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Saturday Musings: What is Arizona’s future? Bidding farewell to ‘the King’

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Wondering about the Coyotes, checking in on the Pens’ Minnesota contingent and more

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers

A few stray Saturday thoughts:

Announced earlier this week, Glendale is kicking the Coyotes out of their home following the 2021-22 season.

The team has released the requisite “we’re disappointed and 100% committed to staying in Arizona” statement, yet the long-term future of hockey in Phoenix is at another tenuous cross-roads.

One other item I found interesting is it was Arizona who got booted from the Pacific Division to the Central when Seattle joined the league. That’s pretty disappointing too, as the Coyotes lose division rivals in nearby Los Angeles, and what could have been developed into a fun desert battle against Las Vegas. Instead, the ‘Yotes are banished to a division that includes such cities as Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis, which...Not the best for anyone.

NHL relocations are far too simplistic to check among division alignments (and we saw how easy divisions can be re-aligned last season), but it’s way too obvious and natural to see that moving Arizona to a place like Houston or Kansas City makes a lot more sense geographically for the footprint of the league. A very minor consideration, but it’s impossible not to see the dots there to be connected when seeing the Phoenix market unceremoniously getting dumped out of the Pacific.

*

Did you catch some of the highlights out of Da Beauty League, the summer staple up in Minnesota where just about every NHL’er with roots to the state of hockey shows up for part-fun, part-training? There were a couple nice Penguin player moments.

In the first clip, Jason Zucker showing off some great hands and a clinical finish.

And then we have Jake Guentzel doing Jake Guentzel things:

There isn’t an easier redemption story in the world to see coming from 1,000 miles away then the Jason Zucker in Pittsburgh 2021 tour. The general sense is far too down and negative on a player who hasn’t been as bad as the lingering memory or impression gives. Zucker is a very good offensive player who puts up points, he just happened to start the season with an ice cold Evgeni Malkin and then got hurt for a chunk of the season to prevent him from getting on track.

Entering an early and easy prediction that Zucker turns his reputation around would be a move to make.

***

A happy and healthy retirement to Henrik Lundqvist, who announced his retirement yesterday.

Lundqvist will go down as one of the best foils of the Sidney Crosby / Evgeni Malkin era, the Rangers eliminated the Pens in 2014 and 2015 in what were really tough times of that version of the “Pens suck, they are too small, the stars can’t score in playoffs and they will never win again using skill against the defensive teams” times. (Not to be confused with the current version of “Pens suck, they are too small, stars are too old and can’t score, they’ll never win again using skill against the defensive teams”).

The critical performance for Lundqvist against the Pens had to be in 2014. Pittsburgh won the division with 109 points, and had a forgettable but very dominant season. Crosby won the scoring title and all the MVP awards with a 109 point year (next closest in the league was way back where Ryan Getzlaf had 87, lol). The Pens weren’t a deep team from top to bottom, and they were a flawed team, but it also gets lost to time that they were also still a very good team with incredible star power that usually led them to victories.

After Pittsburgh went up in the series 3 games to 1 of the second round matchup against NYR, Lundqvist shut the door, giving up just one goal in each of Games 5, 6 and 7 as the Rangers found a way to claw past Pittsburgh. Lundqvist stopped 102 of the last 105 shots in that series (.971 save%), which averages out to 35 shots per game. (And only _slightly_ out dueled Saint Marc-Andre Fleury’s .892% effort for Games 5-7).

Lundqvist’s performance ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back and cost Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma their jobs in Pittsburgh.

In 2014 it was a fairly unimpressive version of the Montreal Canadiens awaiting in the Eastern Conference Finals (NYR defeated them in six games), so it feels pretty reasonable to say it’s a good bet only Lundqvist was standing in between the Pens and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. You can never say for sure, since nothing was absolute with that era of the Pens, but it’s a pretty fair path to follow. The LA Kings won the Cup and probably still would have defeated Pittsburgh, but if a team can get that far you never know with players like Crosby and Malkin if they can will a team to a title against a better team on paper (see 2009 and 2017).

The end result is that if the Pens could have beaten Lundqvist in Game 5, 6 or 7 in 2014, Shero probably does not get fired that off-season, which means Bylsma would not have gotten fired either, and hockey history unfolds much differently in the future.

...So, ironically enough, in that regard Lundqvist also kinda has himself to blame for Pittsburgh making all those changes and reloading after 2014 and 2015, leading to acquiring players like Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel and the Pittsburgh team that would end up rising well above the level the Rangers were at by 2016.

Therefore, to complete the circle, if Lundqvist wasn’t so great in 2014, the Pens may well have not have had made the changes necessary to have the glory ahead in 2016 and 2017. Funny how that goes.

Lundqvist’s petulance also gave us one of the funniest and best moments in recent NHL memory:

Fittingly, as Lundqvist guided the Rangers to two series wins over the Pens, they took two from him (2008 and 2016). Lundqvist was an elite goalie that arguably was the best of his generation. Yet, for as important as goaltending is, he never won a Stanley Cup (nor did any of the top three on this list).

Nothing left to do but to leave it to Waylon and the boys who once sang, Yabba dabba do, the king is gone and so are you.