Given the team's recent play and everyone from the fans and media to the players and coaches expressing concern about the direction of the club and offering different ideas on what needs to be fixed, it's probably a good time to take a look at the possible reasons why the Phoenix Coyotes sit in 9th place in the Western Conference. My colleague, Jaime Eisner, wrote an excellent piece last week detailing the season so far and what areas the team still needs to improve, including making a move or two. I'll touch on some of the issues he brought up in this piece as well.
The Coyotes are a franchise who has had little room for injuries or mistakes, even under Dave Tippett's successful stewardship. While this is mainly due to budget constraints, it is also a result of mistakes made prior to Tippett's and Don Maloney's arrivals in the Valley.
Interviews with players and coaches are frequently littered with comments about how the team must stick to the system because there is little room for error given they aren't the most highly skilled club in the league. In this instance the cliches actually ring true. The team doesn't have elite level skill in droves like the Sharks or the organizational depth of a team like the Kings. Therefore, when they do have key players miss time, the chances for success are greatly diminished. This, more than anything else, has been the source of the Coyotes' problems.
On the whole, the club this season hasn't had a superfluous number of injuries. As a matter of fact, Phoenix's 84 games lost due to injury is actually a fairly low number at this point of the season. The problem is only one of those games was due to a depth forward--the position most clubs can almost always afford an injury at--missing time.
Players missing the other 83 games are among those the club expects to play significant special teams minutes and play against the opposition's top lines at even strength. Almost all of the club's man games lost this season have come from (1) their top six defensemen (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris, David Schlemko,and Rostislav Klesla), (2) their captain, Shane Doan, who at the time he left the lineup was the team's leading goal scorer and (3) third line winger, Lauri Korpikoski, who has slotted into a second line role alongside Martin Hanzal. Hanzal himself was out one game due to injury and two games due to suspension earlier in the season as well. Center Jeff Halpern who has seen plenty of time on the Yotes PK missed five games due to injury not long after he joined the squad. In addition to games lost due to injury, Morris missed another five games due to his father passing away.
Injuries to players, who not only play heavy even strength minutes but also heavy special teams time, have a ripple effect up and down the lineup. Lines and defensive pairings have been juggled constantly due to players coming in and out of the lineup. This results in players taking minutes for which they aren't accustomed or playing opponents they don't normally play.
Perhaps the clearest example of these mismatches is seen on the Phoenix penalty kill. All the players listed earlier, besides Doan, play PK minutes. Ekman-Larsson and Michalek play more PK minutes than anyone else and Klesla and Morris normally play the remainder of the PK blueline minutes. After those four, Schlemko is usually next in terms of minutes played on the PK by a defenseman. Is it any wonder why the Coyotes have surrendered 34 power play goals this season? Obviously, cutting down on the number of power play chances would help, as would finding a long term replacement for Boyd Gordon. But the team's best penalty killing defenders not even being on the ice makes the other two issues almost moot.
Furthermore, the injury substitutes were never going to match the production of those they replaced. For example, Coyotes rookie Connor Murphy averaged over two minutes of penalty kill time a game during his 21 games with the team. If the team had all of their defensemen healthy, it is unlikely Murphy would have spent anytime in the desert at all this season. At only 20 years old, Murphy looks like he may turn out to be a quality NHL blueliner in the future, but he's still extremely young with all of 21 games of NHL experience. Few young rookies succeed immediately in high pressure roles, especially defensemen.
When a team is forced to put rookies like Murphy and Jordan Szwarz and vets who have bounced between the AHL and the NHL like Tim Kennedy and Gilbert Brule in positions where they normally would never be slotted, the likely outcome is more than a few marks in the loss column. That the Coyotes are sitting just outside the playoffs at this juncture of the season with all that has transpired should be seen in a more positive light than it seems to be locally.
The Coyotes may have invested a bit too much money/term in a veteran goalie with one above average season under his belt, but neither Mike Smith nor his new backup Thomas Greiss has performed horrifically. In fact, Greiss has performed better than anyone could have expected given his career numbers coming into the season. In Mike Smith's case, while he could have performed better on occasion, I'd argue the performance of the team's blueline and forwards in all three zones have impacted the Coyotes far more than Smith's play in net. No goalie can make save after save on uncovered guys below the circles. Smith also hasn't had many bounces go his way either. My bet is we'll see a slightly better Smith going forward, but if his numbers improve significantly, it won't just be because of his own play.
While Smith has taken plenty of criticism, the one item which hasn't surfaced often since the final training camp roster cuts is the issue of the team needing another top six left wing. It's not a coincidence that Hanzal and Vrbata's line is struggling a bit defensively. The pair's Corsi numbers are actually quite impressive given the wingers and blueliners they've been paired up with this year.
However, their poor on-ice save percentage numbers would likely return to normal with a healthy blueline and a more skilled left winger. At some point either Korpikoski is going to have to earn the job or GM Don Maloney is going to have to make a move. Even if Coach Tippett were to move Vrbata like he did during the Ducks game on Saturday, they will still have a hole at left wing without adding more skill.
The Phoenix hockey club, as currently constructed, was never likely to win another Pacific Division crown even if healthy. On the other hand, when healthy the club can, and should, contend for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The good news is the club is getting healthy. Tippett may finally have his full complement of players to choose from for the first time since the middle of October as Zbynek Michalek may be returning to action this week. No player outside of possibly Doan has been missed as much as Michalek has during his two stints on the shelf.
As noted in the introduction, the Coyotes are only one spot out of the playoff mix at the moment. Just like their play of late, the situation isn't as bad as it looks. The Minnesota Wild sit four points ahead of Phoenix in 8th place, but the Yotes have three games in hand. Mike Ribeiro has quietly had the type of season Phoenix expected him to when he was added to the roster this summer. And, before I start reaching for panic buttons, I want to see what this club looks like with Z back in the lineup. Maloney made a similar statement in his comments to Fox Sports Arizona's Craig Morgan over the weekend.
One final note: The Desert Dogs are 3-0 this season when Tippett hasn't had to concern himself with injuries. Let's hope he gets more opportunities to choose his lineups from the organization's full complement of players.