Niklas Hjalmarsson

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.

 

What’s driving the Coyotes’ hot streak

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To steal Zoolander parlance — only appropriate for a team that once employed Martin Hanzal — the Arizona Coyotes are so hot right now.

The Coyotes are on a four-game winning streak following Tuesday’s overtime win against the Rangers, and are 5-0-1 in their last six, erasing the discomfort from an 0-2-0 start where they only managed a single goal.

If the playoffs began right now, the 5-2-1 Coyotes would be the second wild-card team in the West. Could this be a sign that this is finally the year?

Let’s look at what is working so well so far, and how much of it is sustainable, with help from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

Glorious goaltending

Darcy Kuemper played at such a high level from January on in 2018-19, it seemed like he might just drag the wounded Coyotes to a playoff spot. Even so, it seemed a little hasty when the Coyotes handed Kuemper a two-year, $9 million extension in early October.

Well, if the 29-year-old can stay anywhere near the level he’s been at lately, that could be a mega-steal.

Kuemper’s only allowed 10 goals over six appearances, going 4-2-0 with a sparkling .944 save percentage to begin the season. He’s the first goalie in Coyotes franchise history to allow two or fewer games in 13 consecutive starts, carrying over last season’s red-hot work.

Delightfully for the Coyotes, Antti Raanta‘s shown signs of the sharp goalie he was pre-injury nightmares, as Raanta’s 1-0-1 with a .926 save percentage through two games.

Even if Kuemper is the real deal, one would expect the Coyotes’ league-leading team save percentage of .9388 to cool off; last season, the Islanders topped the NHL with a .9247 mark that would already be tough to match.

It’s plausible that goaltending could remain a strength for Arizona, though, particularly if they maintain their strong start when it comes to possessing the puck and limiting high-danger scoring chances against.

Luck and other peculiarities

As always, it’s important to take any eight-game sample with a grain of salt.

Nick Schmaltz is a good example, alongside goaltending, of “could be good, probably won’t be that good.” He already showed signs of flourishing in a bigger role in Arizona after being traded from Chicago last season (14 points in 17 games before injuries derailed things), but Schmaltz’s nine points in eight games is inflated by puck luck, including a 21.4 shooting percentage. There’s evidence that he might be a strong shooter in general (14.2 shooting percentage in 187 career games), but he’s likely to cool down to some extent.

It will also be interesting to track their power play. Last season, their 16.3 power-play percentage ranked sixth-worst in the NHL. Of course, they added Phil Kessel during the summer, and he’s been part of a unit that’s scored seven goals on 27 opportunities, good for a 25.9 percent success rate that ranks seventh overall.

PDO is a helpful metric for measuring luck (it’s merely save percentage plus shooting percentage), and so it’s worth noting that the Coyotes’ 1.030 mark ties them for fourth-highest at all strengths in this young season.

There’s at least one way where things could get tougher if the Coyotes are perceived as more of a threat.

Five for Howling recently pointed out an interesting trend: so far in 2019-20, the Coyotes have frequently faced opposing teams’ backups. That might be a coincidence, but if it continues to even a subtle extent, it could be helpful in a league ripe with parity.

Fewer trips to the trainers

Last season, the Coyotes were absolutely ravaged by injuries, to the point that it’s tempting to give them a mulligan. So far in 2019-20, Arizona’s been healthier, although it remains to be seen if they can can continue to thrive so much defensively with Niklas Hjalmarsson on the shelf.

Like with most NHL teams, injury luck (or a lack thereof) could be pivotal for Arizona.

***

Yes, it’s too early to know for sure, but which way do you lean: could this be the year the Coyotes put it together, or will 2019-20 end in another disappointment?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

NHL injury roundup: Coyotes lose Hjalmarsson, Wild without Zuccarello

Checking in on some significant injury news around the NHL at the start of the week…

Coyotes lose Hjalmarsson

One of the biggest issues for the 2018-19 Arizona Coyotes was a season-long run of injuries to some of their most important players.

The 2019-20 season does not seem to be getting off to a better start.

The Coyotes announced that veteran defender Niklas Hjalmarsson is going to be sidelined indefinitely due to a lower-body injury. The Athletic’s Craig Morgan reported that Hjalmarsson suffered a cracked fibula when he blocked an Erik Johnson slap shot over the weekend and is expected to be sidelined for approximately three months.

He exited that game after playing just four minutes and did not return. In four games this season he has one goal for the Coyotes.

Zuccarello to miss Wild’s road trip

The Minnesota Wild are off to a miserable start this season, losing each of their first four games heading into Monday afternoon’s game against the Ottawa Senators. That game is the start of a three-game road trip this week and they will have to play all of it without the services of free agent signings Mats Zuccarello.

The Wild announced on Monday that Zuccarello did not make the trip with the team and will be sidelined all week due to an unspecified lower-body injury.

Signing Zuccarello was one of the final moves made by former general manager Paul Fenton this summer. It added another player over the age of 30 on a long-term contract to a team that already has too many such players, but it at least seemed like a short-term upgrade to a roster that needed more offense. So far, though, it has been a slow start for both sides. In his first four games with the Wild Zuccarello has yet to record a point, has just three shots on goal, is a minus-6, and was playing just 14 minutes per game.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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: Kings in trouble; Can Blues keep Pietrangelo?

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.

• Jesse Puljujarvi isn’t opposed to spending the year over in Europe. (Sportsnet)

• Hall-of-fame executive Jim Devellano is going to undergo brain surgery on Monday to remove a non-cancerous brain tumour. (USA Today)

• Patrick Marleau’s agent admitted that his client only wanted to play for the San Jose Sharks. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• It’s early in the season, but the Los Angeles Kings could be in some serious trouble already. (Yahoo)

• How quickly can a Stanley Cup window slam shut? (Gotham Sports Network)

• Will the St. Louis Blues be able to re-sign Alex Pietrangelo? (Featurd)

• Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger won’t rush Rasmus Dahlin‘s development. (Buffalo News)

• Losing defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson for an extended period of time would be bad for the Coyotes. (Five for Howling)

Anthony Cirelli isn’t the biggest name on the Lightning roster, but he’s an important part of the group. (The Score)

• Todd Bertuzzi should be in the Canucks’ Ring of Honor. (Daily Hive)

• Have the seats at TD Garden gotten smaller? (Boston Globe)

• The Red Wings’ fourth line is off to a great start this season. (Mlive.com)

• Andrew Raycroft loves the city of Boston. (Bruins Die Hards)

• The Senators have hired Canadian University Basketball coach Dave Smart as a consultant. (TSN)

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
 
For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Better. The Coyotes made a splash when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins this off-season. Assuming he comes in with the right attitude, Kessel alone makes the Coyotes a better team. The ‘Yotes haven’t had a sniper like him in a long time and head coach Rick Tocchet’s ability to get the most out of Kessel should help Arizona in a big way. Let’s not forget, this Coyotes team is young, too. So, there should be some internal progression as well.

Strengths: Arizona has quietly built up some solid depth down the middle of the ice. When healthy, Nick Schmaltz produced offensively, as he accumulated 14 points in his first 17 games with his new team. If he can keep that up, the Coyotes will be that much tougher to stop. They also have veterans like Derek Stepan and Carl Soderberg that will make important contributions this year. We’ve already talked about Kessel and what he brings to the table, but they also have other dynamic forwards on the wing like Clayton Keller and Christian Dvorak, too.

The Coyotes also have a deep blue line with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jakob Chychrun and Jason Demers. And their goaltending is stable with Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | X-factor | Three questions]

Weaknesses: Overall depth might be an issue up front. Do they have enough players in the bottom-six that can contribute offensively when their offensive-minded players go quiet? Overall, this is a well-balanced team that could use more depth, but which team doesn’t need that?

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Let’s go with a four for Rick Tocchet. He’s not really on the hot seat going into the season, but his team also has to show some significant signs of improvement this year. They finished ninth in the Western Conference last year (they missed the playoffs by four points), so they have to improve this year or the seat will get hotter for Tocchet.

Three Most Fascinating Players: You can’t have a fascinating players section on the Coyotes roster and not talk about Kessel. We know what Kessel is capable of doing on the ice, but how will he mesh with his new teammates off the ice? Can he be the leader Arizona needs him to be? We’re starting to hear more and more about his fractured relationship with some of his old teammates in Pittsburgh. The Coyotes have to be hoping that something similar doesn’t happen to them.

Schmaltz is also an intriguing name. After being acquired from Chicago, he nearly scored at a point-per-game clip. Can he post similar numbers over an 82-game stretch? Schmaltz has all the talent to succeed at the NHL and now he has a golden opportunity to be one of the offensive catalysts on an up-and-coming roster that should push for a playoff spot this year.

The goaltending situation will also be something to keep an eye on. Raanta was limited to just 12 games last season after he had a career year in 2017-18. But once he was forced from the lineup Kuemper came in and did a nice job of keeping the Coyotes competitive. Does Raanta bounce back? Does Kuemper keep rolling? It might be a little bit of both.

Playoffs or Lottery: This is a tough one. It would be amazing to see the Coyotes sneak into the playoffs. The issue is finding which of the top eight teams they’ll finish ahead of this season. If the Rantanen hold out lasts long, can they sneak in ahead of Colorado, who finished in the last Wild Card spot last year? Maybe, but that’s still not a given. I think the Coyotes will miss the playoffs by less points (four) than they did last year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.