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Coyotes’ penalty kill has been incredible

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The Arizona Coyotes dropped a 5-4 overtime decision to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night. In the end, it had to be a mostly disappointing result given that they entered the third period with a two-goal lead, but they were still able to collect another point and are now 6-2-1 in their past nine games after winning just one of their first five.

Still a lot of good news if you are a Coyotes fan when it comes to the big picture outlook for the season.

One of the biggest reasons they were able to collect another point on Thursday was yet another incredible performance by their penalty killing unit which might be, through the first month of the season, the single most impressive unit in the league.

They not only killed off all three Flyers’ power plays on the night, but they also scored two more shorthanded goals. Those two shorthanded goals came on the same penalty kill in the second period, and were just 23 seconds apart.

On its own that would be an incredible performance, even if just for one game. But the Coyotes have been doing this all season, and have already scored nine shorthanded goals in only 14 games. 

They have only scored 22 goals at even-strength in those 14 games. Even more ridiculous is the fact their own power play has only scored seven.

Since the start of the 1990 season only five teams have had more than five shorthanded goals this far into November. The 1993-94 St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers both have seven. The 1991-92 Philadelphia Flyers, 2005-06 Montreal Canadiens, and 2008-09 New York Rangers all had six.

The Coyotes, once again, currently have nine.

There were only five teams in the entire league a year ago that scored more than nine shorthanded goals for the entire season.

They have scored those nine goals on only 45 penalty kills, the sixth lowest number in the league. That means they are scoring on exactly 20 percent of their penalty kills. To put that number in perspective, there are currently 14 power play units in the NHL (including the Coyotes’) that are converting on less than 20 percent of their power play opportunities.

These are absurd numbers, and it is not just about the goals scored.

They are generating a ton of shots, too, at least relative to the rest of the league. So far this season they are averaging more than 20 shots on goal per 60 minutes of penalty kill time. No other team in the league is averaging more than 18, while only four averaging more than 15. The league average is around 12.

What makes the performance offensively even more incredible is they are not giving it up at the other end. It is not the result of an overly aggressive strategy that is leaving them exposed defensively where they give up as much as they score or generate. As of Friday, their penalty killing unit is also allowing the third fewest total shot attempts per 60 minutes of PK time.

They have only allowed four goals and currently have a league-best 91.1 percent success rate when down a player.

Overall, they still have a positive goal differential at plus-five.

Only one team in the league is better than minus-four (the San Jose Sharks are at minus-three).

So what is behind this performance? When it comes to the goals they are scoring there is almost certainly an element of luck and circumstance at play here. No matter how good your penalty killing unit it you don’t need me to tell you that it unreasonable to expect a team to keep scoring shorthanded goals at that pace (and outscoring opposing power plays) over an entire season.

Still, given the number of chances they are creating and the number of shots the unit is generating (as well as the shots they are not allowing their opponents to register) suggests there is also plenty of skill on the unit as well. Goaltending will always play a big role for a team’s penalty kill, and when healthy the Coyotes have an outstanding goaltender in Antti Raanta.

But when it comes to the skaters a lot of the success has to start up front where the Coyotes boast two of the best penalty killing forwards in the league when it comes to generating shorthanded opportunities in Michael Grabner and Derek Stepan.

Of the 160 forwards that have played at least 150 shorthanded minutes since the start of the 2016-17 season, Grabner and Stepan are both among the top-eight (Grabner is second; Stepan is eighth) in shot attempt percentage, while Grabner (currently the team’s top shorthanded option among forwards) is in the top-15 in terms of shot suppression and goals against. His speed is a game-changer and can cause havoc for opposing power plays. He and the rest of his teammates (including Stepan, Brad Richardson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers) are doing a number on every power play unit they have faced this season.

They are going to get two big tests in their upcoming games when they go on the road to face the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. It will be interesting to see how they fare against two of the most intimidating and talented power plays in the league.

(Data in this post 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.

PHT Morning Skate: Time for Rangers fire sale; Top 20 lines

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Zach Sanford wrote a letter about his father who passed away in September. “My dad never saw me play an NHL regular-season game in person. He couldn’t make it for my first games with the Washington Capitals, and then I got traded to the Blues and played a handful of games at the end of the year in St. Louis. He was so proud of me, though, and to hear him talk about me, you’d think he was playing in the NHL, too. From what my family tells me, he told everyone who would listen that his son had made it to the NHL.” (NHL.com/Blues)

• It’s time for the New York Rangers to start their fire sale. For starters, they should trade Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. (New York Post)

• NBC Sports Philly believes we should have seen the Flyers’ slow start coming. (NBC Sports Philly)

• The Vancouver Canucks have had some great Swedish players come through their organization. Markus Naslund and the Sedin twins have led the charge in years past, and it looks like Elias Pettersson is the next one. (Sports Illustrated)

Samuel Girard has been standing out for all the right reasons in Colorado. (Mile High Hockey)

Phillip Danault has done a terrific job down the middle for the Habs this season. (Sportsnet)

Alex Ovechkin skated with roughly 80 people from the American Special Hockey Association. (NHL.com)

• The Chicago Blackhawks signed prospect Brandon Hagel to an entry-level contract. (NHL.com/Blackhawks)

• ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski ranked the top 20 lines in the NHL. Where do Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak rank? Hint: They’re not first. (ESPN)

• Travis Yost breaks down how Jack Eichel is helping his teammates get better looks at their opponents’ net. (Buffalo News)

Derek Stepan is interviewing some of his Coyotes teammates to discuss Halloween-related topics like favorite candies:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Coyotes’ Derek Stepan scores from own blue line

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Oh, boy.

Ottawa Senators goalie Mike Condon likely wanted to the ice to melt, swallow him up and then freeze back over again after his little blunder against the Arizona Coyotes tonight.

With the Coyotes killing a penalty, Arizona forward Derek Stepan floated a shot on Condon from his own blue line. The puck bounced, changed directions and squeaked through Condon’s pads and into the back of the net.

Stepan began skating to the bench, satisfied that he had done enough to have cleared the puck to shave a few seconds of the kill. Before he could get into his bench, the goal had gone in.

Roll the tape:

It’s tough not to feel for Condon there.

The camera was on him for five or so seconds and you could see that he just wanted to curl up into the fetal position and lay there for a bit.

Condon could only hang his head in shame. And to make things worse, he was yanked right after. Condon allowed three goals on 11 shots before heading for the early shower.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Filip Forsberg is a bigger star than many realize

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Nashville Predators at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Injuries don’t just deprive us of the opportunity to see great players in action. They also tend to downplay just how dominant certain scorers are, as point totals shrink when you miss, say, 20 games.

Evgeni Malkin stands as a strong example of that phenomenon. As great as he is, would Malkin have been left of the NHL 100 list if he hadn’t been on the shelf so often?

Such thoughts come to mind when you consider Filip Forsberg‘s ascent with the Nashville Predators.

[Previewing tonight’s Predators – Golden Knights game]

Approaching elite production

If you just glance at last season’s 64 points, you might shrug your shoulders and think that it was business as usual. After all, Forsberg scored 63 in 2014-15, 64 in 2015-16, and 58 in 2016-17.

The difference, of course, is that Forsberg scored last season’s 64 points in just 67 games, leaving him close to a point per night. The Swedish sensation carried that strong work into the Predators’ overall-slightly-disappointing run in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, generating 16 points in 13 games.

It’s not just about impressive numbers with Forsberg, who is currently tied for second in goals with 10, and has 14 points in 11 games this season.

It’s the fact that Forsberg scores highlight reel goals, and has the courage to make unthinkable moves in high-pressure situations. His game-breaking ability can bring fans out of their seats and make defenders look outright foolish:

Since last season, Forsberg has exactly 78 points in 78 games; his (exact) point-per-game rate during that span matches Patrick Kane and Mark Scheifele. We’re approaching a moment where it’s fair to wonder if Forsberg’s making a leap from star to superstar.

Now, granted, the winger isn’t going to score almost a goal per game all season.

As talented as he is, Forsberg’s shooting percentage (25 percent, or 10 goals on just 40 shots on net) is bound to slip. Considering his career average of 13.1 percent, it may even slip by half.

Even so, it’s plausible that Forsberg is ascending among the NHL’s most potent wingers.

Help from his friends

It’s also worth noting that the Predators’ top line might just be able to hang with the other elite groups. Forsberg is joined by another volume shooter in Viktor Arvidsson, who has 28 SOG in 11 games (generating seven goals and 11 points). Arvidsson won’t continue his 25 shooting percentage either, yet he’s likely to continue making an impact on games; the Swedish jitterbug is currently in the middle of a five-game streak where he’s generated at least 3 SOG.

One pivotal factor in Forsberg’s climb toward more recognition is the play of Ryan Johansen, and his hot start might be the most promising sign of all … well, beyond the fact that Forsberg’s absolutely unleashing the puck so far this season.

Johansen carries an $8 million cap hit, yet he hasn’t always received plaudits for his work as a top center.

(For instance: Ryan Kesler‘s BFF didn’t land on Andrew Berkshire’s top 23 centers list heading into this season, falling behind the likes of Derek Stepan.)

So far, Johansen’s been off to a strong scoring start, collecting two goals and 13 points in 11 games.

It’s natural for Johansen to shoot less often than trigger-happy wingers like Forsberg and Arvidsson, yet he drew some criticism for being pass-first to a fault. The past two seasons were tough in that regard, with Johansen averaging a meager 1.63 SOG per game last season, and a not-much-better 1.88 SOG per contest in 2016-17.

This is a small sample size, but so far, Johansen has 23 SOG in 11 games. While that’s not an enormous uptick, this line gets scarier if Johansen isn’t telegraphing passes, and they’re combining for more than eight SOG per game between the three of them.

Shouldering a burden

It’s tempting to look at the Predators as a deep team at all levels.

The label is accurate for a defense featuring P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. It says a lot about what the team’s built that Vezina winner Pekka Rinne can go on IR and few really panicked, as Juuse Saros is a gem in net. It also doesn’t hurt that hit-or-miss second-line center Kyle Turris is off to a promising start (eight points in 11 games).

Such factors distract from how crucial Forsberg and Nashville’s top line is to their success, though.

With Kevin Fiala going through early season struggles, the Predators’ offense depends upon that top line, that elite fleet of defense, and sporadic scoring (Turris, Ryan Hartman, few others). It makes you wonder why Eeli Tolvanen isn’t getting more immediate opportunities, but that’s a discussion for another day.

That tend is really just carrying over from the postseason, as Turris and Nick Bonino really failed to give Nashville the sort of supplementary scoring that contenders usually need. One can see the temptation of even spreading the wealth, although that would most likely qualify as messing with a good thing.

***

As strange as it might sound considering GM David Poile’s many great recent trades, a bigger-picture look at the Predators makes you wonder if another bold move could be in order.

On the bright side, there’s mounting evidence that Nashville’s top trio is for real, with Forsberg leading the way.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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.