With the way the Coyotes’ season began, it was hard to escape a certain here-we-go-again feeling. Through five games, Arizona was a one-win team that had been shutout three times. The Coyotes’ only points had come via the shootout. And at five-a-side, coach Rick Tocchet’s group hadn’t scored a single goal. That this all came on the heels of a campaign in which the Coyotes lost 11 consecutive games to begin the season, matching a record for start-of-season futility, didn’t help matters.
But these Coyotes aren’t those Coyotes, and come the sixth game of the campaign, all of Arizona’s ills seemed to disappear. Against the Chicago Blackhawks, they scored at 5-on-5, they won in regulation, the depth scoring even showed up and, since then, the Coyotes have been off and running. To wit, over their past five games, Arizona has dropped two of a possible 10 points and have combined to outscore their opponents 22-9, allowing more than a single goal against in just one game.
Truth be told, though, the Coyotes’ performance for the better part of the past two weeks is somewhat reflective of what the team went through last season, and the first 10 games of the 2018-19 campaign has almost been a microcosm of what Arizona experienced in its first season under Tocchet. The first third of the 2017-18 season was an unmitigated disaster. The middle was mediocre. But the final third, well, that was far better than most would have expected. From Feb. 7 onward, the Coyotes posted a 17-9-3 record across 29 games, good for the third-best record in the Pacific Division and sixth-best in the Western Conference.
And if there’s any resemblance between last season’s Coyotes and this season’s group, it’s to the group that showed up through the end of the campaign. However, with the way Arizona has played through its first 10 games this season, it might be safe to say that this team — the one that has won four of its past five and smoked the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-1 on Saturday night — is even better.
Offensively, the Coyotes have had their issues to begin the campaign, to be sure, but they’ve started to spring to life across the past five games. The depth scoring has come through with the likes of Vinnie Hinostroza, Christian Fischer, Michael Grabner, Brad Richardson and Nick Cousins finding the scoresheet, but the attack has undoubtedly been led by Derek Stepan and Clayton Keller, the latter proving himself to be every bit the standout scorer that he appeared during his impressive rookie campaign. In the past five games, Keller has lit the lamp five times and registered six points, but it’s the way he’s been scoring that is most worth noting. Keller appears to be the perfect fit for the new NHL. He’s a fast, elusive scorer who makes truly special plays. The comparisons to Patrick Kane aren’t without reason.
The Coyotes are getting contributions from the back end, too. After a slow and truly disappointing start to last season, newly minted captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson has hit the ground running this season. He has five assists through 10 games and he’s looked like his usual self, which is to say effective at both ends of the ice while logging big minutes. Every blueliner who has played regular minutes in Arizona has at least a point, too, with off-season addition Jordan Oesterle second in scoring with a goal and four points through seven games.
All of the offensive success, however, appears to be the product of stronger three-zone play than anyone has grown used to seeing from the Coyotes. Matter of fact, at this juncture of the season, Arizona could very well be the biggest revelation in terms of defensive structure and underlying numbers. In no way, shape or form do these appear to be your slightly older sibling's Coyotes.
When last season closed, the Coyotes ranked in the bottom-third of the league when it came to controlling play. On a base level, Arizona finished third-last with 29.9 shots per game while allowing the 13th-most shots against per game, 32.2, by season’s end. The advanced statistics told the same story, as well. At 5-on-5, the Coyotes finished the season with a Corsi for, shots for, scoring chances for and high-danger chances for percentages that were all in the bottom 10 of the league. And that makes the early returns in Arizona this season so surprising.
Waking up Tuesday, the Coyotes rank seventh in the NHL in shots for per game (34) and fourth in shots against per game (28.2). And once a possession black hole, Arizona is easily the most surprising team in terms of analytics. The Coyotes’ 53.1 Corsi for percentage ranks fifth in the NHL, up with the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks. The Coyotes keep much the same company in shots for percentage, where their 53.4 percent rate ranks fifth in the NHL. Likewise, Arizona ranks sixth in scoring chances for percentage (53.9). The only percentage that is anywhere near middle-of-the-pack status is high-danger chances, where the Coyotes are tied for 16th at 50.3 percent.
That’s why Arizona paid netminder Antti Raanta the big bucks this summer, though, and after last season’s half-season breakout performance led to a three-year, $12.75-million payday, the Coyotes starting netminder sure seems as though he’s the real deal. In seven games, Raanta is sporting a .921 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average. Backup keeper Darcy Kuemper has flourished in the early going, too, with a .957 SP and 1.34 GAA in three games. All told, the Coyotes’ netminders have teamed up for a .944 SP at 5-on-5, the second-best mark in the league. The good news is that even when the combined SP inevitably dips, Arizona should stay equally as competitive given their six percent shooting percentage at 5-on-5 would suggest the offense has more life in it than we’ve seen to this point.
And maybe, just maybe, the offensive uptick, the steady defense and the strong underlying numbers means that the here-we-go-again feeling is finally a good thing for the Coyotes.