GLENDALE, Ariz. — What a difference a year makes. Coming off a 56-point season — the lowest point total since they moved to Arizona from Winnipeg — few outsiders expected anything more than another lottery berth for the Coyotes.
On Saturday, Arizona closed out one of the most surprising half-seasons in the NHL this year with a 4-0 win over the Nashville Predators at Gila River Arena.
With 46 points — 10 shy of their 2015-16 season total — Arizona has a four-point lead on Vancouver for second place in the Pacific Division and if the season were to end today, the Coyotes would have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve proven to ourselves that we deserve to compete,” coach Dave Tippett said. “It’s a good start but we’ve got the back 41 to go. If we continue to improve we’ll see where that takes us.”
As the season hits the midpoint, we’re pausing to take a look at a few key areas of the Coyotes. We’re not much for midterm grades but we did offer some areas that have excelled, some that have been OK and some that need improvement, as well as a few notable individual achievements.
Good luck making this call. We asked 15 Coyotes media-related folks this question on Saturday and got six different responses: Max Domi, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Shane Doan and Louis Domingue.
All have had their moments, all have had their struggles, whether through poor play or missed time due to injuries. This season has truly been a contribution-by-committee affair.
Ekman-Larsson has five game-winning goals and is logging the most minutes on the team (25:11) — hard, heavy minutes. Doan has 12 points (nine goals) in his last 12 games, Boedker leads the team in points (31), Domi is tied for second in rookie points (28), Hanzal leads the team in points per game (.786), and in his eight starts this season, Domingue has allowed 14 goals on 264 shots for a .947 save percentage. The Coyotes are 6-0-2 in those games.
Take your pick. There is no wrong answer.
KUDOS TO COACHES
If coaches could win MVP awards, the previous honor might have been easier. You won’t find many analysts in the hockey community who feel the Coyotes’ roster is playoff worthy, but at the midpoint of the season, the Coyotes would be a No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Nobody could have predicted that.
Dave Tippett has dispelled the notion that he can’t coach young players and he can’t coach skill by mixing Domi, Anthony Duclair, Tobias Rieder and Jordan Martinook into important forward roles, while three of the team’s top four defensemen are 25 or younger.
The Coyotes have committed to a structure and style of play that allows them to be successful despite their flaws. He won’t get many Jack Adams Award votes this season because of the efforts in Florida, Washington and Dallas, but Tippett and assistants Jim Playfair, Newell Brown, John Slaney and Jon Elkin deserve a heaping dose of credit for the team’s unexpected success.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: LOUIS DOMINGUE
When goaltender Mike Smith underwent abdominal surgery in December, Coyotes GM Don Maloney admitted he looked at every possible scenario for acquiring another goalie. On Friday, Maloney said he’s glad he didn’t pull the trigger on a deal after watching Domingue play.
The starter’s job was supposed to be Anders Lindback’s when Smith went down, but he struggled in his early auditions. On Saturday, Domingue recorded his second shutout of the season and became the first rookie goalie in Coyotes history to win three consecutive games.
“So far, it couldn’t be better in the sense of how Louis has played,” Maloney said. “For him to come in and grab the ball and give us a chance to win every net he’s in net has been exactly what we needed.
“We realize it’s a long season and sometimes there’s a cooling off period after one of these hot stretches, but he has seized the opportunity and hopefully he can keep it up.”
Offense: The Coyotes completed the first half with 116 goals, and were averaging 2.83, which ranked sixth in the league, ahead of even the Chicago Blackhawks. Domi and Duclair have added an element to the Coyotes’ top six forwards, Doan is having a renaissance year (perhaps even a career year), Hanzal has produced when he is healthy, Boedker is having his best NHL season and the blue line has chipped in with 27 goals, the second most of any team in the NHL. The Coyotes are a much more exciting team to watch than a year ago.
Young forwards: A big part of the Coyotes’ 2015-16 gameplan was to infuse youth and skill into a forward lineup lacking both elements. The kids have delivered. Domi, Duclair, Martinook and Rieder have combined for 37 goals and 90 points in the first half of the season. Each has experienced the type of slumps that Tippett warned would come with young players. Each has areas of his game that still need work, but the speed, energy and excitement they have added to the lineup and the locker room has been a vital cog in the team’s early success.
The power play: When the Coyotes traded Keith Yandle they knew they would have to weather some growing pains with this unit. Boedker struggled early to pick up learn a new role as the unit’s quasi-quarterback and the power play has allowed a league-high eight shorthanded goals, but Arizona’s power play has been better of late with 11 goals in its last 41 chances. At the midpoint of the season, it ranks 21st in the NHL at 18 percent.
FALLING BELOW EXPECTATIONS
Defending/goaltending: The Coyotes are allowing 30.8 shots per game (seventh worst in the NHL) 3.02 goals per game (third worst in the NHL). Part of it has been goaltending (excluding Domingue’s recent success), part of it has been poor puck play (bad decisions, turnovers) and structure (positioning, mental lapses) by the defensemen and forwards. Arizona has been a lot better of late, allowing 22 non-shootout goals in its last 10 games and Domingue has been terrific. Those elements must continue if the Coyotes want to be a playoff team.
Penalty kill: This goes hand in hand with defending. The unit was more effective earlier in the season, but has slipped to 24th in the NHL at 78.8 percent and has allowed 10 power-play goals in its last 10 games (33 chances).