Why there’s reason to believe in Coyotes

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When we last checked in with the Arizona Coyotes they had just dropped a 2-1 decision to the Minnesota Wild, had won just one of their first five games, and were off to what was quite literally one of the worst offensive starts in league history.

A lot has changed since then. In the five games since, the Coyotes have won four of them and are coming off of an especially impressive 7-1 demolition of the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the league’s best teams and a consistent powerhouse, on Saturday night. They have put their slow offensive start behind them and scored at least three goals in all five games (including at least four goals in four of the games), have won all four games by at least three goals, and now have one of the 10 best goal differentials in the entire league.

Yes, this is an extremely small sampling of games, and yes there is always the potential that it could be a mirage. It is, after all, very early in the season and sometimes what you see here is not what you are going to get over the course of 82 games. But I am here to tell you that there are reasons to believe that this is not a mirage, and that the Coyotes are finally starting to put it together.

First, they have had a remarkably stingy defense to start the season. One of the best in the league, to be exact.

Even when they were losing over the first two weeks they had only surrendered 11 goals over those five games. For their season, their 2.00 goals against average per game is the best in the NHL. They are allowing just 28.2 shots on goal per game, the fourth best mark in the NHL. In terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt differential they are sixth in the league, as is their scoring chance differential.

In other words, they have been dictating the pace and pushing the play in all of their games, and in all of the key areas of the ice. What crushed them at the start was the simple fact that they could not actually put the puck in the net. And while they are probably never going to be a consistently great offense as currently constructed, they weren’t going to keep shooting at the laughably low 1.6 percent they had in those games, either. As long as they kept generating chances and shots (as they have) they were eventually going to see some positive reward for that. Lately, they have.

The biggest problem for the 2017-18 Coyotes was that they had an impossibly bad start that saw them lose their first 11 games, and 18 out of their first 20. By the middle of November they were already seven points behind the second-worst team in the standings (at the time the Buffalo Sabres) even though they had played in two additional games at that point. It was a hole they were never going to climb out of no matter what they did the rest of the way. At the center of that horrendous start was the fact they spent most of that time without starting goalie Antti Raanta as he was sidelined for most of the first month of the season, and then took a little bit of time to get back to 100 percent once he was able to return to the lineup. In his place was a revolving door of backups that, frankly, were not ready for NHL action. The results proved to be disastrous.

Once Raanta got back into the lineup the Coyotes were a fairly competitive team.

Over the final 62 games of the season they were 27-26-9, which comes out to around an 84-point pace over a full season.

Still not enough to get into the playoffs, but enough to be competitive.It was over the final 30 games where things really started to come together, finishing with a 17-10-3 record, and beating a lot of really good, playoff bound teams in the process. At times decisively. A lot of it was due to the play of Raanta, as he was sensational once he returned to health, but it showed just how much of a difference competent goaltending can make for a young, rebuilding team.

He has been just as good to start this season, and now the team in front of him is helping him out by limiting the number of shots and chances he has had to face. Together, it has been a great combination for the Coyotes and given them a chance to win every single night, even if it hasn’t always resulted in an actual win. This is the important thing: The process is starting to get there. They are doing the right things a team needs to do to win, mostly control the puck and outchance your opponent. Overall, the Coyotes have played 40 games since Feb. 6 and have a 22-15-3 record during that stretch. That’s a half-season worth of games where they have played at a 96-point pace. That gets you in the playoffs in almost every season.

They are also going to have a really good opportunity to continue this recent stretch and stack up some early season points as their next four games are against Ottawa, Carolina and back-to-back games against Philadelphia. That is a big opportunity they have to take advantage of.

Also working in their favor this season is the fact the Pacific Division is a mostly uninspiring pile of mediocrity.

The Ducks and Kings are both lousy, and even with a better than expected start the Canucks will no doubt soon join them. The Flames are completely underwhelming, and the Oilers are still a giant mystery that will probably only go as far as Connor McDavid can carry them. The Sharks are going to be at the top and Vegas will probably overcome it’s slow start and get back on track, but after that the entire division is completely wide open. Nearly one month into the season the Coyotes and Sharks are the only teams in the division that have actually outscored their opponents.

This is a team with an excellent goalie in Raanta, whose .922 save percentage is third in the NHL since the start of the 2013-14 season (among 44 goalies that have appeared in at least 140 games) behind only John Gibson and Corey Crawford, and a roster in front of him that is starting to play lockdown defense. That combination can carry a team a long way, even with a mediocre offense.

Now that Alex Galchenyuk is back in the lineup they have a respectable 1-2 punch down the middle with him and Derek Stepan, and an emerging top-line winger in Clayton Keller. They still need a player like Dylan Strome to take a big step forward to help solidify the offense, but as long as they keep shutting teams down the way they have and getting the goaltending they are getting from Raanta (and what backup Darcy Kuemper has given them so far) they are going to be a difficult team to deal with.

The process in terms of the way they are playing and playing the right way has been there from the start of the season.

The results are starting to follow.

(Shot attempt and scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.