Heading into the 2019-20 season, it felt like the Arizona Coyotes would be better. After all, the team improved by 10 wins year over year in coach Rick Tocchet’s sophomore season and the Coyotes flirted with a playoff spot. Then, GM John Chayka pulled off a massive deal to bring Phil Kessel to town from Pittsburgh.
But first place in the division? Didn’t see that one coming.
We’re into December however and that’s where Arizona is – on pace for even more wins in Tocchet’s third year behind the bench. For a franchise that hasn’t made the post-season since 2012, this is a pretty substantial development. So how are they doing it?
First off, Kessel’s not the main catalyst. In fact, the veteran sniper currently sits fourth in team scoring. And really, there is no standout on the team; the leading scorer right now is center Nick Schmaltz with 20 points in 30 games – not even close to a point-per-game pace.
If anything, there is a familiar vibe to this success story and it comes from Long Island. My theory? Arizona has become the Desert Islanders.
Under coach Barry Trotz, the New York Islanders stomped their way up the Eastern Conference ladder last season by playing great team defense, scoring by committee and employing two terrific goaltenders.
The Islanders are doing it again this season (with Semyon Varlamov joining Thomas Greiss in net and Robin Lehner off to Chicago) and are actually looking even more impressive in the process. New York has been one of the best defensive teams in the league, but one of the few teams near them in that department is Arizona.
The Coyotes have given up just 70 goals through 30 games, compared to 65 in 27 games for the Islanders. The Boston Bruins are in that company too, with 69 goals-against in 29 appearances. When it comes to high-danger scoring chances, Arizona and Boston are very stingy, according to the website Natural Stat Trick. Surprisingly, the Islanders are not very strong in this category, but clearly they have the netminding to bail them out when necessary.
As for Arizona, the netminding tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta has been great, particularly Kuemper. The 6-foot-5 stopper is rocking a .937 save percentage through 20 games, establishing himself as one of the best in the NHL right now. Raanta has been almost as good in a backup role, putting up his own sparkling .924 save percentage in 10 appearances.
Ever since the most recent lockout, the idea of puck possession hockey as the key to victory has been a strong one. Corsi stars such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston rode that stat to Stanley Cups, while teams that bucked the trend (Colorado, Toronto) came crashing back to earth after surprising success in certain seasons.
Having said that, the Islanders were one of the NHL’s worst possession teams last season and they not only made the playoffs, but they swept Pittsburgh in the first round. Once again this year, New York is at the bottom of the table in Corsi percentage, but it doesn’t seem to matter. And the Coyotes have joined them in the basement (the rebuilding Rangers are 31st overall), yet find more success than ever.
Which is a long way of saying that there are exceptions to every rule. Arizona may not have an elite scorer driving its offense, but they do have a ton of guys who have already hit double-digits in points and it seems to be working. In a topsy-turvy Pacific Division, the Coyotes have clawed their way to the top. Can they put The Fear into teams like the Islanders have in the East? That’s the next step.
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