Phoenix Coyotes mid-season review: consistently inconsistent

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Halfway through the season, the Coyotes sit with a 20-12-9 record, good for 8th place in the Western Conference. They have regressed to the mean after a scorching hot start.

Who are the real Phoenix Coyotes?

A tough question to answer considering the team's contrasting levels of success over the course of the first half of the 2013-14 season.

From opening night until mid-November, the Coyotes were 14-4-3, good for the third best record in the NHL. Since their 6-3 shellacking of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 16, Phoenix is 6-8-6, clinging to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

A stark contrast between their opening 21 games and their last 20.

The Coyotes' home record tells the same story. A magnificent 9-0-1 start in the friendly confines of Jobing.com Arena was washed away with a 2-5-2 record since.

"We think we're better than (how we've played recently). We think we can be better than that, and I expect us to be better than that," Shane Doan said.

Did something magically awful happen to the Coyotes after Nov. 16? No, but injury and regression finally caught up to them.

Over a three week period following the Lightning game, the Coyotes placed Zbynek Michalek and Lauri Korpikoski on injured reserve, Derek Morris left the team for personal reasons and Doan contracted a form of Rocky Mountain fever. Two top-6 forwards and two top-4 defensemen suddenly out of action.

While injuries to key positions definitely impacted the team negatively, their hot start was unsustainable.

The Coyotes could not maintain their uncharacteristically high offensive output partially because of the injuries, but more importantly, their shooting percentage and PDO regressed to the mean.

Through the first 21 games, Phoenix had a 10.8 shooting percentage. In the last 20 games, their shooting percentage was 7.0. In perspective, the Coyotes' yearly shooting percentages since coach Dave Tippett took over: 8.4, 9.1, 8.7 and 8.2.

In all likelihood, the Coyotes' true shooting percentage is higher than it has been over the last 20 games, but will ultimately settle in the same range as years past.

Why is this the case? Shooting percentage (and save percentage) is largely luck based and is usually skewed in small sample sizes. This is where PDO comes in.

PDO shows teams (and players) that are benefiting from luck and those who are not. Read more about PDO here, but it essentially boils down to the theory that every shot on goal is either saved or scored. The PDO adds a team's shooting percentage to its save percentage. Therefore, the PDO of the NHL is 100.0 (percent). Years of data show that PDO heavily regresses to the mean of 100.0.

Phoenix's hot start had a lot to do with its high PDO -- 102.4. During their recent struggles, it dipped to a lowly 97.2. Over the course of a season almost all PDOs fall within a range of a low of 98 and a high of 102, with most teams in the 99-101 range.

Heavy regression of their shooting (10.8 to 7.0) and save (91.6 to 90.2) percentages from the first to second quarter of the season brought the Coyotes back down to Earth after a scorching hot start.

The regression to the mean was inevitable, but that doesn't mean the offensive and goaltending issues are not troubling.

"We've been inconsistent. Our goaltending has been inconsistent," Tippett said. "Our scoring was good early and we kind of let that down. Our goals against is nowhere where is has to be...those continue to be areas of concern."

Mike Smith's numbers (2.89 GAA, .911 SV%) are a lot closer to his numbers last season (2.58 GAA, .910 SV%) than his spectacular first season with the team (2.21 GAA, .930 SV%). More is expected of the 31-year-old goalie who signed a six-year, $34 million contract in the offseason.

Smith has had stretches of success this season, including early November and all but New Year's Eve in December. But, he's also had bad stretches, including the end of November, when he lost four consecutive games and had a save percentage of .871.

Before this season, Smith had never gone more than 25 games without a shutout. In 35 starts this season, zero shutouts.

Phoenix's defense looks a little different now than it did at the start of the season. Third pairing mainstay, Rostislav Klesla, spent time in the minors for the first time in his career. Former first round pick Connor Murphy made his NHL debut and has remained in the top-4, while clearly jumping Michael Stone and David Rundblad on the depth chart.

Injuries on the blue line hurt, but neutral zone turnovers and a tendency to jump up in the play have led to more odd-man rushes than the team is used to. Turnovers and poor penalty kills have sent the Coyotes' goals against average skyward.

The lack of a team shutout is as much on the defensive corps as it is on the goaltenders.

Add Phoenix's power play to the litany of things in its inconsistency box. After spending the majority of the season solidly in the top-10, the Coyotes have fallen out of that group. Going 0-for-13 in the last few games hasn't helped.

The addition of Newell Brown behind the bench did wonders for a much maligned power play unit at the start of the season, but the Yotes need to rekindle that early season success in their second half playoff push.

On the other hand, Phoenix's penalty kill has been consistent -- consistently mediocre.

A lack of faceoff wins and a tendency to scramble has doomed the Coyotes to one of the league's five worst penalty killing units.

Only one center has a shorthanded faceoff percentage over 40 percent, Antoine Vermette (60.8 percent). All other centers combined to win only 37 percent of shorthanded faceoffs.

If Phoenix can find a steady second unit PK center, internally or externally, and shore up body positioning down low, its penalty killing unit should regain the success it experienced in previous seasons.

One improvement the Coyotes have made in their last 20 games was possession. The Coyotes either tied or led their opponents in Corsi attempts in 17 of their last 20 games as opposed to 10 times in their first 21 games. Further evidence that shooting percentage is largely luck based.

5-on-5 Corsi for % PDO G/G GA/G PP% PK%
Phoenix Coyotes 50.5% (15th) 100.8 (9th) 2.90 (7th) 3.00 (25th) 18.4% (12th) 78.1% (26th)
League median 50.4% 100.0 2.62 2.67 18.2% 82.1%

***

Attendance has been as inconsistent as the team. Call it a delayed effect from the team's early success or chalk it up to time off around the holidays, attendance went up as the Coyotes went down.

Through 10 home games, the Coyotes sat dead last in attendance with an average of 12,415 with one sellout. Since Nov. 21, the average attendance rose to 13,972 with three sellouts (good for 28th in the NHL over that time frame).

It's no secret attendance needs to improve. Phoenix still sits last in the NHL with an average attendance of 13,152, but the recent upswing bodes well for a team that has 22 home games in the season's second half.

***

So who are the real Coyotes? A team that's as good as their overall record shows, regardless of the path they took to get there.


Team leaders (min. 10 games)
Goals Shane Doan, Mikkel Boedker, Antoine Vermette (12)
Assists Keith Yandle (22)
Points Mike Ribeiro, Radim Vrbata (29)
PPP Keith Yandle (14)
Corsi for % David Rundblad (55.3%)
Blocks Zbynek Michalek (72)
Pen +/- David Moss (+6)

*All data used is 5-on-5 unless otherwise noted. Special thanks to Extra Skater for raw data compiled by author.

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