Phoenix Coyotes 12-13 Preview: Making the experts look like fools

Corey S.
August 12 2012 10:03PM

File:Mike Smith Coyotes.jpg
Can Don Maloney find another steal?
By Mathew Cerasoli, via Wikimedia Commons

The Phoenix Coyotes are one of the more interesting teams in the league when you think about it. They are an out of market team with a tight-budget, are always in relocation talks and are still searching for an owner but despite that, they have made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and appeared in the Western Conference Finals last year. Phoenix is a team that has always managed to “beat the odds” for the last few seasons. They always seem to be in the playoff mix despite many predicting them to regress, and they always seem to do it while losing a major piece or two.

Ever since they made the playoffs, the Coyotes haven’t been a bad team at even strength, but they have been largely mediocre, ranking 15-19th in Fenwick close in the last three seasons. The main reason they have reached the playoffs is because they’ve received outstanding goaltending. Their lowest even strength save percentage the last three years has been .923 and it was at least .930 in the last two seasons. Most hockey minds thought they would take a large step back when they replaced Ilya Bryzgalov with Mike Smith, but the exact opposite ended up happening and the Coyotes ended up getting a Vezina-quality season from Smith.

Elite goaltending can boost a mediocre team to greater heights and that has been the case with the Coyotes over the last few years. The question now is will Smith be able to replicate his incredible season and will it be enough to keep the Yotes in contention? Goaltending performance is something that is next to impossible to predict, so Smith could go either way. A bigger problem for the Coyotes is that they lost a couple important players up front and could be on the verge of losing another, so Phoenix may need more than great goaltending to get back to the post-season next year.

Off-Season Moves

Shane Doan has been the most talked about figure in Phoenix this off-season and while having their captain leave would be a big hit to the Coyotes, losing Ray Whitney to free agency will have a greater impact. Whitney is 40 years old and might be nearing the end of the line, but he had an amazing season and it’s going to be hard for Phoenix to replace his production. Whitney not only scored at an incredibly high rate at even strength, but he also regularly played against tough competition without much of an issue.

As for Mr. Doan, he reportedly wants to stay in Phoenix but wants a pretty big contract that could possibly have a cap hit of $6-7.5 mil. per season. Doan has been consistently good the last few seasons but his production isn’t anything close to being worth that much money. Yes, he is still a solid top-six player and he is a big part of Phoenix’s powerplay, but he’s going to be 36 in October and his numbers are prone to drop at any time. Phoenix still needs to get to the cap floor, so them giving Doan the money he wants is plausible but they aren’t going to be getting much value out of him if they do. Don Maloney is usually a smart GM, so it will be interesting to see what he does here.

One way he got closer to the cap floor was by trading for Zbynek Michalek and his $4 mil. cap hit, which was a pretty solid move for the Coyotes. Michalek is a great stay-at-home defenseman and an upgrade over the departing Michal Rozsival and Adrian Aucoin, so Maloney was able to strengthen his team defense while getting to the floor.

Still, he might have his work cut out for him if he has to replace Whitney AND Doan but he did make some effective moves this summer. An underrated signing he made was David Moss for two years at $2.1 mil. per season. This could be an overpayment when you consider that Moss hasn’t played a full season in three years but when healthy, he is an effective player. Moss is your prototypical checking winger and he has been one of Calgary’s heavy-lifters for the last few years. He should be able to take over Taylor Pyatt’s role on the third line and provide a boost to Phoenix’s possession numbers. Getting him to play 60+ games might be a challenge.

Phoenix also signed Steve Sullivan to a one-year deal for $2.6 mil., which is a pretty safe gamble because Sullivan has been an effective top-six winger when healthy. With that in mind, he had the luxury of playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal and starting a boatload of his shifts in the offensive zone with the Penguins last season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his numbers take a dip. Sullivan isn’t going to be playing with garbage linemates with the Yotes but it’s hard to be in a better situation than he was last year.  

Most of the Coyotes other signings were guys who will likely spend most of next season in the minor leagues (Rob Klinkhammer, Joel Rechlicz, Chris Conner, Nick Johnson, Chad Johnson) but one or two of those players could see time with the big club while Raffi Torres is serving his 25 games suspension. Torres. Nick Johnson and Chris Conner have a considerable amount of NHL experience and could be serviceable as bottom-sixers.  

Forwards

LW

C

RW

Mikkel Boedker

Martin Hanzal

Radim Vrbata

Steve Sullivan

Antoine Vermette

N/A

Lauri Korpikoski

Boyd Gordon

David Moss

Paul Bissonnette

Kyle Chipchura

Nick Johnson

Raffi Torries (Suspended)

   

 

With two top-six forwards possibly leaving in the span of a couple of months and ownership issues still not settled, the Coyotes have to take safe bets on players with strong underlying numbers. It worked out well for them with Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney the last two years, and they still have Vrbata locked up for another two years at very low cost of $3 mil. per season. Vrbata’s 35-goal campaign was probably an aberration (15.1 shooting percentage) but he’s been a very good player at keeping the puck in the opponent’s zone for the last three years. Both him and Martin Hanzal are able to drive the play forward at a very high rate while playing tough minutes in the process and the two can make a dangerous first line if Hanzal’s offense ever comes around.

Finding a suitable winger for this line will be a challenge and it wouldn’t shock me if Sullivan ends up being the player for the job. Mikkel Boedker was terrific in the playoffs but he is probably more suited for the second line with Antoine Vermette. Both are more than capable of thriving in a secondary role but I’m not sold on Boedker playing the tough-minutes that Hanzal usually commands, at least not yet. Sullivan isn’t exactly a top-scorer but he is good enough to take advantage of playing with great linemates, which is all he has to do if he plays on the first line.

The addition of Moss should make Phoenix’s third line better than it was last season. Moss is superior to Taylor Pyatt when it comes to driving the play forward and I could see his play having an effect on Gordon and Korpikoski in that area, too. This line usually eats up most of the defensive zone starts, so adding a guy with a strong possession game to play that role is always a good thing.

As for the fourth line, it usually consists of cast-offs from other teams (Langkow, Brule, M-A Pouliot, Torres, etc.) and are given some incredibly soft minutes. Phoenix didn’t re-sign Brule, Langkow or Pouliot, so their fourth line will feature some new players and it’s likely that one of Conner, Johnson or Klinkhammer ends up playing there. They aren’t going to be asked to do much, so it’s not going to affect Phoenix’s play to a large degree.

Defense

Keith Yandle – Zbynek Michalek
Oliver Ekman-Larsson-Rostislav Klesla
Derek Morris-David Schlemko
Michael Stone
David Rundblad

Phoenix had a very bad defense last season and it really showed in the Western Conference Finals where they were mowed over by the Los Angeles Kings. They surrendered the third most shots per 60 minutes at even strength and had the second worst penalty kill in the NHL when it came to suppressing shots. The main reason why they had the 8th highest PK percentage in the league was because Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera had very high PK save percentages. Banking on that to sustain into next year isn’t a solid bet, so the Coyotes needed to improve their overall defense this off-season.

After trading for Michalek, their defense looks a little stronger. He should help out the penalty kill and he was solid as one of the Penguins shutdown defensemen last season. Phoenix has a lot of promising defensive prospects who aren’t quite ready yet, so adding Michalek to handle the tough minutes should allow them to not rush their other blue-liners. That and they needed someone other than Klesla to handle the shutdown role since he was destroyed in that role last season.

One player who doesn’t need to be eased into a tough role is Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who emerged as a top-four defenseman at the age of 20 last season. As the year went on, he became one half of the Coytoes shutdown defense pairing and was trusted with being matched up against the likes of Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar in the post-season. Ekman-Larsson was arguably Phoenix’s best defenseman last year despite playing such a difficult role at a young age and the future should be bright for him.

How Phoenix utilizes their defense pairings next year is a good question because adding Michalek gives them a shutdown compliment to Ekman-Larsson but he could also work well with Yandle, too. Yandle was kept away from tough competition last season but had strong underlying numbers. He could work well with a defenseman that isn’t Derek Morris. Moving the puck and providing offense are Yandle’s best assets, so putting him in a tougher role may not make much sense but the Coyotes will need someone to step up with not many proven shutdown options on the blue line.

Goaltending

No player had a bigger impact on the Coyotes season than Mike Smith as he was the main reason this team went as far as they did in the playoffs. Smith going from being a replacement level goaltender to having a Vezina quality season is a great story but it is also evidence of how random goaltending can be. Dave Tippet’s system and goaltending coach Sean Burke have been explained as the reason for Smith’s success but random variance is the most likely explanation. Smith has a very aggressive playing style and really likes to venture out of his net to play the puck, which gets him into a lot of trouble at times, but he somehow managed to make it work and have a one-of-a-kind season.

Smith’s .936 save percentage at even strength was the third highest save percentage among regular goaltenders with the St. Louis duo being the only goalies who ranked higher.  He also had the same overall save percentage as Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist and he played in five more games than him. The probability of Smith having another year like that is very low but goaltenders tend to work in mysterious ways.

Expectations

 This seems to be the norm for every Phoenix prediction over the last three years, but there is a good chance that they regress this season. Smith’s 2011-12 season was so absurd that expecting him to repeat it would be unreasonable but that could be what it takes for the Coyotes to make the playoffs. Losing Ray Whitney is tough and they are going to have an even bigger hole in the top-six if Shane Doan leaves. Scoring will be hard to come by, so the defense and goaltending are what is going to keep the Yotes competitive next season. The defense should be a little better but this team looks pretty mediocre on paper and Smith’s performance will likely end up playing a major role in where they stand next year. With the Pacific Division being as tight as ever right now, the Coyotes could end up on the outside of the playoff picture this year.  

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Corey runs the Carolina Hurricanes blog www.shutdownline.com where he tracks scoring chances and writes about all things related to the Hurricanes and the Southeast Division. He is also a staff writer at www.canescountry.com and is a regular on the NHL Numbers Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @Shutdownline
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#1 Carl Putnam
August 17 2012, 06:24AM
Trash it!
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My only argument is with the Klesla comments. Yes, Corsi numbers were poor, but look at how the team actually played when he was on the ice in terms of goal scoring. Of the team' s regular defenders he had the 3rd best GF/On vs. GA/On while playing against the toughest competition and not exactly playing with stud partners. In addition, he was the team's best PK defender. When he was out injured in the middle of the season the team's defense suffered, especially on the PK.

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