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The Coyotes' continued growth gives hope that this actually could be the year

In each season under coach Rick Tocchet, Arizona has taken a step forward. And after last season's narrow playoff miss, there are early signs that these Coyotes could be prepared to do what no group in the past seven seasons has done and punch a ticket to the playoffs.

Sure, it was only two games into the season, but with only a single goal through two full contests and a certain is-this-the-year question circling around the Coyotes coming into the campaign, one couldn’t help but wonder if the stage had been set for another year of unfulfilled promise in Arizona.

But in the two-plus weeks since, coach Rick Tocchet’s group has done just about everything to ease those concerns. It started with a 4-1 victory over the expected Stanley Cup contender Vegas Golden Knights. That was followed by a narrow defeat at the hands of the projected Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche. And Arizona’s good fortune has since continued on with four consecutive wins for the Coyotes, who have now downed the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers to run up a six-game point streak that sees them sitting in a wild-card spot entering the final week of the season’s opening month.

It’s one thing for Arizona to be winning in the early part of the season, though. It’s another altogether for them to be winning games that they’ve so clearly controlled. And at the risk of drinking the Coyotes Kool-Aid far too soon, there are reasons beyond an early season point streak to believe that there’s actually something to this Arizona team and reason to believe this actually can be the year the franchise takes a step forward. In particular, the processes put in place by the coaching staff to propel this team to victory.

After a campaign in which the Coyotes were a middling group for much of the campaign, the early season underlying numbers reflect a feistier Arizona side that is more dogged on the forecheck, stronger in possession and not quite as easy to generate opportunities against. Matter of fact, across the board through the early part of the season, the Coyotes have shown improvement. Come the close of the 2018-19 campaign, Arizona finished with a 48.9 Corsi percentage, 49.8 shots percentage, 48.5 scoring chance percentage, 48.1 high-danger chance percentage and 49.7 expected goals percentage at five-a-side. And while we can’t go making any proclamations some sort of overnight transformation into a possession juggernaut, the eight-game output in Arizona is something to behold in comparison. To wit, the Coyotes current 5-on-5 numbers – a 52.4 Corsi percentage, 54.4 shots percentage, 54.4 scoring chance percentage, 59.1 high-danger chance percentage and an excellent 57 expected goals percentage – are all improvements over last season’s performance.

More than percentages, though, the actual rates for and against also suggest the Coyotes have progressed in their third season under coach Rick Tocchet. In all the categories noted above, the only per-60-minute number that has moved in the wrong direction when compared to last season is the high-danger chances for, of which Arizona has generated 0.6 fewer. Again, much like the percentages, the rates stand to change given how early we are in the campaign, but it is undoubtedly a positive that there’s been tangible and sustained success in the processes that lead to results through the first few weeks of this campaign.

Analytics aside, any team is only as good as the actual talent it ices, and the Coyotes have received a few brilliant performances, the best of which has been from goaltender Darcy Kuemper. Brought in late in the 2017-18 campaign, primarily as a backup option, Kuemper has been exceptional early and it’s beginning to get to the point that we have to take what we’re seeing out of the 29-year-old as a reflection of his true ability.

It’s incredibly unlikely he maintains his .944 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average through the remainder of the campaign. That we know. But a precipitous decline that sees him become nothing more than a replacement-level goaltender seems less plausible by the game. Consider that over the past two seasons, Kuemper ranks 11th in minutes played among NHL netminders, and if we can agree that his six games this season aren’t a large enough sample to make any assertions, we can probably also agree that more than 3,600 minutes is a large enough body of work that we can start to believe in Kuemper’s play.

When measured against like goaltenders – there are 43 who have played at least 2,000 minutes at all strengths in an NHL crease since the start of 2018-19 – Kuemper ranks third with a .927 SP, fourth with a 2.26 GAA and his .52 goals-saved above average per 60 minutes of play is the fourth-best in the league. It’s not as though Kuemper has played in some trap-era New Jersey Devils system, either. His 30.8 shots against per 60 minutes puts him 25th, in the middle of the 43-goaltender pack. Admittedly, though, he has been well-insulated against high-danger attempts. His 7.9 are the 11th-fewest against per 60 minutes among the aforementioned group goaltenders. When limiting it to 5-on-5 play, Kuemper’s numbers take a dip, though only slightly. He ranks 15th in SP (.928), 12th in GAA (2.18) 15th in GSAA (.26), but he also ranks 18th in shots against (30.3) and faces the 13th-fewest high-danger shots against (7.6) per 60 minutes among the 46 goaltenders with at least 1,500 minutes played.

Overall, that’s enough to believe in Kuemper as a legitimate 1A netminder for the Coyotes, and that Arizona possesses a solid 1B option in Antti Raanta all but ensures that goaltending won’t be an issue for Tocchet’s team this season. But the crease isn’t the only area where the Coyotes will need to excel by committee. It’s been clear through the early going that Arizona’s desire is to lean not on a top six but a top nine, and that’s been evident through the distribution of minutes.

As it stands, the Coyotes are the NHL’s only team without at least four forwards with an average ice time above 16 minutes. Instead, while the bulk of the ice time up front has been split between Derek Stepan, Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel, there’s been a seven-skater group responsible for shouldering the load in the middle of the lineup. Leading the way has been Nick Schmaltz, whose nine-point performance through the first eight games has been a minor revelation, but the likes of Carl Soderberg, Conor Garland and Christian Dvorak have been consistent contributors. And the by-committee approach is working. After the offensive struggle that was the opening games of the season, the Coyotes offense has rounded into form, averaging three goals per game.

That’s not to say that any and all hand-wringing about the attack is over. It’s decidedly not. Arizona still has one of the lowest five-a-side shooting percentages in the league at 6.7 percent and relying on the power play to drive a large portion of the offense is a risk. But with the additions of Kessel and Soderberg to bolster the top three lines, the hope is the 5-on-5 shooting percentage will begin to even out through the campaign, particularly with continued success generating attempts, shots and legitimate scoring opportunities.

All of this, every single bit, comes with the it’s-still-early caveat, to be sure, but the signs of continued growth are there. From the late-season climb in 2017-18 to the narrow post-season miss in 2018-19, the Coyotes have consistently taken steps forward under Tocchet. And maybe now, after seven long, playoff-less years in Arizona, the time has come for the franchise to take that final step forward. If nothing else, the early season success and current six-game point streak could be just the start the Coyotes need to hang around in the wild-card race come season’s end.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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