Oilers, Coyotes following different paths to surprising starts

In a lot of recent years a matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes would have been viewed as a battle over draft lottery odds instead of a meaningful regular season game with an impact on the standings.

But things are finally looking up for both teams this season as they enter Monday’s game in Edmonto as not only two of the biggest early season surprises, but two of the Western Conference’s top teams (the Oilers are second in points percentage, while the Coyotes are fourth).

The two teams meet for the first time this season on Monday night in Edmonton.

Two teams following two very different paths

In terms of the actual results their early performances are strikingly similar in both the standings and their overall offensive production.  The Oilers’ points percentage is .700 entering Monday’s game (a 114-point pace) while they are averaging 2.87 goals per game. The Coyotes are at .654 (107 point pace) and averaging 2.85 goals per game.

They are also both among the top-10 in terms of goals against. All good signs.

The path in which they have reached those results, however, has been very, very, very different, in terms of both style and the players that are doing the heavy lifting for them.

Superstars vs. Balance

The Oilers are totally dependent on star power to carry their offense with the duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl factoring in on more than 50 percent of the team’s goals so far this season. Their roster beyond the top handful of forwards is still lacking in talent and offensive production, and they have not yet shown they can consistently win games when their two best players do not take over and single-handedly dominate.

They remain a poor possession team and get badly outshot every night, putting further pressure on their goalies (Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen) to carry them. This is the same recipe that has failed them the past two years and for the majority of the McDavid-Draisaitl era, which has to be at least a little concerning for Oilers fans.

The Coyotes, on the other hand, do not have anywhere near the same star power at the top of their lineup and are relying on a more balanced attack offensively. Not one player on the team has contributed to more than 32 percent of the team’s goals, while they already have six different forwards with at least three goals through the first 13 games (Phil Kessel, Conor Garland, Christian Dvorak, Nick Schmaltz, Carl Soderberg, and Michael Grabner) all of which are on pace to score more than 18 goals this season.

The Oilers only have three forwards on pace for more than 15 goals this season.

But the most encouraging thing for the Coyotes is probably the fact they have shown an ability to push the play and dictate the pace of games on their terms. Yes, they are getting great goaltending from the duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta and that definitely helps. But they are not dependent on them to win games. The Coyotes are a top-10 team in shot attempt differential, demonstrating an ability to tilt the ice in their favor, while they are also on the positive side of the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance differentials.

They may not have the superstars that Edmonton has at the top, but they seem to have have the necessary depth, balance, and playing style to overcome that.

Old faces in new places

You have to go back to the 2011-12 season to find the last playoff appearance for the Coyotes, and the duo of coach Dave Tippett and goalie Mike Smith played a key role in what turned out to be a shocking run to the Western Conference Final. It was all downhill for the duo (and the franchise as a whole) after that, and over the past couple of years they moved on from both Tippett (replacing him with Rick Tocchet two years) and Smith (trading him to Calgary the same offseason).

Now that duo is reunited in Edmonton and hoping to lead a turnaround for the Oilers.

For Tippett, this will be his first game behind the bench against his former team. He spent eight years as the Coyotes’ coach, compiling a 282-257-83 record with three consecutive playoff appearances between 2010 and 2012. He helped guide them through a rocky team in the franchise’s history when their long-term future was as unsettled as ever.

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.

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