NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Arizona Coyotes
The Arizona Coyotes started the 2017-2018 season with higher expectations than previous seasons, but most fans and experts were realistic about just how well the team would perform. It was not a secret that the Coyotes were in the middle of a youth movement, but some of the offseason moves suggested the team was gearing up to enter more of a win now mode. Trading for players like Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta added veteran leadership to a team full of exciting young talent. Of course, this proved to be wrong as the Coyotes again finished near the bottom of the league.
It is no secret that the Coyotes have bought into the analytics movement. John Chayka spoke at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past February about how the team has dove into the analytics pool, both on and off the ice. He spoke about a willingness to acquire players who are always looking to get better and made sure to mention his rookie phenom, Clayton Keller. The use of statistics and analytics is something worth monitoring in Arizona.
Season Bright Spots
It would be impossible to write about the bright spots of the Coyotes without first mentioning Clayton Keller. If not for Mathew Barzal, Keller would have been the favorite to win the rookie of the year. Keller has the speed and skill to succeed at the NHL level for a long time, so it does not come as a surprise that he succeeded on the power play. 20 of Keller’s 65 points came while the Coyotes had the man advantage. For comparisons sake, Jack Eichel produced 20 of his 64 points while on the power play. Of course, Eichel only appeared in 67 games while Keller played all 82, but the point here is that Keller was a very productive player during 5v5 play as well. Keller producing 44 even strength points is a great sign and he is the definite shining star of the organization.
Keller was not the only young player who got ample ice time in Arizona this past season. Players like Brendan Perlini (22), Max Domi (23), Jakob Chychrun (20) and even Dylan Strome (21) were able to play significant minutes for the Coyotes this season. When evaluating players so young the traditional numbers may not be the best measure. For example, Chychrun only had 14 points. However, he showed flashes of being a top end defenseman and his Corsi% of 47.6% was right in line with the rest of his team. While that number is not on par with some of the better teams in the NHL there is something to be said that the players under the age of 24 are not the players that are holding the team back.
We will touch on Domi later, but Dylan Strome has been a topic of conversation as well. Drafted 3rd after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, Strome has not come close to producing at the level of his counterparts. With that being said, his expectations should never have been that high in the first place. Strome was never touted as a generation talent and may need more time to develop, which is totally normal for a 3rd overall pick. An in depth look at Strome’s brief NHL stint does illuminate some bright spots. Strome was a great playmaker, his pass to the slot success rate was 52.8%, one of the best in the league. The doubters will question the sample size, but the Coyotes organization would likely view this as a promising sign. Look for Strome to make more of an impact in Arizona next year.
A bright spot section about the Coyotes would not be complete without the inclusion of star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He has played on some weak teams but has continued to produce at a high level. OEL is a point producing power play quarterback but is also a strong defender. He was frequently able to intercept or block passes (7.2/20min) and turn them into successful offensive zone entries (1.47/20min). His current cap hit is $5.5M which seems like a bargain for his contributions. OEL will be a UFA in 2019 which will be discussed later in this piece.
Antti Raanta performed well enough to earn himself a 3 year, $12.75M contract with the Coyotes. However, that number could have been even higher if he was able to stay healthy. His health is the reason he finds himself on the disappointment list. Raanta posted a 21-17-6 record in his 47 appearances for the Coyotes this past season. His Save% of .930 is among the best in the league, but he was only able to appear in 47 games and was listed on the injury report five separate times throughout the season. Regardless of your opinion on goalie contracts, (I believe that they are WAY too high) it is difficult to argue that Raanta did not perform well, and the Coyotes record would have been considerably better if he was able to appear in more games.
Moving out of the net, some of the biggest issues the Coyotes had relate to the new age of hockey statistics and measures. Possession and zone entries are becoming more and more prominent, and the Coyotes are among the worst in the league at successfully entering the offensive zone. The Coyotes only had 785 controlled entries into the offensive zone with a shot on net following the zone entry. This results in only 9.57 shots on net per game. This means that most of their chances are coming off recovered dump ins or defensive turnovers. The best teams can score and produce on the rush. The game is shifting toward speed and skill and 9.57 shots off controlled entries is not nearly enough. The Columbus Blue Jackets were near the top of the league and they generated 993 shots off controlled entries. The Coyotes will have to hope their youth can help change this before it becomes a common trend.
Young talent can also disappoint because of the high potential that may have been shown in previous seasons. After registering 52 points in his rookie year, Max Domi has failed to reach the 50-point plateau in each of the past two seasons. Domi is an upcoming RFA and the Coyotes will have a difficult decision to make with Domi this offseason. His production dropped again this past year and with so many other young players in the pipeline Domi may lose his spot as one of the team’s top young players. His name has been floated in trade rumors and the Coyotes have shown they are willing to move young talent after trading Anthony Duclair.
The last two disappointments go hand in hand. The Coyotes have forward depth but a look at their prospects shows that the team could use more defenseman in their prospect pool. Pierre-Olivier Joseph is a nice prospect, but he is only 18 years old and is still several years away from the NHL. Players like Kyle Wood and Kyle Capobiaco had solid AHL seasons but do not necessarily project out as top NHL defenseman.
The Coyotes had the 3rd best odds to win the NHL lottery but they were jumped by the Hurricanes and Canadiens in the draft lottery. The Senators have the rights to the fourth pick which means the Coyotes fell to 5th and will miss out on some elite level prospects. No team wants to fall in the lottery and the Coyotes must feel a little snake bit, but the opportunity to select Quinn Hughes could excite the front office and fanbase.
The Coyotes currently have 49 of their 50 allotted contracts in use and still have more than $21M in available cap space. Assistant Captain Brad Richardson is a UFA, at age 33 it is unclear where he fits in the Coyotes vision for the future. Defenseman Luke Schenn and Kevin Connauton, both age 28, are also UFAs and will be looking to increase their $1.25M and $1M dollar contracts. The team will have to decide how much they are willing to pay to keep veteran leadership without taking too much ice time from some of their young players.
The two biggest decisions will come with two of the most important players, Max Domi and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Domi is a restricted free agent and his decline in production suggests a bridge deal may be the smartest option for the Coyotes front office. A two or three-year deal at a reasonable cap hit seems like the smartest option, especially when the other option is committing for 5 years or more. Domi could develop into a nice player but for a team with many other young players committing long term and big money to a player who has declined since his rookie year is not the best option.
The Coyotes should be monitoring the Erik Karlsson situation very closely because they could have a comparable situation on their hands with OEL. Ekman-Larsson may not be on Karlsson’s level, but he certainly is a top pair defenseman and teams might be willing to pay a premium if they are confident enough in their ability to ink him to a long-term deal. He is under contract in Arizona for the 2019 season, but the trade rumors will continue to swirl until he is moved, or he signs in Arizona long term. Ekman-Larsson has been on some losing teams in Arizona and he has said that the money alone will not determine where he chooses to play when he does become a free agent. Despite the claims that he wants to stay in Arizona and John Chayka’s apparent desire to resign the defenseman, the Coyotes should play hard ball make their stance to OEL very clear. If he is not 100% committed to resigning in Arizona by the time the trade deadline rolls around the Coyotes should move him to the highest bidder. Losing a player like Ekman-Larsson would be a significant blow to the team but losing him for nothing in free agency could be the type of move that costs people their jobs.
In conclusion, the Coyotes should improve in 2019 because of their young talent and a potentially healthy Raanta between the pipes, but it might not be smooth sailing just yet. The players may need another year to develop and the Ekman-Larsson situation has the potential to be a dark cloud hovering over the team for the entire offseason and beyond. Look for Arizona to improve next season but I would not expect to see the team in the postseason quite yet.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Montreal Canadiens. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com
JUSTIN WHITE is an intern AFP Analytics. Justin is a graduate of St. John Fisher College where he earned his degree in Sport Management and Statistics. He has worked with the Rochester Americans and members of their coaching staff on various analytics and statistics based projects.