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Neutral Zone: The Olympic quandary

Craig Morgan Avatar
December 15, 2021

With the past two days’ additions, nearly a fifth of the NHL’s players have entered the COVID-19 protocols at some point this season. As a result, nine NHL games have been postponed and more could fall victim as North America braces for a rough winter.

Those facts alone are causing concern in league circles about the wisdom of NHL players competing in the Beijing Olympics in February, but recent revelations from Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek have augmented concerns among the players.

Here is what Marek reported:

It is unclear whether any Coyotes will be chosen for their respective Olympic teams, but Coyotes hockey operations staff acknowledged that players such as Jakob Chychrun (Canada), Clayton Keller (USA), Ilya Lyubushkin (Russia), Janis Moser (Switzerland) and Jan Jeník (Czech Republic) could be in consideration. If any are chosen, GM Bill Armstrong admitted that he would have concerns.

“You do but there’s stuff you worry about and stuff I can’t control,” he said. “That’s a deal that was done with the players association, the Olympics and obviously the NHL so it is what it is. With COVID, that situation is moving all the time but I think we have to respect the players’ rights to go over there and play.”

GMs’ greatest fear is that a player tests positive at the Olympics and then gets stuck there for five weeks while his NHL has resumed play.

“It could definitely set back some teams if the worst-case scenario happens to a player,” Armstrong said. “Think about it as a GM building a team. Can you imagine the Arizona Coyotes getting to the point where we’re a top-five team and we’re having a chance to roll in the playoffs, and then four of your guys go over there and two get injured and two get COVID. That would be tough to swallow.”

It’s not an easy decision for the players, either. NHL culture is hyper team-centric, so to be stuck in China and not be able to help their NHL team would not sit well with players.

“It’s a tough question,” Lyubushkin said. “I guess I would still like to play in the Olympics because when you started to play hockey as a child, you knew about the Olympics and you wanted to play in the Olympics. It’s the same thing as the NHL. It’s a dream, but it’s a tough choice.

“I don’t think about it because it has not happened, but if you got Covid and had to stay for three to five weeks in China, I don’t know what I would do. That would be so bad.”

Keller said that all parties will need to remain in constant communication right up to the point when it’s time to leave for China in early February.

“The PA and Gary agreed on letting the players go, but obviously things can change with health and safety,” Keller said. “That stuff is most important so it’s going to have to be a joint decision. Obviously, that’s not an ideal situation, being stuck there five weeks.

“I really don’t know what to think about it. I’m sure guys are being very cautious with their families and being away for a long time, but growing up, you want to wear that USA jersey and I was lucky enough to do it at the US (NTDP) program and learned how special it was. You never take it for granted, any time you get to throw on that jersey, so that’s definitely super important to me.”

Edmonton Oil Kings forward Dylan Guenther (Photo courtesy of Edmonton Oil Kings)

Guenther gets the call 

Coyotes prospect Dylan Guenther was among the players named to Team Canada’s roster for the 2021-22 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta from Dec. 26-Jan. 5. Guenther has represented Canada on two previous occasions. He played for Team Canada White at the 2019 World U17 Challenge and then helped Canada capture gold at the 2021 World U18 Championship for the first time since 2013, with seven points (four goals) in seven games while serving as an alternate captain.

“Growing up, it’s really everyone’s dream to play for this team and it’s a Christmas tradition in a lot of Canadian households to watch it,” Guenther said. “I don’t remember a Christmas where I wasn’t watching the World Juniors so to have this opportunity to do it at home in front of my friends and family in Edmonton is something that I will never forget.” 

Among Guenther’s favorite World Junior memories are Jordan Eberle’s game-tying goal against Russia with 5.4 seconds remaining in their 2009 semifinal game (Canada won in a shootout on its way to the gold medal).

And future teammate Barrett Hayton’s game-tying goal against Russia in the 2020 gold medal game (Canada won the game).

The Coyotes selected Guenther in the first-round (No. 9) of the 2021 NHL Draft. Through 25 games, the Edmonton Oil Kings forward was tied for ninth in WHL points (32) and tied for fourth in goals (16). After a slow start, which was discussed in a recent prospect report, Guenther has adapted to his position switch from wing to center.

“It was kind of a feeling-out process for me, but my game has continued to grow and evolve and changing positions has allowed me to round out my game and become a bit more versatile,” he said. “I think just the speed and pace of the game slows down once you come back in the D-zone as a center. I’ve never really done that before, kind of come down a level, so I had to adjust.”

Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong has been charting Guenther’s progress closely.

“We were ecstatic that he was playing at center to be honest with you, because centermen are really hard to come by,” Armstrong said. “That just shows his IQ and his ability to be able to switch positions. You can take a center and move them to the wing but very rarely do you take a winger, move them to center, and it works.

“In his last game for Team Canada at the exhibition, I think he played center, too, so it’s just a great option to have. I do believe it’s a hard thing for him to go through, but when he comes out the other side, he’s going to be a smarter, better player because of it.”

The selection to Team Canada will afford Guenther the opportunity to play in his home arena, Rogers Place, which is home to the Edmonton Oilers but also houses the Oil Kings.

“I play at Rogers every game and we probably get 4,000 or 5,000 fans so when the building is filled with 18,000 fans, that image is something that I won’t ever forget,” Guenther said. “My family’s also super excited. My younger brother looks up to me and just loves the World Juniors and I think that they’re all super stoked to share this opportunity with me.” 

(Getty Images)

O-zone offenses

Before Tuesday’s games, the Coyotes led the NHL in penalty minutes (327) and penalties taken (123). They had the second-most minor penalties with 102 (Minnesota had 107), and their minus-27 penalty differential was the worst in the NHL.

That’s not a great surprise for a team at the bottom of the standings and near the bottom of possession stats. Teams that play with the puck take less penalties, but what’s most concerning about the stat is where those penalties have been taken. Before Saturday’s game against the Flyers, the Coyotes were tied with the New York Rangers (Wednesday’s opponent) for the most penalties taken in the offensive zone (36). Coincidental penalties and fights were not included in this stat.

Coaches always want their players to stay out of the box, but if a player takes a penalty by saving a goal in the defensive zone, or to prevent a rush through the neutral zone, coaches can live with those penalties. Offensive-zone penalties are often the result of carelessness or frustration. The O-zone penalties have been a recent point of focus for the hockey operations staff. 

Injury updates

GM Bill Armstrong said that center Jay Beagle will go for a second opinion on his lower-body injury in the next coupe of days. Beagle was injured when he blocked an Ivan Provorov shot against the Flyers on Saturday.

“I think there’s a little bit of frustration on the player’s part,” Armstrong said. “He wants to know exactly what’s going on in there. We want to facilitate that and make sure that happens for him and get him a comfort level, whether he’s going to play through it, or rest is required, or surgery is required.”

With Carter Hutton back on the ice for practice the past couple of days, I asked Armstrong if he was nearing a point where he’ll have to make a roster decision with his three goalies.

“That stuff works itself out,” Armstrong said. “It’s not really to the point where he’s 100-percent healthy. When he’s 100-percent healthy, we’ll have to make some decisions. Right now, it is what it is.” 

Coach André Tourigny said Monday that defenseman Jakob Chychrun and forward Ryan Dzingel (upper-body injuries) will not play this week.

Leighton Accardo (Photo courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)

Loose pucks

  • The Coyotes will host the second Skatin’ for Leighton presented by Phoenix Children’s at Phoenix Raceway on Jan. 30. The event will be an all-day festival celebrating the life and legacy of Coyotes Ring of Honor member Leighton Accardo, who passed away on Nov. 24, 2020 after an 18-month battle with cancer. More information here.
  • Armstrong was out scouting in Sweden and Finland recently. He still enjoys the side of the business in which he cut his teeth. “I do, but it’s a different feeling,” he said. “It’s just rounding up talent and seeing this is what the talent looks like. It’s not actually putting them in order, one after another, in the top 10. As a GM, you want to help guide your staff, but you don’t want to be too involved and micromanage and mess it up because those guys are in the field every day. They know best.”
  • The Coyotes recalled defenseman Janis Moser from Tucson on Tuesday. He will make his NHL debut against the Rangers on Wednesday.

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