Amid the hot starts in New York and St. Louis, the Arizona Coyotes are flying under the radar as one of the NHL’s better teams this season.
Don’t look now, but the Arizona Coyotes are the fourth best team in the Western Conference. If that fact feels like it came out of nowhere, as it has for a lot of people in the hockey world this season, you’re not alone. Amidst the coach firings, the subtle — and not so subtle — attempts at tanking and trade talks that have dominated the 2019-20 NHL season so far, the Coyotes are quietly having themselves a solid year.
After 28 games this season, the Coyotes hold a 15-9-4 record on the year, as they sit at second place in the Pacific Division. The Edmonton Oilers are the Pacific’s first place team with one more game played than Arizona, and they have a three-point lead over the Coyotes in the standings at the start of December.
Accused of playing “boring” hockey by Canadian hockey media, the Coyotes this season have really been anything but. Though the Coyotes are in the bottom half of the league in terms of goals scored this season — they are averaging 2.79 goals per game — Arizona is doing a stellar job of keeping their opponents out of their net. Only the New York Islanders and the Boston Bruins have allowed fewer goals against this season than the Coyotes, and Arizona’s goal differential of plus-11 is top 10 in the entire NHL.
Leading the charge in net this season has been the duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta. Though not big-name goaltenders on their own, the pair have combined for a .931 save percentage this season that tracks as tied for first with the Bruins, according to Hockey Reference. Kuemper has been especially spectacular this season, as in 18 starts this season the 29-year-old netminder has a .935 save percentage, besting Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck for first place in the first two months of the year.
Kuemper is a career .918 save percentage netminder, but last season in Arizona he put up a .925 save percentage in 55 starts as one of the NHL’s best goaltenders. Since coming over from the Los Angeles Kings in a 2018 trade, Kuemper has revitalized himself — and the Coyotes — over the last few years, and Arizona is reaping the benefits.
The Coyotes, much like the Islanders, have been deploying a defensive system that has kept their opponents to the perimeter of their offensive zone, limiting the high-danger shots their netminders face in a given game.
Arizona has allowed the ninth-most shots against this season (913) according to Hockey Reference but are overall keeping their high-danger chances to a minimum and allowing Kuemper and Raanta to make the necessary saves that have won them 15 hockey games this year.
As for the Coyotes’ offense, a youth movement has swept through Arizona. Four of the Coyotes’ top five point producers this season — Nick Schmaltz, Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller and Conor Garland — are under 25-years-old, with Garland leading the Coyotes with his 10 goals on the season.
The Coyotes are not producing a ton of offense overall this year, but the fact that the majority of their top scorers this season are players under the age of 25 means the future is bright in Arizona.
There are some blemishes to the Coyotes this season. While the team has an impressive road record of 8-3-3, their record at home of 7-6-1 is mediocre and needs to be improved upon as the season goes along. Arizona has lost four of their last six games while in the midst of a tough road schedule that has many still wondering if this team is worthy of their second place spot in the Pacific.
The Coyotes have a three-game East Coast road trip on deck against the middling Blue Jackets and injury-riddled Penguins alongside a tough Flyers team. The road does get easier for Arizona, as they’ll face the Blackhawks twice with games against the Flames and Devils in mid-December after their road trip.
Even though the Coyotes have not played a perfect two months of hockey, they are putting themselves in a great spot to make the postseason. Arizona’s playoff chances are still high even in the midst of this tough stretch, and the team already looks like they’ll be able to surpass the 39 wins they put together just a season ago.
Should the Coyotes keep up their defensive-oriented play — and their goaltending does not diminish — the team could very well be on their way to their first playoff appearance since the 2011-12 season.
For now, though, it’s time to stop sleeping on the Coyotes.