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Coyotes at Sharks Preview: Fighting for Fantilli?

The Desert Dogs will make their only appearance at the Tank this season.

Loui Eriksson #21 of the Arizona Coyotes skates with Logan Couture #39 of the San Jose Sharks during the first period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on March 30, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Coyotes (9-13-4, seventh Central) are making a quick trip to the Bay Area to face the San Jose Sharks (9-16-5, seventh Pacific). This marks the only time the Desert Dogs (drink!) will make an appearance to the Shark Tank this season.

The Sharks won on Friday night, thanks partly to Eetu Makiniemi’s strong performance in net and the absolute train wreck that is the Anaheim Ducks. Erik Karlsson scored two points and Timo Meier chipped in on the power play to roll to a 6-1 victory over the Ducks. A hat trick from Clayton Keller boosted the Coyotes to an overtime victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.

The Coyotes are firmly in the middle of the rebuild. Last season finished with the worst record in the Western Conference (25-50-7), and 57 points, edged out by the Montreal Canadiens for the worst record in the league. The ‘Yotes continued an effort to sell off anything not nailed down at the trade deadline, sending goaltender Scott Wedgewood to the Dallas Stars for a 2023 third-round pick. Defender Ilya Lyubushkin (and Sharks legend Ryan Dzingel) was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Nick Ritchie and either a 2025 second-round pick or a 2023 third-round pick. Johan Larsson was also shipped off to the Washington Capitals for a 2023 third-round pick.

General manager Bill Armstrong traded away one of the team’s 400 second-round picks for forward Jack McBain from the Minnesota Wild. Armstrong also took a swing on forward Nathan Smith in a deal with the Winnipeg Jets for a 2022 fourth-round pick.

The Coyotes held the third pick in the 2022 NHL draft, selecting US National Development Team forward, Logan Cooley. Arizona also traded several picks with San Jose to move up to eleventh-overall to snag Conor Geekie of the Winnipeg Ice. Moving up again, from 32 to 29, Armstrong picked Maveric Lamoureux of the Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL) and acquired a 2024 third round-pick and a 2025 second-round pick from the Edmonton Oilers for their trouble. That, and Zack Kassian in a salary dump.

During free agency, the Coyotes were very quiet. Defender Joshua Brown signed a two-year, $2.55 million contract. Troy Stecher also signed a one-year deal worth $1.25 million. Lawson Crouse was re-signed to a five-year, $21.5 million deal after arbitration.

Arizona is extremely healthy heading into tomorrow’s tilt. Only Andrew Ladd (who is expected to miss the entire season) and Bryan Little (who is not expected to play again) are on injured reserve.

The Sharks are still dealing with several injuries. Logan Couture left Friday’s game against the Ducks after blocking a shot, but is expected to practice and be available. Matt Nieto is on IR with a lower-body injury sustained against the Buffalo Sabres. Mario Ferraro continues to rehab his foot injury. James Reimer has started practicing and looks to be activated for the first time since Nov. 25. Alexander Barabanov is most likely going to be a game-time decision, as he is dealing with a nagging lower-body issue.

Anyone’s net?

Since Reimer was placed on IR, the crease has been a revolving door. Expected back-up Kaapo Kahkonen has struggled this season, with a goals saved above expected at -11.8. Aaron Dell played well in the 3-1 loss to the Maple Leafs, but got hung out to dry against the Sabres. Makiniemi earned a win in his first NHL start on Friday night in Anaheim, and while he made a few nice saves — including the short-handed 2-on-1 below — the Ducks only produced 1.61 expected goals (xGF) in all situations. The Sharks posted 4.46 xGF in the same game. Makiniemi did what was expected.

Preparing for Reimer to make his return soon, Makiniemi has been sent back to the San Jose Barracuda. At some point, Kahkonen is going to be called upon, because Reimer can’t start every game, lest he die the same death as Martin Jones (he’s not dead, he’s just playing for the Seattle Kraken). How many more bad games from Kahkonen until David Quinn and Mike Grier lose his trust?

Would they be willing to risk putting Kahkonen through waivers to get a run with the San Jose Barracuda to regain some confidence? The Los Angeles Kings sent down Cal Petterson, but his contract at $5 million a year for two-plus years made it a tougher pill to swallow for general managers to make a claim. Kahkonen is in year one of a two-year, $2.75 million yearly contract could make it feasible for a team who thinks a fresh start with better defensive structure could help Kahkonen find his game.

Another offensive outburst?

Both of these teams struggle in their own zone, but in different ways. The Coyotes give up 3.62 goals per game (27th in the NHL) and the Sharks are slightly better at 3.57 (25th in the NHL), but display different ways of getting to the bad. The Desert Dogs (DRINK!) are second-to-last in Corsi for percentage at 42.04. The team allows for goaltenders to get peppered with shots, averaging over 35 per game, but the netminders have answered the call, led by Karel Vejmelka and his NHL-best 15.8 goals saved above expected.

Coyotes vs Sharks Rankings via JFresh Hockey
Coyotes vs Sharks Rankings via JFresh Hockey

The Sharks do a solid job of keeping shots down, with an average 30.8 per game, but are getting wrecked by goaltending. While James Reimer could return for this game, Kahkohnen has the second-worst goals saved above expected at -11.8.

The Ducks didn’t offer much in terms of offense on Friday, but the Coyotes are shooting the puck well. At 5-on-5, the team ranks third in the NHL with a 10.58 shooting percentage. If Reimer shows any rust, the Coyotes can take advantage of opportunities.

Fighting for Fantilli?

Both of these teams are heading toward a top-five pick in the 2023 draft, with major pieces to trade at the deadline. The Coyotes are looking to get multiple first round picks for Jakob Chychrun. The 24-year-old blueliner still has two more years on his $4.6 million AAV deal, but is averaging almost a point per game since his return from ankle surgery. Speaking of blueliners, Shayne Gostisbehere has quietly resurrected his career in the desert and is in the final year of his deal, making him an attractive rental. Gostisbehere has tallied 20 points in 26 games this season and could be an asset for a team looking to improve their second power play unit.

Tankathon Rankings as of December 12
Tankathon Rankings as of December 12

San Jose, of course, has the Timo Meier question that will be hanging over the team until the trade deadline. At some point the Sharks will realize who they are and start dumping assets like Nick Bonino, Matt Nieto and James Reimer and give the young players a chance to start getting NHL action. Until then, this game can go a long way to solidify a tanking position behind Anaheim.

Bold Prediciton: Timo Meier and Jakob Chychrun both raise their trade values by each adding a goal and an assist. The Coyotes score late and win 4-3.