The words "special teams" evoke much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Coyotes fans, and for good reason. The Coyotes have been agonizingly bad on the power play and tantalizingly good on the penalty kill. So what will the Desert Dogs need to do to generate some more consistency?
The Coyotes needed a major rebound on their penalty kill after the 2010-11 season, in which they finished 26th in the NHL (78.4% on PK). The Coyotes were shorthanded 296 times that year, meaning they surrendered a power play goal at a rate of about 1 per 80 minutes of play. That had to change.
Thankfully for the Coyotes, it did. Last season the Coyotes killed off 85.5% of their penalties, good enough for 8th best in the NHL. Equally as important, they took 47 fewer penalties last year, which meant they weren't putting themselves at a disadvantage as often. In total, the Coyotes gave up 36 power play goals, whixh helped them stay in a lot of close games.
The penalty kill unit could be off to a rough start in 2013 however. Boyd Gordon, one the team's critical face-off and penalty kill specialists, injured himself while practicing earlier this week in a collision with Kyle Chipchura. While management isn't saying anything about the extent of Gordon's injury, if he does not play or is not at 100%, the Phoenix PK unit will be less effective. The Coyotes should be buoyed by the return of Zbynek Michalek on defense, who will likely replace Adrian Aucoin's role on the PK. If Gordon is healthy, the 2013 penalty kill unit will look roughly the same as the 2011-12 unit.
The Bad & The Ugly
Let's face it: the Coyotes power play has been awful for as long as most 'Yotes fans can remember. Sadly, there isn't much reason to believe it will be a whole lot better this year. The Coyotes only scored 34 power-play goals, a conversion rate of 13.5%. They also tied for 23rd in the league with 251 power play opportunities, which must improve for two big reasons. The first, and most obvious reason, is that it's difficult to score power play goals if you aren't on the power play very often. If the Coyotes barely manage to average three opportunities per game, there isn't much time for the power play units to figure out the opponent's scheme and exploit any existing vulnerabilities. The other reason the Desert Dogs need to spend more time up a man, is that time spent on the power play is almost always time spent in the neutral or offensive zone. Even if they can't score on every chance, putting the other team on the PK decreases their ability to generate sustained offensive pressure or rhythm.
So what will have to change? For one, the Coyotes' ability to enter the offensive zone has been atrocious. If the power play unit holds the zone and starts cycling, the Coyotes can put opponents on their heels. Once the puck is cleared, it becomes a monumental challenge for the Coyotes to get across the blue-line again. They could potentially utilize quicker players like Lauri Korpikoski on the power play to help stretch the defense so PK units can't simply stack the blue-line and stop the entry from taking place.
The Coyotes also suffer from a lack of fundamental positioning. Too often larger players like Martin Hanzal are unable to screen the goaltender, and when they do a lack of decisiveness from the point gives the defense time to force the Coyotes out of the goalie's line-of-sight. One potential bright-spot this season for the power play could be the arrival of David Rundblad. If he can manage to make the roster, I would expect to see him on the first-team quarterbacking the power play.
The Coyotes' special teams units are a product of their skill-set and style: solid defensive responsibility with inconsistent and weak offensive pushes. In order to be successful in many of these close games where special teams plays could make a big difference, the best way for the Coyotes to succeed is to maximize the amount of power play opportunities, minimize the amount of shorthanded situations and give the even-strength lines the ability to win or lose the game.