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Neutral Zone: Smiling Larry, an All-Star quandary, Shott’s place, Wedgie’s mask, Chychrun rumor redux, Nash's arrival

Craig Morgan Avatar
January 7, 2022

It took Shane Doan 1,161 games to record his first career hat trick. It took Johan Larsson 465. They both came in dramatic fashion, and the two were able to compare notes as Larsson made his way to the interview room after a 6-4 win against the Chicago Blackhawks at Gila River Arena on Thursday.

Larsson’s nickname is Angry Larry, although there are multiple versions including coach Andre’ Tourigny’s Grumpy Larry moniker. After Larsson posted his three-goal game — and the first three goals of his season — Doan dubbed him Smiling Larry.

“It’s crazy,” Larsson said. “You go a lot of games without it and then one goes in and you feel better.”

Every player likes to score so going scoreless for the first 19 games of his COVID and injury-impacted season bugged Larsson. But his value does not come from his goal-scoring ability. It comes from his ability to defend well, play a hard game, sustain a forecheck and go to the dirty areas. All of those elements were on display against the Blackhawks and they even led to his first goal when he parked himself in front of the net. Janis Moser’s shot bounced off his upper body and into the goal for a 2-0 lead in the first period.

The willingness to execute the unsung details has earned Larsson a lot of trust with Tourigny. It also earned him 19:46 of ice time against Chicago — tops among Arizona’s forwards — including 3:37 worth of power play time where he scored his second goal. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Larsson had logged a total of 56 minutes of power play time before Thursday’s game.

“He’s a guy who is easy to trust because he cares a lot, he does things right every day and he has a lot of character,” Tourigny said. “I always chirp him because he barely played power play this year. He got one shift of about 20 seconds just before his injury and we scored. Since he’s back on the power play, we score I will say about half of the time, so I always tell him he is the best power-play player in the history of the NHL.”

Larsson got his hat trick with 29 seconds remaining in the game and the Coyotes got their first win since Dec. 17 at Anaheim. It was cause for celebration throughout the team.

“I always say Larry is one of the most underrated guys,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “I played Larry the last seven years, even when he was in Buffalo and I hated playing against him. He plays the right way, he’s hard-nosed and he’s got that grit, too. He doesn’t like to get messed with.

“Its finally good to see him, let alone get three, get one, especially the first one went off his chest or something. It’s a Larry goal.”

Which Coyote should be an All-Star: Shayne Gostisbehere or Clayton Keller? (USA TODAY Sports)

All-Star quandary

It’s hard to envision the Coyotes getting more than one All-Star on the 2022 Central Division team. Actually, let’s just go ahead and say that there’s no chance of that happening for the NHL’s last-place team. 

When that’s the case, whom do you pick for the game on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas as the NHL tries to take at least one player from each team? The Coyotes only have three players on the All-Star ballot: defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and forwards Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel.

Kessel is having a good season with 23 points in 32 games, but it’s not an All-Star caliber season, especially when you look at the competition in the Central Division. There are 24 forwards in the Central Division with more points than Kessel and it’s not like Kessel is going to draw attention for anything but his point production.

Keller was tied for 21st among Central Division forwards with 25 points, but his game has been far more complete than in previous seasons, his expected goals rate (17.9) is the second highest on the team (Gostisbehere, 20.12) and he has been a consistent point producer and offense driver all season.

The other candidate, and probably the strongest candidate, is Gostisbehere, who has six goals and 23 points, which put him in fourth place in points among Central Division defensemen. 

“If my game is going my confidence is going,” Gostisbehere said. “That’s what I really thrive on, confidence wise. For myself, I need to keep doing things that make me a good player: moving pucks, using my feet to get out of trouble and I think that’s what helps my team the most.”

That said, Gostisbehere has taken on different roles this season and handled them well, especially with Jakob Chychrujn out of the lineup. He is starting a career-high 44.1 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone and he has already logged a career-high 24 minutes of penalty kill time through 32 games.

“Any time you get more opportunities you want to do your best and show that you’re willing and able to take those big minutes and those matchups,” he said. 

In previous incarnations of the All-Star Game, Gostisbehere would be a lock, but the small rosters (11 players per division team) and the way in which they are constructed will make it hard for him to crack the lineup.

In 2020 (there was no game last season), three of the four division rosters had seven forwards, two defensemen and two goalies (the Metro took four defenseman). Colorado’s Cale Makar (14 goals, 28 points) and Nashville’s Roman Josi (32 points) are obvious choices on defense for the Central, which leaves little or no room for the likes of Chicago’s Seth Jones, Gostisbehere, Minnesota’s Alex Goligoski and some other potential candidates such as St. Louis’ Torey Krug and Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen.

The more prevalent roster construction may make it easier for Keller to crack the lineup, although he’ll have to contend with the likes of Nate MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri, Kirill Kaprizov, Kyle Connor, Vladimir Tarasenko, Mikko Rantanen, Jordan Kyrou, Pavel Buchnevich, Mikael Granlund, Matt Duchene, Patrick Kane and others.

Given their respective seasons, I think Gostisbehere is the most deserving, but I could also see Keller getting the nod as he takes the next step in his evolution.

Matt Shott with Leighton Accardo (photo courtesy of Matt Shott)

Honoring Matt Shott 

It was an emotional day at Gila River Arena on Wednesday. 

The Coyotes honored Matt Shott, their senior director of hockey development with a celebration of his life. Shott died on Dec. 19 from cancer. 

In attendance were youth hockey players whom he coached; his parents including his mom, Shelley; his family including his brother, Trevor; his friends, including Carly Accardo (Leighton’s mother) and NHL youth hockey and IGF regional director Sean Whyte; and Coyotes employees who worked with Shott including president/CEO Xavier Gutierrez and executives Shane Doan and Lyndsey Fry.

It was hard to capture the emotions of this event because it was so personal for me. As I noted on the day of the event, Matt was more than a guy I worked with; he was a friend. I had already written two stories about him and PHNX dedicated two shows to him. It almost feels exploitative to keep writing about a tragedy because you know it will get readership. That’s not the reason to write about this subject and I wasn’t ready to write about it on Wednesday, anyway. I left the event without talking to anybody. It was too painful and too raw after watching Shelley Shott, Trevor Shott, Fry, Whyte and even Doan break down.

“I didn’t mean to get emotional,” Doan said.

It was impossible to avoid it but I had a good chat with Coyotes radio play-by-play man Bob Heethuis and he convinced me that in my case, it made sense to write again because this was more than a news story to me; it was personal. 

I love all of the things that the Coyotes are doing for Matt. I don’t know how they do it, but the Coyotes consistently nail these sorts of events that honor people, no matter the reasons behind the ceremonies. If you want to know how to honor Matt, Fry has one terrific idea.

Here’s another idea that I can’t stop thinking about. Matt Shott belongs in the Coyotes Ring of Honor.

Aside from Doan, there probably isn’t a person who has made more of an impact on the growth of hockey in Arizona than Shott. His fingers are everywhere, and the products of his tireless and selfless efforts are too numerous to count, from the youth hockey leagues he coached, to the street hockey clinics he spearheaded in disadvantaged or non-traditional hockey neighborhoods, to his championing of the girls and women’s game, to the community rinks that have been built over the past two decades. 

I believe that the ring of honor should extend past players, coaches and executives. It should extend to the people within or within contact of the organization who have made the most impact. The Coyotes clearly agree because Leighton Accardo is in the ring. I think her inclusion makes the Coyotes ring unique among teams because it is so holistic in its philosophy. So how can Matt not join her? In many senses, Matt brought Leighton into the lives of Coyotes nation and Carly Accardo would be the first to note that.

I don’t know how the Coyotes will possibly replace Matt Shott. When I think about his legacy, I think about the growth of hockey in Arizona and I think about his selfless approach to his job. Without sounding too preachy or corny, I think we can honor Matt by striving to be just a little better tomorrow than we were today.

But I also want to remember Matt every time that I step into the Coyotes arena – wherever that arena may be. That would be easy if his name were in the ring of honor in Glendale before the Coyotes leave Gila River Arena. And if I get to see that name in lights for the next 10 to 15 years, that would add one more bullet point to Shott’s incredible legacy: that the Coyotes are still here.

The front view of Scott Wedgewood’s new mask.

Wedgewood’s new mask

Scott Wedgewood’s new mask finally arrived. He will likely get the chance to show it off in a game at some point soon, but here’s a look at it from all four sides with some intel from Wedgewood on the inspiration behind the design from famed goalie mask artist David Gunnarsson, including the Canadian flag (Wedgewood was born in Brampton, Ontario), the initials of his parents (Mike and Brenda), his brothers (Mark and Paul), his wife (Brittany) and a shout-out to his two Bernedoodles (Captain and Bucky) with the half shields of Captain America and the Winter Soldier from the Avengers.

The back view.

“I’ve gone to the dark gear the last two seasons so I decided to keep it on the darker tone side,” Wedgewood said. “My first thought was the Four Peaks mountains here and the Kachina layout on the bottom of our jerseys. 

“I’ve got the team’s logo on the left ear, just a Kachina playing hockey with a stick in his hands. And then the desert sky was my first pitch to Dave. We wear our red jerseys a lot so it tones into that red jersey. I wanted to do glow-in-the-dark purple but they don’t make that paint color so we just got the moon that’s in our crest on the top right of the mask.

The left side.

“Dave does such a great job with his little hieroglyphics. You can see the little Coyote prints deep in the back of the paint job if you zoom in.”

The right side.

There is also space to drop in a Matt Shott sticker and a Jimmy Hayes sticker. 

“You see things like the NFL cleats and NBA shoes with some design on them, but they are not the size of a goalie mask. It’s fun to express yourself this way. Dave Gunnarson is the best in the business and he has all the tricks of the trade. I love this matte finish. I did that when I went to Tampa and again in New Jersey. I just like it a little better than the shine.” 

Jakob Chychrun. (USA TODAY Sports)

Chychrun rumors redux

The Jakob Chychrun rumors aren’t going away but recent reports by TSN’s Darren Dreger and The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun paint a better picture of the situation than previous reports.

As I have noted multiple times, the asking price for Chychrun is very high – or as Dreger and LeBrun put it, Jack Eichel-esque. The Coyotes are in no rush to move Chychrun and there is no guarantee that they will move Chychrun.

Some things to ponder regarding this trade: 

GM Bill Armstrong’s best success at exacting the price that he wants has come in situations where the trade partner was under pressure to get something done. Montreal had already lost center Jesperi Kotkaniemi to Carolina via offer sheet so it needed a center desperately to maintain the appearance that it was a legitimate Cup contender and not a one-year mirage (it was the latter). So Armstrong traded Christian Dvorak for a first-round pick in 2022 and a second-round pick in 2024.

Colorado had just lost goalie Philipp Grubauer to Seattle in free agency (the Avs are happy they did now). They didn’t just need a goalie; they needed one capable of winning a Cup on a roster built to win now. The Edmonton Oilers were also in the mix so Armstrong was able to send Darcy Kuemper and the final year of his contract (he wasn’t going to re-sign with Arizona) to the Avs for a first-round draft pick in 2022, a conditional third-round pick in 2024 and 22-year-old defenseman Conor Timmins. 

The March 21 trade deadline creates pressure, but so does the need to win, which makes me wonder if a team such as Edmonton will get back into the mix despite Elliotte Friedman’s report that the Oilers are an unlikely destination. If you’re looking for other potential trade partners, think in those terms.

As for the timing, I don’t think that anything is imminent. Again, another team’s pressure to make a move will only help Armstrong and he has an early track record of being very patient with his moves. The Coyotes have a pro scouting meeting this month (the scouts were at Thursday’s game). That meeting also might provide some clarity on the trade options. At that point, it may be a case of whether Armstrong wants to swing for a big piece, take a sprinkling of several assets or do nothing at all.

Again, there is no guarantee that anything will happen, but if it does, the haul will be big, as it should be for a 23-year-old, hard-shooting, goal-scoring, top-3 defenseman with a cap hit of $4.6 million.

Riley Nash is the newest Coyote after the team claimed him off of waivers from Tampa Bay on Thursday. (USA TODAY Sports)

Why the Coyotes claimed Riley Nash

The Coyotes haven’t been overly anxious to add players via the waiver wire this season, but when Tampa Bay waived forward Riley Nash on Wednesday, Armstrong jumped at the chance. There were a few reasons behind that decision.

First, center Jay Beagle underwent surgery for the lower-body injury that he suffered on Dec. 12. Armstrong said that Beagle could miss anywhere from eight weeks to the rest of the season. 

“Nash is a good faceoff man (52 percent success rate) and we’ve had some depth problems at that position anyway,” Armstrong said.

Tampa did not want to lose Nash, as The Athletic’s Joe Smith noted.

Keep that in mind when the trade deadline comes along on March 21. Nash was used primarily as the Lightning’s fourth-line center so he won’t land a big return, but he could land a late-round pick and the Coyotes will have given up essentially nothing to get that. 

The other reason that Armstrong wanted Nash? Per a source, the Coyotes could lose another player soon as he weighs the merits of getting minor surgery now to allow him to return after the All-Star break. More on that soon.

Loose puck

It’s that time of year when I start paying attention to the scouts in attendance at Coyotes games. It was mostly regulars on Thursday, but I did note the presence of the Florida Panthers Les Jackson, a former executive with the Dallas Stars whom the Coyotes once flirted with hiring as a hockey operations executive.

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