When the Arizona Coyotes narrowly missed out on a wild-card playoff spot last season -- extending their playoff drought to seven years -- the franchise put a huge emphasis on snapping that streak this season. It wasn't lost on the Coyotes that they ranked 29th in offense in 2018-19, and were the only team in the league without a 20-goal scorer. So they went out and traded for Phil Kessel over the summer. They doubled down by acquiring 2018 MVP Taylor Hall in December.
As the Coyotes stare down the final quarter of the season, they're clinging to the second Western Conference wild-card spot. They're averaging slightly more offense than last season, but their leading goal scorer isn't Kessel or Hall. It's not Clayton Keller, the No. 7 overall pick of the 2016 draft; nor is it Nick Schmaltz, a first-round pick of the Blackhawks' in 2014.
It's Conor Garland, a gritty undersized winger who was passed over in his first draft year, is making less than $800,000 this season, and only got an opportunity to make his NHL debut last season because the Coyotes were ravaged by injuries. After getting called up in December 2018, Garland scored 13 goals in 47 games, and now has a team-leading 19 through 60 games this season.
"I probably wouldn't have predicted this either," the 23-year-old Garland said. "I'm just so fortunate to be in a position to help this team win and achieve our goals."
Garland's unlikely success story is one of perseverance and adaptation. It also proves that there is no linear path to thriving in the NHL.
Garland grew up in the South Shore area of Massachusetts. Two of his best childhood buddies were Jack Eichel and Ryan Donato. Eichel went on to play in the U.S. national team development program, and Donato chose college hockey, playing for his father, Ted, who coached at Harvard.
Garland initially committed to Penn State's fledgling Division I program but fell in love with a junior team in Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. "They let me know I was going to be on the second line as a 16-year-old, which was rare," Garland said. "I could play with [current Blues forward] Ivan Barbashev and [former Blues and Capitals forward] Dmitrij Jaskin. It felt like a no-brainer to get a lot of good playing time and learn a lot."
Offense came easily. "I don't want to sound arrogant, but wherever I played, scoring came pretty naturally," Garland said. After being limited to 26 games because of a broken hand in his first season in 2012-13, Garland tallied 24 goals and 54 points in 51 games in 2013-14 but was passed over in the 2014 NHL draft.
He was disappointed but vowed to work even harder. Garland more than doubled his point total the following season, scoring 35 goals and a whopping 129 points through 67 games, good enough for the Coyotes to take a fifth-round flier on him in the 2015 draft. Even as Garland followed it up with another 128-point season, and left as Moncton's all-time leading scorer, many doubted that his production would translate to the NHL. It wasn't just his size that was an issue (Garland is generously listed at 5-foot-10, but is probably a few inches shorter). He needed to work on his skating -- getting quicker, but also stronger on his feet.
Moncton often had set plays. Garland could hide behind the net, a teammate would rim the puck, he'd catch it and make a play -- something that wouldn't usually work in the NHL. Garland was more advanced skill-wise than a lot of his peers in junior, so he often had the puck on his stick. To succeed at the next level, he needed to get conditioned to move the puck quicker.
And then there was his shot. "I've never had a good shot," Garland said. "I've worked on it every summer since I was a kid, I just don't have a hard shot. Unless I get all of it, which is rare, I'm not going to beat these NHL goalies. So I worked on placement."
In 2016, he graduated to the AHL, and he was ready to get to work. "I give a lot of credit to the Coyotes for helping me develop," Garland said. "If you ask one of the coaches in Tucson to hang out at the rink until 7 at night, they will."
If ice wasn't available, Roadrunners assistant coach Steve Potvin would take a bucket of pucks to the loading dock of the Tucson Convention Center, and he and Garland would fire off shots into the pavement.
In December 2018 Garland got his first NHL call-up.
"It's something that we've always talked about -- me, my dad and my trainer -- that as a fifth-round pick, as a smaller guy, the opportunities to make it don't come often," Garland said. "You're going to get one, maybe two chances. And if you play average, they're going to send you right back down. I remember getting the call, and thinking, 'You can be excited, but you don't want to be someone who is going up to the NHL for brief stints and then going back down. I want to be there for a long, long time.'"
And so Garland made it impossible for the Coyotes to send him back down.
He still had to adjust as he got to the NHL. "In the A, and in juniors, I was good on the forecheck and going in on guys," Garland said. "Of course the first guy I go in against in the NHL is Brent Burns. I remember I tried to just push him in his hips, just get him off balance a bit. And it was just nothing. He just didn't move. So that was the first time I was like, 'Well, that's not going to work here, I'll learn from that.'"
Then on Jan. 12, 2019, he had his breakout moment. In a Hockey Night in Canada game against the Edmonton Oilers, Garland scored a goal off his face. He got 10 stitches over his left eye, returned to the game with a full shield, then scored the game-winner -- which earned him the coveted HNIC towel, but also a bruise that lasted months. His teammates briefly nicknamed him "McGarland" (as he outdueled Connor McDavid offensively in that game), which was amusingly twisted into McGarlic. By February, he signed a two-year contract worth $1.55 million total.
Garland has thrived because he is tenacious. Per Natural Stat Trick, Garland has averaged 1.24 goals per 60 minutes at even strength since debuting in the NHL, thanks, in part, to averaging 10.5 shots per 60 minutes.
The Coyotes have given Garland top-six minutes, and he has primarily played with Christian Dvorak, Schmaltz or Hall. "Dvorak is so good defensively, that if you make a mistake, he can cover for you," Garland said. "And Hallsy and Schmaltzy make so many plays each and every shift, and can make things happen on their own, it makes it easier to simplify your game, and when you get the puck you can do what got you there."
When Garland was younger, he would always read stories about smaller guys who made it in the NHL. Any time there was a story about Brad Marchand, Garland would read it.
"Small guys, you always hear the same thing: They work so hard and would just do anything to make it," Garland said. "So if there's a small kid out there who doesn't think he has a chance to make it, maybe he can read this and realize there is a chance. You just have to work incredibly hard and be tenacious and be competitive. Then the rest will take over."
Emptying the notebook
The Coyotes posted a big 3-1 win against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night, which they're hoping gets them back on the right track. Since Jan. 9, the Yotes have gone 4-8-4, the fourth-worst points percentage in the league in that span. That makes the final 21 games extremely crucial. "We fought so hard last year, and we got so close, and we had one bad road trip that kind of just killed us," Garland said. "And we realized how important every single game is, not just down the stretch, but from the beginning of the season. You can't take a night off. That's something Phil [Kessel] has really stressed to us since coming over. I remember early in the season, Phil told the guys, 'Hey, it starts now. We've got to start banking some points now. Teams will go on winning streaks, teams will go on losing streaks, but if we bank points now, we'll be in better shape.'"
The Seattle NHL team -- which should be announcing its name and logo in the next month or so -- held its first scouting meetings after the All-Star Game. "The biggest thing was just going through everybody's teams and getting a handle on that, and then we went through the process of what a mock draft might look like," GM Ron Francis said. "Everybody understands what we're looking at in January will look different than what we're looking at after the trade deadline, and what we're looking at after next summer, and it's going to be different again after the next trade deadline and then when we finally get to pick in summer of 2021. But it helps to go through the process and better understand it, and it gives our scouts a little more clarity when they go back and keep watching games."
Shortly after the meetings, Seattle announced that Ulf Samuelsson, one of their first five scouting hires, had departed the organization to coach Leksands IF of the Swedish Hockey League for the rest of the season. "That's where he played hockey in Sweden, his son Philip plays there, and they're trying not to get relegated to the second division," Francis explained. Francis said the team wouldn't immediately replace Samuelsson, who was working out of San Diego and scouting the Pacific Division. The existing scouts (which includes Francis) will double-up on their Pacific assignments. Francis says he'll see how Samuelsson's season goes, and left the door open for him to return to Seattle in the future.
When Seattle enters the NHL in 2021-22, their AHL franchise in Palm Springs, California, will also begin play. But that's not the only AHL movement going on lately. The Vegas Golden Knights purchased the San Antonio Rampage (currently the St. Louis Blues' farm club) to be their AHL affiliate, and they're planning on relocating them closer to home, pending approval from the AHL's Board of Governors. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley announced he was developing "a second hockey facility in Henderson which will be a new state-of-the-art, 6,000-seat arena for our AHL team." Having the AHL and NHL clubs within driving distance will make call-ups far easier. That leaves the Blues in the market for a new AHL affiliate. They could partner back with the Chicago Wolves. One interesting rumor I heard: Don't discount Indianapolis from getting an AHL team sometime soon. That could be a good fit for St. Louis.
Bruce Boudreau's firing was surprising given the timing; the Wild were showing signs of life after going 7-3-1 and are well within reach of a wild-card spot. It truly feels as if no coaches in this league are safe, but for those wondering if this bloodbath is unprecedented ... not quite. The NHL has always been a volatile league when it comes to coaching turnover. In fact, this is the fifth season in league history that eight or more teams have used multiple head coaches. We last saw a season with eight in-season coaching changes in 2011-12.
What we liked this week
It was undoubtedly the scariest moment of the week -- and perhaps the season -- as Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester collapsed on the bench in a cardiac episode. However, there is a happy ending. It's great to hear that Bouwmeester is doing well, and according to some Blues players "in good spirits" after undergoing a procedure to restore his heart's normal rhythm. The incident was a reminder of how well-prepared the NHL is for situations like this. The league has a lengthy list of emergency medical standards, including language that requires two doctors to be in attendance for every game, and one must be within 50 feet of the bench. A defibrillator must also be present, which is pertinent here, as Blues GM Doug Armstrong said a defibrillator was needed to revive Bouwmeester before he was transported to the hospital. It was also inspiring to see the NHL community step up and show support for the Blues and Bouwmeester. One good example: as the Blues traveled to Las Vegas for their next game, the Golden Knights made a counselor available for Blues players to help them process the incident, and also invited fans to sign "get well soon" banner for Bouwmeester:
Here come the Lightning. It's not just that they've moved past the early doom-and-gloom projections. The Lightning actually look as dangerous as they've ever been -- as in, maybe they've learned how to peak at the right time this time. Since Dec. 23, the Lightning have gone 22-2-1. Their 45 points are 10 more than the next-closest team in that span (the Bruins) and they have an otherworldly plus-46 goal differential. Tampa Bay is on a 10-game winning streak, their second 10-game winning streak of the season. The 1929-30 Bruins and the 1970-71 Bruins are the only other teams in NHL history with multiple 10-game winning streaks in a single season.
Another reminder that Artemi Panarin is worth every dollar: The Bread Man is up to 77 points, the most by any Rangers player in the past 10 seasons. The Rangers have 25 regular-season games remaining.
Three stars of the week
No Connor McDavid? No problem. Draisaitl is bolstering his Hart Trophy case with another stellar week. He led all skaters with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) through four games as the Oilers went 3-1.
The 25-year-old had a heck of a week, scoring five goals in three games. Not bad for a guy who tallied eight goals all of last season. His week included a four-goal outburst against the Golden Knights, to keep the Blues in the emotional game played two days following Jay Bouwmeester's collapse.
The goalie is having a moment, winning both of his starts this week. That includes a 49-save shutout against the Blackhawks on Sedin jersey retirement night.
What we didn't like this week
I literally cringed when I saw that Micheal Ferland left an AHL game in the first period on Friday night with concussion-like symptoms. Ferland is recovering from a concussion he sustained in October. In December, he thought he was ready to come back, but after two games, he was sidelined again because of lingering symptoms. He was cleared to return again this week, and was in Utica on a conditioning assignment. The 27-year-old is an extremely talented player who plays a rugged style and undoubtedly would help the Canucks in their quest for a playoff spot this spring. I know he probably feels pressure to come back. He is on the first year of a four-year, $14 million contract. However given his history, and how susceptible he could be to longer-term damage, it seems best if Ferland shut it down for the season -- and perhaps ponder if maybe this should be it for his career.
Zack Kassian, what are you doing? There is a knife stapled to your shoe, and you can't go around kicking people in the chest. Kassian's argument that he was trying to disentangle from the pile of players is absurd. The Department of Player Safety agreed with Kassian that the play was not malicious, but it's still extremely dangerous. Honestly, it feels as if he got off easy with a seven-game suspension, especially as a repeat offender.
Speaking of discipline, Evander Kane ripped the NHL for inconsistencies in their discipline process after receiving his second suspension of the season, three games for elbowing. Kane pointed out that "there have been countless incidents of the same nature through this season and past seasons that have gone unsuspended or fined" and "no one person can tell you what is or isn't a suspension in today's game, it's become a complete guess." The discipline process is collectively bargained between the players and the league, and Kane called for a reform. He suggested an independent third party to run NHL Player Safety.
This Sharks season is cursed. Erik Karlsson is out for the rest of the campaign because of a broken thumb, which probably eliminates any slim chance at a last-quarter surge into the playoffs. And let's not forget this is the season the Senators have the Sharks' first-round pick from the Karlsson deal. Not ideal. This gives the Senators two very good chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the lottery, and the right to select Alexis Lafreniere.
Hate seeing this Alex Ovechkin 700-goals watch drag on. He's stuck at No. 698 and has gone four straight games without a goal, his longest goalless drought of the season and most since he went six games without a goal in December 2018.
Games of the Week
I highlighted this game as soon as I saw our ESPN+ schedule for February. It's two top-10 offenses but also a showdown between two of the best centers in the sport, period: Auston Matthews versus Sidney Crosby.
Two Central Division teams battling for their wild-card lives face off. This game (and this week's results in particular) could determine whether either of these teams are sellers at the deadline.
There's still bad blood between these fan bases from the 2011 Stanley Cup Final (which was now nearly a decade ago). The matchup I'm most excited for in this one: David Pastrnak, who leads the league with 42 goals, versus Jacob Markstrom, who is coming in hot as a dark horse Vezina Trophy candidate.
Quote of the Week
"He's not going to be a player there that's going to have a very long career. I'm not overly concerned with him." -- Bruins winger Brad Marchand on Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren, per NBC Sports Boston's Joe Haggerty. Marchand has a gift for this kind of thing.