Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.
Even in a sport that’s already easily seduced by lady luck, the Coyotes’ luck is an X-factor that makes this team very tough to gauge.
No doubt about it, the Coyotes were bit hard and often by the injury bug last season, starting with increasingly fragile would-be number one goalie Antti Raanta. While Man Games Lost lists the Anaheim Ducks as the team with the highest volume of injuries from 2018-19, the Coyotes may have been hit hardest when you consider quality alongside quantity.
You’d think that the narrative would swirl around bad luck alone, and certainly, it stinks that a very promising-looking goalie like Raanta hasn’t been able to take the step from great backup with the Rangers and Blackhawks to proven starter for the Coyotes.
Yet, goaltending is a great jumping off point to discuss how puzzling the Coyotes are thanks to their mix of good and bad luck.
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Because, frankly, the Coyotes can’t blame goaltending for missing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Instead, ace netminding almost dragged their battered bodies to the postseason, only it was Darcy Kuemper playing at an incredibly high level, rather than Raanta.
Heading into 2018-19, Kuemper had never played in more than 31 games in any season. While Kuemper showed some promise, particularly in 2017-18, there wasn’t much of an indication that he could produce near-Vezina-level work over 55 games, which was exactly what he did for the Coyotes this past season.
While his overall work was strong, Kuemper was especially hot down the stretch, producing Jordan Binnington-like numbers. From Jan. 1 through the end of the season, Kuemper won 22 games and sported a .933 save percentage.
The Coyotes deserve credit for identifying potential in Kuemper, yet even they would likely admit that this outburst was unexpected. If people saw that coming, Kuemper wouldn’t have been available for the $1.85M cap hit he’ll carry for one more season.
And so it goes with the Coyotes: tough breaks and surprising luck send prognosticators down a road of Shyamalan-like twists.
Rummage through most stats and you’ll see some interesting give-and-takes.
When you look at the overall work of power play and penalty kill units combined, the Coyotes enjoyed one of the strongest outputs of 2018-19, scoring 15 more goals than they allowed at that facet of the game. A phenomenal PK drove that dominance; the Coyotes allowed the second-fewest power play goals (34) while managing the second-most shorthanded goals at 16, so they ended up just -18 on the penalty kill last season, which is pretty mind-boggling over 82 games. It also strikes as especially unsustainable, as the Coyotes were a fairly normal -44 in that area one year before in 2017-18.
Yet, if there are losses on the penalty kill, the Coyotes might enjoy gains on the power play, where they were pretty weak last season.
Phil Kessel and healthier skill players stand as big reasons why that might work out, yet with Kessel’s two-way play leaving a lot to be desired, some of that increased scoring might be canceled out by more dangerous shots for Kuemper and Raanta to deal with.
You can go on and on with that, pondering the team’s low shooting percentage but high save percentage, and wondering what might actually carry over to 2019-20.
Again, hockey teams are already tough to figure out by their nature. Mild swoons, hot streaks, and health luck become a stew that makes predictions hard to chew on.
Even with those standards in mind, the Coyotes’ luck is an overriding X-factor. That uncertainty makes forecasting this team’s potential almost as intimidating as an actual coyote licking its lips and bearing its teeth.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.