The Arizona Coyotes have no business talking playoffs right now.
After a disastrous 56 point season last year, Arizona bleeds goals at a rate of 3.15 per game. Their best goalie was positing a .901 save percentage before undergoing surgery. They have a 5v5 Corsi For Percentage in the bottom five of the league. Put together, these numbers are a recipe for disaster.
And yet, the Coyotes are just one point out of a playoff spot in the Pacific Division. They've managed to win in spite of poor goaltending, and their offense has stubbornly refused to quiet down. Could Arizona really make the playoffs this year? There's a chance they could, and here's why:
They're Winning in Regulation
The Coyotes are the only team in the Pacific Division to not go to a shootout this season. As a result, they have 16 regulation/overtime wins, which is better than Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Anaheim.
ROW is absolutely critical as the first tiebreaker in determining standings placement. The Coyotes are likely to pick-up a shootout win or two along the way, but so will other teams they're fighting against for playoff positioning. The fact that they are in front now bodes well for the stretch run, because...
The Pacific Division is Bad
Were the NHL to adopt a completely conference based playoff system, six of the West's eight teams would be from the Central Division. The Los Angeles Kings would make it in as a 4th seed, and the Sharks would sneak in as the 8th seed. The bottom four teams in the Conference are in the Pacific.
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet summed up the perplexing nature of the Pacific: even GMs in the division thought certain teams would be out of the hunt by now. They aren't. The Anaheim Ducks - tied with Columbus and Toronto with the worst record in the league - are just four points away from the last playoff spot in the Pacific.
With no clear favorite for a playoff spot outside of the Kings, the Coyotes might be able to take advantage of the division's relative weakness to steal one of the three guaranteed spots.
This time last year, Arizona had 26 points, which was 15 points behind the Los Angeles Kings for the last playoff spot. This year, they are only eight points better, but they are also only one point away from third place. Arizona is winning more than they did last year, but the rest of division is winning fewer games too.
The Coyotes May Beat The Shooting Percentage Game
Despite some of the worst goaltending in the league, the Coyotes' PDO is 100.9, which is actually above the long-term mean of 100.0. How are they doing that?
Arizona is shooting 9.7% at even-strength this season, which is the best percentage in the league. For comparison's sake, the Chicago Blackhawks are shooting 6.1%, the Montreal Canadiens are shooting 7.1%, and the Dallas Stars are shooting 8.5%. Arizona is leading the league despite only taking 26.5 shots per game, which is 29th in the NHL.
We have mountains of evidence that suggests Arizona's shooting proclivity is not sustainable long-term. The Calgary Flames last year, the Colorado Avalanche the year before, and the Toronto Maple Leafs before them are all teams that shot well above average and made the playoffs. Their subsequent struggles are well documented.
But to make the playoffs this year, the Coyotes don't need their stellar shooting percentage to last long-term. They just need it to last for another 50 or so games. That is considerably more realistic than expecting Anthony Duclair to score on over 25% of his shots for the rest of his career.
Let's be clear: the Arizona Coyotes are a long ways away from being a Stanley Cup contender. Making the playoffs this year doesn't mean the team is fast-tracking their rebuild, or that advanced stats are "wrong". What it does mean is that the Coyotes were good enough to take advantage of a unique combination of circumstances to earn a spot in the postseason that they otherwise should not have. Nothing more.
- Louis Domingue's first shut-out of the season was as much a product of the team playing considerably better defense in front of him as it was his own timely saves. That performance should illustrate how defense and goaltending are inextricably linked.
- I suspect one performance isn't enough to convince Don Maloney that he doesn't have to make a move to acquire a goaltender. But if Domingue can string together a few more +.910 save percentage nights, then maybe Maloney turns his attention elsewhere.
- Oliver Ekman-Larsson is on pace to record a career best 51 points this season. While he's only 14th among defensemen in points this year, his 44 point campaign last season was only good for 22nd overall. The big difference from this year to last year is his assist totals; OEL already has 13 this season from only 20 all of last season.
- The next closest Coyotes' defenseman to OEL is Michael Stone with 11 points. He's tied for 61st among NHL defensemen. After him is Connor Murphy, who is tied for 106th with six points.
- If the Coyotes are going to have any hope of creating a little separation in the playoff chase, their early-January swing through Western Canada is going to be absolutely crucial.
- By the time the Coyotes play Los Angeles on Saturday evening, they will have gone 27 days without playing a Pacific Division team. That helps explain why the team's disastrous road-trip did not really affect their playoff standing; none of those games were four-point swings.
- Martin Hanzal's return to the lineup Saturday evening was a perfect illustration of what he brings to the team when healthy. His CorsiRel is 4.5% better than the team's as a whole. He's been a better possession player than the rest of his team every season except for the lockout year.
- It isn't just that Hanzal is a good center that makes his presence in the line-up so important. It's how he affects the rest of the depth chart. The Coyotes have used a combination of Brad Richardson, Viktor Tikhonov, and Kyle Chipchura in his place.
- Hanzal playing reduces the minute demands on those three while drawing them in against competition more comparable to their skillsets. Simply put, everyone is better when they don't have to be Hanzal.