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September 19, 2011
Stats and Fury
Whither Kyle Turris?

by Kent Wilson

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One of the strangest dramas of this offseason has been a standoff between the Phoenix Coyotes and restricted free agent Kyle Turris. The 21-year-old is apparently demanding a payday in the range of $3 to $4 million per year.

That expectation stands in stark contrast to his actual accomplishments in the NHL thus far. To date, Turris has been at worst a gross detriment and at best a perfunctory support player for the Coyotes. In three years, he has appeared in just 65 games—mostly in a fourth-line role—and compiled just 19 goals and 46 points in 131 games played.

The disparity between performance and demands is so great that the going theory is that Turris' outrageous dollar range is a de facto trade demand in disguise, in part because the Coyotes organization is mostly a hot mess with an unclear future. However, Matthew Sekeres of the Globe and Mail suggests that Turris might be disgruntled by his usage under coach Dave Tippett:

The other issue here is head coach Dave Tippett's preference for veteran players. When he took over the Coyotes two years ago, he began relying on defensively-responsible veterans, and allowing the organization's young forwards with offensive upside to work on their games in the minors, or in limited minutes. Turris averaged 11 minutes per game last season. The formula has proved successful, as Phoenix has qualified for the playoffs in consecutive years. The Coyotes had 107 points in 2009-10, and Tippett won the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach.

Sekeres is entirely correct about Tippett's shift in strategy to established, veteran players. In fact, I investigated the Coyotes resurrection in detail after the 2009-10 season and discovered his move from youngsters to veterans was the primary reason the club went from basement dweller to contender inside a single season.

There was more to the Coyotes meteoric rise than the coaching change, however. Perhaps encouraged by the success of other clubs promoting kids to prominent positions on the roster, the 2008-09 iteration of the club was riddled with inexperienced youngsters struggling to find their legs at the NHL level. With the wreckage of that failed experiment behind him, Maloney endeavored to restock the team with cheap, capable veterans in the intervening offseason. Because none of the guys in question were splashy acquisitions, the rebuilding effort was mostly perceived as little more than a shuffling of deck chairs. A more appropriate analogy in light of the club's vast improvement may be tug of war: if possession is a contest to pull the other team over the center line, then the kids on the Coyotes were guys who couldn't even pull their own weight.

Turris was one of the youngsters struggling to pull his own weight that year. In fact, he was the poster child for the Coyotes struggles. It's arguable that Turris was actually one of the very worst players in the entire league in 2008-09 under Gretzky. His GVT was below replacement level (-1.3) and his underlying numbers were as bad or worse than your average enforcer.

Gretzky made sure to shelter the rookie as much as possible that season, with a zone start of 60% and the easiest relative quality of competition amongst forwards (-0.347), Turris nevertheless managed the worst Corsi rate on the club (-14.7/60), and indeed, one of the worst Corsi rates in the entire league (23rd-worst amongst forwards). Despite seeing some of the easiest minutes imaginable, Turris was still completely overwhelmed.

Tippett sensibly sent Turris back to the AHL the next season, where the sophomore managed good but not great results. His 63 points in 76 games that year placed him 23rd in the AHL in scoring.

Turris made the parent club last year (in what should have been his NHL debut) and was limited to a fourth-line role. Tippett again made sure to shelter Turris, privileging the youngster with a team-high zone start of 66.1% (10% higher than second place Mikkel Boedker), and the easiest level of competition amongst forwards (-0.673). Unlike his first season, Turris managed to keep his head above water this time, garnering a team-high Corsi rate of +8.9. His scoring rate at even strength also moved into top-six territory for the first time (2.30 ESP/60).

Clearly, some progression has occurred between his first and second seasons in the league. That said, Turris has only ever played the worst of opponents in the easiest of circumstances in the NHL. He has a long way to go to be a legitimate threat outside of the fourth line and there's no guarantee he will ever become a player worth $3-4 million annually. The Coyotes are right to balk at his demands, even if they are overly optimistic in their projections of his future performance.

Whether or not Turris' contract demands are sincere or a ploy to get traded, one thing this episode demonstrates is the risks inherent with promoting kids (particularly teenagers) to the NHL too early. Not only was Turris a detriment in his rookie season, but the early debut started the clock unnecessarily ticking on his entry-level contract.

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