Raise your hands if you believed that the Arizona Coyotes would be one of the top teams in the Pacific Division to start the 2015-16 NHL season.
Nobody? Yeah, thought so.
And yet, three weeks into the season, the upstart Coyotes are currently tied for the second spot in the Pacific with a very respectable 5-4-1 record. While that record might not seem all that impressive, it’s actually quite an accomplishment for a squad that went 24-50-8 the prior season, is comprised primarily of young players, and was widely predicted to be among the league’s basement-dwelling teams this year.
With wins over the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks, it’s also not like the team has had a cakewalk to get to this point, either. It hasn’t always been pretty (the Coyotes have some of the worst possession metrics of any team in the NHL), but the Desert Dogs are nevertheless finding ways to eke out wins. How exactly are they doing it?
Your Best Players Have To Be Your Best Players
The Coyotes aren’t a team that’s spilling over with talent, but they have a few key faces in a few key places that should be able to keep the team fairly competitive.
The blueline features one of the best, and most criminally underrated, defensemen in the league in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The big, mobile, two-way defender is both a dynamic game-changer as well as an absolute workhorse, logging an average of 24:54 per game so far into the season (for comparison sake, the next closest player on the team, Michael Stone, is only averaging 20:43). If the 24 year-old can remain healthy all year long he’ll be a reliable force nearly every time that he touches the ice. Teams could do a lot worse when it comes to their #1 defenseman.
In net the Coyotes have a goaltender that can have a similar singular impact on his team’s fortunes, even if the numbers don’t exactly show it. Mike Smith may be 33 years old, but he knows the team well, now in his fifth season with them, and still has the ability to steal games. He stopped 40 of 41 shots against LA in his season debut and then made a 37-save blanking of the Ducks just five days later. His save percentage on the season is down to a moderate .908, but that has more to do with the inexperienced defensive group in front of him (four guys 25 or younger) than it does his abilities. Don’t be surprised if he single-handedly stifles more opposing teams and steals plenty of other games as the year goes along.
Offense is where things get particularly interesting. The Coyotes, after seemingly endless years of searching, have finally found what appears to be a dynamic first line, consisting of Martin Hanzal, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. The mammoth 6’6″ Hanzal is a two-way beast that is incredibly daunting to match up against, while the pair of 20 year-olds in Domi and Duclair are bursting with talent and energy and are providing plenty of offensive pop, something the club has lacked for ages. The trio has combined for nine goals in 10 games and appears to be building great chemistry together. Scoring goals may get bumpy at times as other teams begin to scout their tendencies, but there’s a lot to like from what’s been seen so far.
And, while we’re at it, let’s not forget to mention Dave Tippett, the 2010 NHL Coach of the Year. Now in his 7th season behind the Yotes bench, Tippett has been through a lot of hardship in his time with the organization, but he seems genuinely excited about the new challenge that’s before him with such a young roster. He coached a plucky, underdog Coyotes team to the 2012 Western Conference Finals so he knows how to get results even when he doesn’t have a lot to work with.
The Best Of The Worst?
While a Coyotes playoff berth might seem like nothing but pure wishful thinking, does it actually sound all that crazy when you look at just how bad the Pacific Division has been to start this season?
The top five teams in the Western Conference, as of this writing, are all from the Central Division, with the Winnipeg Jets also holding down the 7th spot overall. That’s six of eight teams, leaving only two from the Pacific. However, this isn’t actually how the playoffs would shape out, since a minimum of three teams from each division must make the postseason.
The Pacific seems like it could be wide-open this year. The Kings are the leaders right now, currently rolling on a six-game winning streak, but looked completely awful during an 0-3 start to the year. They missed the playoffs last season. The Ducks, widely predicted to claim the division throne for the third year in a row, have fallen apart to start the year and have their head coach rumoured to be on the hot seat. It’s such a bad downward spiral that it’s already putting their postseason hopes in jeopardy. The San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks have had some decent success so far, but both have a lot of core players on the wrong side of 30 and have suffered through issues of inconsistency and mental lapses over the past few seasons, so nothing there is guaranteed. The young Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers squads are littered with problems and don’t look the part of playoff teams.
All the Coyotes have to do to make the playoffs is be one of the three best teams in that division. While a stretch, crazier things have certainly happened.
Even if Arizona doesn’t quite make it that far (the Western Conference will, once again, be an absolute battle royale this year), this is a squad with the desire and, yes, even the means to prove that it’s hot start isn’t just a fluke.
Derek Neumeier primarily covers the Dallas Stars, but also other various topics related to the sport of hockey. A Journalism graduate of Mount Royal University, Derek also writes for Defending Big D, and has done previous work with the Edmonton Oilers as a communications intern and Hockey Canada as a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Derek_N_NHL