What’s driving Coyotes’ fast start, and how can they maintain it?

PITTSBURGH — The Arizona Coyotes probably deserved a better result Friday night in Pittsburgh.

A lost face-off followed by a fluke bounce, Phil Kessel missing a wide open net, and a couple of jaw-dropping saves by Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry were just enough to turn yet another solid road effort into a tough-luck 2-0 loss, dropping them one point back of the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the Pacific Division. Even with that result the Coyotes are still off to one of the best starts in franchise history (even dating back to the Winnipeg days) and have at least put themselves on solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

Here’s how good their start has been:

  • Their .613 points percentage as of Friday is fourth best in the Western Conference, while they have a six-point cushion between them and the group of teams outside the playoff picture. That may not seem like a huge gap in early December with still three quarters of the season remaining, but history suggests not many teams (less than 20 percent) are able to make up that sort of deficit. The odds are in their favor.
  • Their 38 points through 31 games are tied for the fourth most in the franchise’s 40-year history, and are the most since they had 41 points during the 2013-14 season (that team ended up missing the playoffs by just two points following a second-half collapse. The Western Conference was also far more competitive and top-heavy that season than it is this season).
  • They allowing just 2.26 goals per game, the second lowest total in the league.

In a lot of ways this team has been a Western Conference version of the New York Islanders. They don’t really have an offense that is going to break games open, and they don’t rate very highly in a lot of analytical areas when it comes to shot attempts or shot rates, all of which can lead to some skepticism. But like the Islanders they help make up for the lack of quantity in a couple of other key areas. Their “expected goals against” rate (via Natural Stat Trick) is in the top-10 in the league, indicating that while they give up a lot of attempts they don’t give up the type of attempts that typically turn into goals. They are one of the most disciplined and least penalized teams in the league, almost entirely eliminating the special teams battle. And the most important element? They have one of the best goaltending duos in the league in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

Those two many not be household names around the league, but since being united in Arizona the list of goalies that have outperformed them can be counted on one hand. Since the start of the 2017-18 season both Raanta and Kuemper are in the top-five (among the 56 goalies with at least 50 games played) in all situations save percentage and even-strength save percentage, while both are in the top-10 in penalty kill save percentage. When a team gets that sort of goaltending a lot of flaws that might otherwise exist suddenly go away, and given that both have been able to play at such a high level for an extended period of time it’s easy to buy into it being sustainable. Even before arriving in Arizona both goalies had shown an ability to be above average goalies but were simply in positions where they were unable to get real playing time.

So how do the Coyotes build on this start and turn it into something that can extend their season into the spring?

1. Resist the urge to trade a goalie. Don’t try to to “trade from a strength to fill a weakness,” or even try to suggest it. The strength is what is literally driving the team right now. Not only that, it is almost a necessity to have two good goalies to win in the NHL these days because of how important it is to limit the starter’s workload and keep them fresh. Having two highly productive goalies signed to cap-friendly contracts through next season is a massive advantage. Take advantage of it. Keep them both and keep each them fresh by playing them each regularly. Their success isn’t a fluke.

2. Hope for a rebound from the top players. One of the most surprising aspects of their start is the trio of Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has combined for just 13 goals this season, putting them on a pace for only 34 goals over 82 games. A year ago that trio scored 55 goals. All three are currently being crushed on the shooting percentage front, and while Keller has never really been a high percentage scorer, the other two have been. Kessel has shown signs the past few games that he could be on the verge of one of his goal-scoring binges, while Ekman-Larsson has scored at least 12 goals in each of the past six seasons, at least 14 goals in five of those seasons. He is due. If those two can get their puck luck to change the offense will suddenly look a lot different (and better).

3. Get Niklas Hjalmarsson back. The other surprising element of their success has been that they have played almost the entire season without Hjalmarsson after he was injured back in October when he was hit by a shot. He is back on the ice skating, and given his original time frame is probably a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup. It would be a significant add because Hjalmarsson is one of the team’s best defensive players. If he can return to that level it would be a significant addition to a lineup that is already one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals.

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.

 

Game 7 OT thrillers on NBCSN: Martinez sends Kings to 2014 Cup Final

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Hockey Week in America continues Sunday with Game 7 overtime thrillers.

In a back-and-forth affair, the Kings tied the Game 7 at four goals apiece in the third period to send the matchup into overtime. With a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line, Alec Martinez played hero for the Kings with the game-winner early in overtime, a role he would reprise in Game 5 of the Cup Final against the Rangers to clinch the title for the Kings.

Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti, and Brian Engblom called the matchup from United Center in Chicago, Ill.

You can catch a replay Sunday on NBCSN at 12 a.m. ET.

SUNDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Kings vs. Blackhawks (Game 7, Western Conference Final, 2014 playoffs) – 12 a.m. ET on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

Game 7 OT thrillers on NBCSN: Goodrow clinches Sharks’ comeback

My Favorite Goal Goodrow's Game 7 OT winner Sharks Hertl
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Hockey Week in America continues Sunday with Game 7 overtime thrillers.

Vegas led the game 3-0 midway through the third period, before a major penalty that gave San Jose a five-minute power play. The Sharks scored four times on that power play to take a 4-3 lead, but Vegas evened the score in the final minute to force OT. In the overtime period, Barclay Goodrow scored the series-winning goal, helping the Sharks become the second team in NHL history, along with the 2013 Bruins, to overcome a three-goal deficit in the third period of a Game 7.

Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro called the action from SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.

You can catch a replay Sunday on NBCSN at 10 p.m. ET or watch the stream here.

SUNDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Golden Knights vs. Sharks (Game 7, Round 1, 2019 playoffs) – 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN
• Kings vs. Blackhawks (Game 7, Western Conference Final, 2014 playoffs) – 12 a.m. ET on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

Game 7 OT thrillers on NBCSN: Bruins pull off comeback vs. Maple Leafs

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Hockey Week in America continues Sunday with Game 7 overtime thrillers.

The Maple Leafs held a commanding 4-1 lead in Game 7 in Boston midway through the third period, before the Bruins stormed back to force OT, punctuated by a pair of goals with their goalie pulled. Patrice Bergeron scored the overtime winner for a 5-4 victory, which marked the first time in NHL history a team overcame a three-goal deficit in the final period of Game 7 to go on to win the game and the series.

The late, great Dave Strader and Brian Engblom had the call at TD Garden in Boston, Mass.

You can catch a replay Sunday on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET or watch the stream here.

SUNDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Maple Leafs vs. Bruins (Game 7, Round 1, 2013 playoffs) – 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN
• Golden Knights vs. Sharks (Game 7, Round 1, 2019 playoffs) – 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN
• Kings vs. Blackhawks (Game 7, Western Conference Final, 2014 playoffs) – 12 a.m. ET on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

What is Taylor Hall’s future with Coyotes?

Taylor Hall Coyotets
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Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka said this weekend that he has continued to have some discussions with Dan Ferris, the agent for pending free agent forward Taylor Hall, but that they have not yet exchanged numbers in potential contract talks.

Instead, it has simply been a matter of trying to get their heads wrapped around the current situation — everything being on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — and how it impacts both the Coyotes and Hall.

“It’s unique. I don’t have an answer for you other than to say, no, we haven’t exchanged numbers or anything like that,” said Chayka in a wide-ranging interview with the Athletic’s Craig Morgan.

“Obviously, our intent was always to get through the season and not having any conflict with Taylor’s play. This leaves us in a bit of a limbo where it’s obviously not technically the end of the season, but it also wouldn’t conflict with his play to talk. All I would say right now is that both sides are gathering information and having some discussions. Where that goes I’m not entirely sure today. As we talk, we’ll see where things go.”

The Hall-Coyotes storyline is going to be an interesting to watch unfold over the coming months because he could be one of the top players to hit the open market — whenever free agency actually begins — if he does not re-sign with the Coyotes.

The Coyotes acquired Hall from the New Jersey Devils in a mid-December trade. It was a fairly significant move at the time because Hall was the top in-season trade target in the league. He also gave the Coyotes the type of impact forward that they desperately needed to help drive their offense in an effort to make the playoffs.

While Hall has mostly met expectations (27 points in 35 games) things have not exactly worked out as the Coyotes hoped from a team perspective. When the 2019-20 NHL season went on hiatus they Coyotes were four points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference with several teams ahead of them. A big part of their tumble down the standings was injuries, specifically to their top two goalies (Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper).

The next step

In an ideal world the the Coyotes would almost certainly prefer to keep Hall. When healthy, he is an elite offensive player and the type of talent the franchise really has not had in more than a decade. He is an MVP winner, one of the most productive wingers in the world, and while he turns 29 next November he still probably has several outstanding years ahead of him as a top-line winger. They are not likely to find an upgrade or a better player anywhere else on the open market or as a realistic trade target.

There are, however, some obstacles.

The first of which is simply a matter of what Hall wants to do with his opportunity as a potential UFA. This will be the first time he has a chance to test the open market and probably his last chance to get a significant contract. Add in the fact he has played on just one playoff team in his career, and there has to be a lot of incentive to explore what is out there.

But there is another pretty big hurdle that may not get a lot of attention in this situation — the salary cap.

While the Coyotes salary situation tend to be a punch-line for people that don’t pay close attention to them, they actually have one of the largest salary cap numbers in the entire league right now, have some significant long-term investments, and do not have a lot of wiggle room under the cap in the near future. Considering that Hall is almost certain to be able to command something in the neighborhood of $8-9 million per season, there is going to be some extra work needed to make it all work.

MORE:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes
• Coyotes’ biggest surprises, disappointments so far
What is the Coyotes’ long-term outlook?

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.