Frisky Coyotes: Why the Team Subject to Heavy Off-Ice Scrutiny could Prove Dangerous Come Postseason

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After a prolonged 2019-20 season that saw 24 NHL teams compete for a spot in the postseason, the Arizona Coyotes dismantled the favourited Nashville Predators en-route to the seven-seed and a playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche. While the Coyotes were overpowered by the fast-paced Avalanche offence and were quickly dismissed, Arizona has since re-upped with key pieces and is building another playoff bid in an extremely unique 56-game season.

Arizona, despite its current and ongoing front-office concerns, has managed to produce consistent and competitive on-ice play and currently holds the fourth and final playoff position in the newly-formed Honda West division. While without household names (depending on your view of the ghost of Phil Kessel), the Coyotes boast a criminally underrated first line, a reliable top-four defensive core and are backed by an emerging goaltending tandem. An analytics gem exemplified, there is a statistical basis for the claim that this success can be continued and that Arizona poses a significant threat to all playoff hopefuls.

Relative Corsi For Percentage is an individual possession metric that measures shot creation for versus against when a player is on the ice at even strength. Blocked, missed and shots on goal are all taken into consideration when calculating a player’s Corsi For Percentage. Elite players create more shots for than against at a 55-60 percent rate.

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At five-on-five, amongst players who have played at least 10 games this season, the leader in Relative Corsi For Percentage is bonafide superstar Connor McDavid. Forwards ranking second and third: Arizona’s Clayton Keller and Conor Garland. Creating at a slightly lower clip, Coyotes’ first-line center Nick Schmaltz ranks just below David Pastrnak and above Nathan MacKinnon.

The statistical backing for Arizona’s “big three” does not end there. All three forwards are currently producing at an expected plus/minus of at least 1.5. When Schmaltz, Keller and Garland are on the ice, Coyotes fans can expect to see a minimum of one and a half more goals scored than against.

In addition to an extremely efficient first line, defensemen Jakob Chychrun is on pace to hold opponents to the lowest expected goals of his career, backing up a strong campaign in 2019-20. Chychrun’s partner, Alex Goligoski, has similarly improved his performance in this metric while raising his expected plus/minus from -2.0 to -0.7. Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson has rebounded on the second pairing from a disappointing previous season, posting career bests in Relative Corsi For Percentage and expected goals against through his first five games.

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Before his injury, Arizona’s fourth defensemen, Niklas Hjalmarsson, created numbers better than expected based on his over 70 percent defensive zone start percentage, meaning he began over 70 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. Arizona’s top-four defensemen are all building impressive 2020-21 statistical campaigns and are creating a steady back-line to support their goalies.

Darcy Kuemper singlehandedly stole a game from Colorado in round one of last year’s playoffs. Eventually, the Avalanche solved Kuemper and the underdog Coyotes, but Kuemper had staked his claim as the team’s starting backstop. While he was up and down in his 12 starts this season, he was coming off his first shutout of the year and is still well above league average quality start percentage. Kuemper’s backup, Antti Raanta, provided reliable goaltending in his leave, with two out of his first three appearances registering as quality starts. Provided the tandem maintain their pace, team success will follow.

Arizona’s current statistical success is relatively unprecedented and yet there is no evidence to suggest that it cannot continue. Should Garland and Keller sustain their current paces for the entirety of the season, the Coyotes defensive core remain consistent and the team’s goaltending tandem maintain their reliability, Arizona has the potential to be an extremely dangerous team at even strength. If they can find a way into the playoffs, when penalties grow few and far between and five-on-five play becomes that of precedent, the Coyotes might possess the roster it will take to make waves in the 2020-21 postseason.

Sources: Hockey Reference, Daily Faceoff

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