided updates on several others.

Forward Lawson Crouse broke bone in his hand blocking a shot in Edmonton on Monday and will be out least four weeks but will not require surgery. That clearly will end his season.

Forward Christian Fischer is expected to miss three to four more weeks with a lower-body injury, raising the possibility that he will not return this season. Fischer has not played since March 22.

Newly acquired center Jack McBain started skating with staff members on Wednesday. There is no timetable for him playing games, but Armstrong said that is still the expectation with 16 games remaining in the season.

Forward Andrew Ladd (lower body) is progressing and is still hoping to return before the end of their season. Ladd has not played since Feb. 20.

Forward Antoine Roussel is still expected to be out at least until late April with a lower-body injury. Roussel has not played since March 5.

Forward Liam O’Brien is still week to week with an upper-body injury. O’Brien has not played since Feb. 25.

Defenseman Conor Timmins has started skating in his rehabilitation from season-ending ACL surgery.

Defenseman Jakob Chychrun (ankle) has started skating but there is still no timetable for his return. Chychrun has not played since March 12.

Defenseman JJ Moser is progressing from an upper-body injury but his timetable for return is uncertain. Moser has not played since March 15.

Brad Richardson celebrates his game-winning overtime goal in Game Four of the Western Conference Qualification Round at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Aug. 7, 2020. The goal clinched a series win. (Getty Images)

Revive the qualifying round

The NHL often takes its cues from the NBA and NFL when plotting a course for its future. That’s why it was so maddening that the league abandoned the qualifying round after one fun-filled postseason in 2020.

Unlike the NHL, the NBA saw the fan and revenue benefit (LeBron James’ protests notwithstanding) of such a move and elected to bring back the play-in round this spring. The NBA Play-In Tournament will include the teams with the seventh through 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference. It will take place April 12-15. Here’s how it works.

I’m not saying that the NHL should copy the NBA’s one-game elimination format, although that is a possibility, given the excitement that a one-game format creates. I’d rather see the NHL use the same format that it used in the 2020 playoff bubble when the league was coming out of the first wave of COVID-19. That season, the teams ranked No. 5 through No. 12 in each conference competed in a best-of-five series format with No. 5 playing No. 12, No. 6 playing No. 11, No. 7 playing No. 10 and No. 8 playing No. 9. The four winners in each conference advanced to the regular NHL playoffs.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was not in favor of a repeat performance when last asked about it before the 2020-21 season, but here’s the crazy part. The play-in round actually makes more sense for the NHL than it does for the NBA. Before the pandemic, the NBA enjoyed $8.8 billion in revenue for the 2018-19 season. The NHL hit $5.1 billion. The play-in round would augment that revenue.

Want another reason? The NHL‘s format is more interesting.

There’s a simple reality at play in the NBA playoffs. As much as fans of lower seeded teams like to think that their teams have a chance to win, upsets in the NBA are far rarer than they are in the NHL. Since 1947, only two seeds lower than No. 3 in a conference have won an NBA title; the 1969 Boston Celtics (No. 4) and the 1995 Houston Rockets (No. 6).

In 2021, all four teams that advanced from the NBA play-in round to the regular postseason lost in the first round. Three of them won just one game in their best-of-seven series; one won two. From that perspective, the NBA’s play-in round looked like little more than a money grab.

By contrast, in the 2020 playoff bubble where four of the normally qualifying teams had to compete (seeds 5-8), four of the lower-seeded teams upset higher-seeded teams and advanced. In the Eastern Conference, No. 9 Columbus beat No. 8 Toronto and No. 12 Montréal upset No. 5 Pittsburgh. In the Western Conference, No. 11 Arizona beat No. 6 Nashville and No. 12 Chicago beat No. 5 Edmonton.

Critics argue that adding additional playoff teams waters down the product, but in the playoff bubble, every team that competed had at least a .500 points percentage while the seven teams that did not qualify were all below .500. As the league standings stood on Wednesday morning, that would again be the case for the Western Conference’s top 12 and bottom four teams, while the Eastern Conference would have two teams No. 11 Detroit and No. 12 Buffalo) below. 500.

The Eastern Conference standings this season may be the worst argument for bringing back the qualifying round (the West is the opposite) so let’s add a caveat: If you are more than let’s say six points (that number is negotiable) behind the eighth-place team, you don’t get into the qualifying round. Teams should still have to earn that right, but the addition of the qualifying round does keep things interesting much later into the season.

The qualifying round was exciting in 2020, and with arenas having returned to full capacity, it would also be profitable. Bring it back.

Coyotes seek sports betting law change

The Coyotes are hoping to amend a state law on sports betting to allow them to continue operating their mobile sports gambling app, Sahara Bets, when they move into Arizona State University’s multi-purpose next season.

The current law permits professional sports teams to run retail sports books and mobile gambling operations as long as their facilities seat at least 10,000 spectators. A total of 10 event wagering operator licenses were available to applicants other than an Indian tribe.

Eight pro sports franchises in Arizona were granted those licenses when the law was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in August: the Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Suns, Coyotes, Rattlers, Mercury, the TPC Scottsdale and Phoenix Raceway.

The Arizona Indian Gaming Association and several Native American tribes oppose the change to the law that was approved by the Arizona Senate’s appropriations committee on Tuesday, arguing that the law should not be changed simply because the Coyotes are in a smaller arena. But Sen. Sonny Borrelli, a Republican from Lake Havasu City, told the Associated Press that the tribes’ opposition is ridiculous.

“To see this, this opposition from the tribe, is really upsetting because this does not negatively affect the tribes one iota. None. Zero,” Borrelli said. “It’s moving from one location to the other, and it’s temporary.” Borrelli noted that the Coyotes have already been approved for a license so allowing them to use it at ASU is simply in the spirit of the law.

Here are the next steps in the process now that the measure has been approved by the Senate’s appropriations committee. It will go before the Senate Rules Committee, just as every bill does before it goes for a floor vote. After the floor vote in the Senate, assuming it gets approved, it will go through the same process in the House. If the House approves it, then it will go before Gov. Doug Ducey.

Andrew Diss, Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Meruelo Gaming, doesn’t think that gaining approval will be a significant issue.

“I think it was a good indication that we’re going to get the support that we need out of the Senate, since we got both Republican and Democratic votes (Tuesday),” Diss said. “I had several conversations with tribal representatives prior and after the hearing yesterday. The sense I get from them is they’re not opposed to what we’re specifically trying to do. They’re just very leery of opening up the gaming statute at all. The tribes have been the only ones with legalized gaming since 2000 in Arizona, and rightfully, I think they are a little cautious when things affecting gaming come up like this.

“I think they’re afraid that something else gets added to this and slipped in is what it comes down to. This very specific issue, they’re not concerned about, but when you open up the statute, I think what they’re afraid of is that something else gets tacked on, and then it gets voted out and passed out and then all of a sudden, possibly there’s a new way for somebody else to get licensed, which none of us wants. But I have had conversations with lots of different legislators, including the sponsor of this, Representative (Leo) Biasiucci, and he says in no way shape or form is this language going to change from what was passed by the committee yesterday.”

Here is a look at the law with the changes noted in blue (lower in the document).

Many outsiders have wondered if the Coyotes would build a physical space for a retail sports book near ASU’s multi-purpose arena. Diss reiterated that such a move is not in the Coyotes’ plans.

“Just from a return on investment perspective, if we were going to sink some money into building a retail physical sportsbook, it doesn’t make sense if we’re only going to be able to use it for three years,” he said. “Number one, we can’t build it on campus whatsoever. We’re prohibited from doing that by university policy. 

“We could potentially do one within a five-block radius, but like I said, from the dollars and cents perspective, we’re just not going to invest that capital there just for three years when eventually we’re going to build a very nice retail sportsbook at our location alongside Tempe Town Lake.”

GM meetings

Bill Armstrong attended his first in-person GM meetings in Palm Beach, Florida on Monday and Tuesday. GMs had not met in person in more than two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was outstanding,” Armstrong said. “They did a great job addressing all the issues and I was impressed by the way the meetings were run. One of the reasons those meetings are effective is because they use the voice of the GMs to get feedback for the good of the game and what’s going to make it better.”

One of the main topics discussed, though not resolved, was the possibility of extending the salary cap into the postseason to prevent cap circumvention via long-term injured reserve. GMs also discussed officiating, no-trade lists and the return of the World Cup of Hockey.

As a newer GM, Armstrong said he tried to listen more than interject.

“I was more interested in the discussion to have a better understanding and go back and do a little bit more research for myself as a young GM,” he said. “There’s a lot of experienced GMs to lead the talks in the right direction along with Gary (Bettman) and the group.”

Finnish goalie Harri Säteri poses with his gold medal at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. (Getty Images)

Harri Säteri update

Armstrong said that newly acquired goaltender Harri Säteri should arrive in Arizona on Friday.

“He’ll probably need almost a week of practice to get him adjusted to the time and all of that other stuff before he can play,” Armstrong said.

Loose pucks

  • Coyotes radio play-by-plan man Bob Heethuis called his 1,300th NHL game on Wednesday. 
  • In the span of 11 days, Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka played six games in five different cities in three different time zones. He faced 216 shots in those six games; an average of 36.

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