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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The NHL schedule makers have been mischievous in the early portion of the regular season. Seattle launched its NHL existence against Vegas, the league’s last expansion team, and the Kraken will face Salish Sea rival Vancouver in Seattle’s home opener at Climate Pledge Arena.
To the east, Montreal and Toronto squared off in each team’s opener, just 3.5 months after the Canadiens rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate the Maple Leafs in the first-round of the playoffs.
On the other end of the competitive spectrum, the NHL is offering a preview of the fight for presumed No.1 overall pick Shane Wright.
The Coyotes open their season at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Thursday night, two days before facing the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center. No matter which sports book you check, the Blue Jackets, Coyotes and Sabres are among a group of five or six teams (the Ducks, Senators and Red Wings are the others) that carry the longest odds to win the Stanley Cup.
Nobody is going to say it out loud, but a Cup is not the goal for these teams this season. Acquiring good young players is, and the Coyotes have eight picks in the first two rounds of the loaded 2022 NHL Draft. After a 5-1 preseason, Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong was asked about the possibility of his team being better than outsiders project it to be.
“You never know when you assemble a team,” Armstrong told the PHNX Coyotes podcast on Monday. “Sometimes there’s extra synergy and there’s extra hunger and you overachieve.
“I think we’re backed up in the sense that we have eight picks in the first two rounds so the picks aren’t going anywhere. As management and as an organization we have to provide a place where our players can compete and have that free will to succeed and have success and we’re never going to hold them back from that.”
It’s important to remember that even if the Coyotes were to finish with the worst record in the NHL, their odds of winning the top overall pick are still relatively low. That said, those odds would be better than every other team’s odds, and franchise centers are rare.
Wright is projected to be a franchise center (presumed 2023 top pick Connor Bedard is, too). If the Coyotes don’t win the lottery for the first time in franchise history, they’ll still get a good player this year, but he may not offer the sort of fortune-altering qualities that many scouts think Wright possesses.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Coyotes were in the mix for two other franchise centers. In 2015, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were the top prizes and the Coyotes, at least from a management standpoint, seemed hellbent on landing one of them. The 2014-15 roster is probably the worst in franchise history, and its embarrassing lack of scoring drove a wedge between then-GM Don Maloney and then-coach Dave Tippett, who had different objectives in mind.
“It’s just so hard as a player to go through a season like that because you’re all competitive; that’s how you got to the NHL,” said Coyotes executive Shane Doan, who captained that team. “I don’t care what anybody says, it’s the hardest on the players because your career is so finite and so limited, and everyone else points it out to you that you only have so many years in the league. To go through a year like that is not fun.”
That’s a sentiment you will hear across the league. Coaches and players play to win. That is their job and that is their nature. GMs want to win, too, but they also have to see the big picture; the long-term. Maloney knew that landing McDavid could alter his long-suffering franchise’s fortunes. He just couldn’t control the desire of his coach and players, nor did he try.
It all came to a head on March 26 in Buffalo. The Coyotes arrived with a five-point lead on the Sabres in the standings, thanks in part to a stunning overtime win in Detroit two nights before. Buffalo took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period on Rasmus Ristolainen’s power play goal, but the Coyotes rallied on goals from Oliver Ekman-Larsson and David Moss before Brian Gionta forced overtime with 3:37 remaining in regulation.
What transpired 56 seconds into overtime was one of the more bizarre scenes you’ll ever see in pro sports. Coyotes forward Sam Gagner (who wore No. 13, no less) scored the game-winning goal on a power play and Sabres fans cheered, knowing that the goal had all but cemented Buffalo’s chances at the league’s worst record with just seven games remaining in the season.
“That’s an all-time low moment for Buffalo sports fandom,” said Joe Yerdon, who was covering the Sabres for NHL.com. “None of the Sabres players got asked about that possibility before the game, but afterwards it was definitely a big deal.”
Sabres defenseman Mike Weber ripped the fans after the game.
“I don’t even know if disappointed is the word,” he told reporters. “They score that first one, our fans are cheering. Late penalty, they cheer. They cheer when they score to win the game. I don’t even know what to say.
“Physically, mentally, this sucks. To compound things, you have your home fans cheering against you. Again, I’ve never been a part of that. Obviously, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger I guess, but this is a whole new low right now.”
For most of that season, it seemed that Buffalo was trying just a little harder than the Coyotes to tank. When goaltenders Jhonas Enroth and Michael Nuevirth played well, Buffalo traded them in a desperate search for the worst goaltending possible.
“If it wasn’t obvious what they were trying to do from the get go, it became obvious as the season went on,” Yerdon said. “When you see Jhonas Enroth playing very well in front of a very bad team and then getting traded to Dallas for Anders Lindback, who was having an awful season with Dallas as a backup, it’s hard to find another explanation. Any goalie who played well got shipped out and that’s the way that whole season went.”
The Sabres even staged a game in their own arena for the Erie Otters, McDavid’s team, at First Niagara Center. Local sports stars showed up, including Bills running back Thurman Thomas. McDavid dazzled with a goal and four points.
Ultimately, Buffalo finished with a league-worst 54 points and the best odds to land McDavid. The Coyotes were second worst with 56, but Edmonton leapfrogged both teams to land the top prize. At No. 2, the Sabres landed what they thought was a terrific consolation prize in Eichel, and the Coyotes, despite much internal disagreement, chose Dylan Strome at No. 3.
The 2015 NHL Draft is widely considered to be one of the best two or three drafts of this millennium. Given the players that went after the top few picks, it’s easy to see why. Mikko Rantanen, Mathew Barzal, Kyle Connor, Thomas Chabot, Brock Boeser and Sebastian Aho have all gone on to become stars.
Despite that depth, the 2015 draft has not proven to be the watershed draft it was expected to be for the top four teams. While Edmonton and Toronto have at least established themselves as consistent playoff teams, none of the four has tasted any meaningful playoff success.
It’s a cautionary tale for teams that think the top pick is a cure-all, but it won’t stop teams from coveting Wright, Ivan Miroshnichenko, Brad Lambert or Matthew Savoie because you still need great players to win the Cup. This week’s Coyotes-Jackets and Coyotes-Sabres games will provide an early read on Tankathon 2.0, but if you want to skip ahead, you can always head over to http://www.tankathon.com/nhl and simulate the NHL Draft Lottery over and over until you produce the desired result.
The story behind Goligoski’s No. 47
Alex Goligski showed up at Minnesota Wild media day on Sept. 22, wearing No. 47.
And then he told a little white lie.
In fact, there is significance to No. 47.
“Me and my buddy used to play Madden (NFL) growing up and I played strong safety on defense and I’d always pick No. 47 for my player,” Goligoski said. “I loved (nine-time Pro Bowler) John Lynch.”
“Think any NHL player has picked a number based on their Madden create-a-player number when they were 14 years old? That’s an insider scoop. I don’t think I’ve told anyone that. Only me and my buddy know why.”
Goligoski said this is the first time that any number he has worn has held any significance.
“Wore 7 growing up and in high school, 10 in college, 13 in Pittsburgh until we traded for Bill Guerin and I switched to 3; 33 in Dallas and AZ,” he said. “No significance to any of them.”
It seems fitting that the first number of significance comes from a boyhood memory in his home state of Minnesota. Goligoski, 36, is enjoying this late turn in his career that finds him so close to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. He is enjoying his new defensive Jared Spurgeon, he’s enjoying being reunited with Guerin, his former teammate and the Wild’s current GM, and he’s apparently enjoying picking weeds, as The Athletic’s Mike Russo explains in this must-read piece.
Conor Garland’s adjustment
Coach Travis Green’s infamous Day-1 bag skate produced more victims at Canucks training camp this year. Defenseman Olli Juolevi collapsed in a corner, former Coyotes Oliver Ekman-Larsson lagged well behind his teammates, and former Coyotes Conor Garland puked behind the net.
Some media made a big deal of those incidents, but Garland shrugged it off.
“It’s definitely a hard skate, especially for someone with my speed and my short and stocky legs,” he told reporters after practice.. “It was hard, but I got through it. I was more focused on the rest of practice and learning the systems. A bag skate’s a bag skate.”
On that note, I caught up with Garland for a few quick questions on his adjustment period in Vancouver. Garland had an assist on Ekman-Larsson’s power-play goal in the Canucks’ 3-2 shootout loss in Edmonton on Wednesday.
How are you feeling as the season approaches?
“Camp was pretty challenging for me this year, getting adjusted to a new city, new team, linemates, drills, staff. All of it was hard to adjust to for the first week or so but as time has gone on I’m feeling at ease and ready to get the real games going. We feel really confident in our team and think we have a chance to win a lot of hockey games this year.”
How have you adapted to Vancouver?
“The city is beautiful but for my fiancée, dog and myself, the hardest part was the city noises. We didn’t get a lot of good sleep the first week here. We had only ever lived in the desert or, at home (in Massachusetts), we live on a beach, so it was a very big change for us. Fortunately, we have a beautiful dog park across the street where we spend most of our time.”
What is your read of the team?
“I think one thing that has stuck out to me is how good some of the guys here are, and not just the big names, but some prospects we have and some new guys that we didn’t have the chance of seeing last year.
“I also really got to appreciate how lucky we were last year to have fans in the building. The guys here were really ecstatic for our first game with fans back and I think having even a small number of fans in the building last year was something that was really special for our group. I’m really looking forward to getting going, getting more and more comfortable here, and I’m looking forward to helping this team reach the playoffs and making a run at it all.”
Coyotes coach André Tourigny expected to name his initial leadership group of alternate captains at a team meeting at Nationwide Arena on Thursday morning. That group is likely to rotate as the season progresses. Tourigny does not know when he will name a captain, but it will not happen immediately.