Niklas Hjalmarsson

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

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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.

Coyotes betting big on questionable core

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The Arizona Coyotes are the NHL’s strange beasts.

For years, they suffered through shoestring budgets as their ownership and arena woes continued into infinity. While there still seems to be some turmoil in that area – their majority owner once again changed this summer – they’re now becoming a team that raises your eyebrows for seemingly spending more than expected.

Wednesday’s announcement of Clayton Keller‘s eight-year, $57.2 million extension serves as the exclamation point on that sentence.

Consider the players who are now under long-term deals in Arizona:

Keller ($7.15M cap hit starting in 2020-21; runs through 2027-28): Many are pointing out that Keller’s contract now makes William Nylander‘s often-criticized deal look quite reasonable, while others groan that with Keller set to carry a $7.15M cap hit, it sets a higher floor for other RFAs, from Kyle Connor this summer to Nico Hischier entering his contract year.

As PHT’s writeup notes, the Coyotes are betting that the 21-year-old has a high ceiling, thus making this a signing with foresight.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($8.25M starting this season, goes through 2026-27): For quite some time, there was angst about OEL leaving the lowly Coyotes for greener pastures. Then the Coyotes sent all of that green his way, really setting the table for this run of early extensions, as they signed Ekman-Larsson at basically the first possible moment in July 2018.

So, the good news is that they kept the Swede in Arizona for the long-term future. The bad news is that it’s possible OEL might not be quite the difference-maker they’re paying for. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn listed Ekman-Larsson as an honorable mention for one of the worst contracts in the NHL (sub required).

None of this is to say that OEL is a bad player. Instead, it keeps with the theme that it seems like the Coyotes are paying premiums for players who haven’t yet produced truly premium all-around results.

Nick Schmaltz ($5.85M through 2025-26), Jakob Chychrun ($4.6M through 2024-25), Christian Dvorak ($4.45M through 2024-25): Again, these players aren’t necessarily “bad,” it’s just surprising to see so many of them get so much term without overly obvious savings right off the bat. It’s the sort of hastiness you’d expect from a team that’s been contending, not one that’s had money troubles for ages and has missed the playoffs for seven seasons in a row.

Beyond that questionable core, the Coyotes are also spending a considerable chunk of change on veteran players like Phil Kessel, Derek Stepan, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Raanta, and Jason Demers.

Even if you give the Coyotes some leeway for absorbing Marian Hossa‘s dead contract, it’s honestly jarring that they technically are out of cap space heading into 2019-20, according to Cap Friendly.

Now, sure, this is a team that nearly made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs despite a plague of injuries, and with all of this youth and the potential boost of Kessel’s sniping, could very well make it in 2019-20 — particularly in a Pacific Division that seems weak on paper.

Still, it remains a bit baffling that the Coyotes are spending this much for a team that doesn’t necessarily wow you with its overall talent.

That said, the Coyotes seem like they’re approaching RFAs as a market inefficiency, and if any players will prove your risks right, it’s young ones. While OEL is already 28, Keller is 21, Chychrun’s run of injuries make him a mystery of sorts at 21, and so on. As we’ve seen with Leon Draisaitl at $8.5M per year, seemingly shaky contracts can end up looking like steals, at least when it comes to players entering their primes.

The Coyotes have to hope this all works out as planned, as they’re gambling big on all of this term for young players, and some pretty big bucks for veterans.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Three questions facing Arizona Coyotes

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Can Antti Raanta put together a complete season as a starting NHL goalie?

Raanta’s numbers from last season look quite good at a first glance. On a poor Coyotes team, he posted a 21-17-6 record with a very solid .930 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average.

Truth be told, however, he was horrible in the first half of the season but rebounded in a huge way in the second half of the season, posting 13 wins in his final 17 starts.

His impressive run earned him a three-year, $12.75 million deal in April, and a renewed commitment from the goaltender to spend the offseason working at becoming a bona fide starter.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Questions of Raanta’s fitness heading into last year’s training camp were a concern of head coach Rick Tocchet.

“It’s going to be good for me to know what it takes to play lots of games and it’s going to be good for me to kind of see what I need to do more in the summertime, what I want to improve, and come back stronger next year,” Raanta told the Associated Press after he signed his contract.

A .930 starting goaltender playing 60-plus games will very likely put the Coyotes in the playoffs and would just as likely have Raanta in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.

Can Dylan Strome build off the end of the season and make an impact as a full-time player?

Strome struggled to find a spot in the Coyotes’ roster last season.

Here’s a quick timeline:

Oct. 5-7 – plays the first two games of the season and is held pointless.

Oct. 9 – Sent down to Tucson of the American Hockey League.

Oct. 9 – Nov. 25 – tears up the AHL with 26 points in 15 games.

Nov. 26 – Earns recall back to Arizona

Nov. 27 – Dec. 18 – Scores his first NHL goal but that’s all in nine more games with the Coyote.

Dec. 19 – Sent back to Tucson

Mar. 20 – Called back up to Arizona, this time for the rest of the season.

From that point on, Strome seemed to find his stride, amassing three goals and five assists in 10 games to close out the year.

For everyone involved with the former third-overall pick, it was a sigh of relief.

“We’ve made him earn things, and playing a top-six center position as a 20-year-old is a very hard thing to do,” GM John Chayka told the team’s website in May. I think in his latest segment where he came up and played, I thought he showed a lot of improvement. I thought he proved a lot to himself and his teammates that he can handle that type of role and be productive. He’s been productive his whole life. It’s always good to see progression, and I think we’ve seen that with Dylan.”

A center by trade, Strome could make the jump to the wing.

Do the additions of Vinnie Hinostroza, Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk put them into the playoff discussion, or do they need more?

Those moves certainly point Arizona in that direction.

That’s 53 goals being injected to the Coyotes forward group based on last year’s numbers, and based on that, it would move the Coyotes from 30th place in the league to near the top-10 in goals-for.

That’s an excellent upgrade.

Couple that with Strome turning into the player they franchise wants him to be and Keller taking another step forward (and Raanta playing at his best), and the Coyotes could very much be in the playoff discussion providing they can reduce their goals against from last season. They gave up 251 — 11th most in the NHL.

That issue gets partially fixed if Raanta doesn’t get off to a poor start.

A healthy Jakob Chychrun (knee) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (core) would certainly help matters. Both missed significant time last year as a result of injuries.

The simple truth here is that the Coyotes look better on paper this year.

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

The Arizona Coyotes’ season is only getting worse

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WINNIPEG — The Arizona Coyotes’ start to the 2017-18 season — a complete tire fire by all accounts — managed to burn a little brighter on Tuesday.

After dropping a 4-1 decision to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the Coyotes, now 2-15-3, became the first team in National Hockey League history to play their first 20 games and not register a regulation win.

It’s not the first time the Coyotes have flirted with the unfortunate side of the history books through the first quarter of the season.

Arizona’s first win came just in time to partially save their own blushes after ending an 11-game slide to start the year (partially, because they still tied a league record set back during the 1943-43 season for most games without a win to start a season) and prevented them from becoming the sole owners of a piece of history coveted by no one.

“I’ve been saying it all year: You can’t complain, you can’t moan,” Coyotes forward Brandon Perlini said on Tuesday after the loss. “Like, just go play, work hard. There’s no other special secret or special juice. You just have to work your way out of it everyone shift after shift … and eventually I believe it will turn.”

Perlini’s frustration, despite trying to remain positive, was evident, and while the results for the Coyotes are borderline shocking, to say the least, they might not be all that surprising.

The Coyotes have been bleeding for a while now, missing the playoffs in their past five seasons since their remarkable run to the Western Conference finals in 2012.

They lost veteran captain Shane Doan to retirement over the offseason and traded away Mike Smith, who had backstopped the ‘Yotes for six seasons as they entered full-fledged rebuild mode.

They gained Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta via trade with the New York Rangers and have watched Clayton Keller blossom into the league’s best rookie early this season, although he’s been held off the scoresheet in four straight games.

Adding three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson didn’t hurt either, but he hasn’t played since Halloween due to an upper-body injury.

Arizona is in the middle of the pack in terms of goals for but last in goals against. They’re second last in expected goals for and have the second-worst team save percentage.

None of that equates to wins and the Coyotes aren’t even getting lucky from time to time.

“It’s been a rough start,” said Raanta, who got the yank in Tuesday’s game. “When you have a young team and lots of new things going on, you need that confidence that comes from those wins. We haven’t gotten that early on in the season. But we’re still working hard. It’s the only way we can get over it.”

Raanta, who was arguably considered the best goalie without a starting role in the NHL over the past couple of seasons, said he’s had to battle his own demons this year amid all the losing.

“It’s tough when you’re a goalie and you lose a couple games in a row, you start looking at yourself and wondering what is going on,” said Raanta, who missed nine games with a lower-body ailment earlier this year. “For me, I just have to give us a chance to win. If I can look in the mirror after the game and say that I did whatever I could, of course, you can’t be satisfied, but you can find a positive.”

The land where the Coyotes are a contending team in the Western Conference seems like its far, far away at this point.

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.