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Arizona Coyotes exit All-Star Break with many questions and few answers

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With 33 games to go this season, the Arizona Coyotes are still searching for answers.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Coyotes have stubbornly refused to bow out of the playoff picture despite incredibly low expectations before the season began. Yet as the All-Star Break gave the Coyotes some desperately needed time off, Arizona's roller coaster ride is on the verge of sliding off the rails.

What are Arizona's biggest weaknesses? What's keeping them in the playoffs? What do the Coyotes need to do to hang on to their playoff spot in the Pacific Division? And how can the team get better without sacrificing too many future assets?

Warning Signs Ahead

Arizona has done a remarkable job beating the odds all season. The defense is currently tied for 26th in the NHL with 2.96 goals allowed per game, a number which has hovered in the bottom five of the league for almost the entire year.

More problematic for the Coyotes is their continued reliance on good luck to buoy their bad possession numbers. The Coyotes' 47.2 5v5 Corsi For Percentage is actually worse than the mark the team set last season. The difference is Arizona's PDO went from 97.2 last season (2nd worst in the league) to 101.0 (tied for 4th highest). Their shooting percentage at even-strength went from 5.7% last year (on par with what this year's Anaheim Ducks are shooting) to 8.4% this year.

Some improvement in shooting percentage is to be expected with the influx of talent like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. But the overwhelming statistical consensus is that such a massive increase from year to year is not sustainable by itself.

Who is Louis Domingue?

While his sample size this season is still smaller than every other goaltender in the division, Louis Domingue continues to impress for the Coyotes. Take a look at how Domingue's numbers stack up to the rest of the Pacific Division:

The three highlighted columns are 5v5 adjusted save percentage, save percentage on medium-danger scoring chances, and save percentage on high-danger scoring chances. Domingue leads the division in adjusted save percentage, and is the runaway leader in the division for medium-danger scoring chances.

As the Mike Smith Experience has proven, one season of great goalie play is incredibly risky to base future contracts on. But it's impossible to deny that Domingue has been a revelation in net, and quite honestly Domingue should start earning Calder Trophy consideration should the Coyotes remain in the playoff race this season.

Path to the Playoffs

When the regular season resumes, the Coyotes will be ahead of the Anaheim Ducks by two points for the final Pacific Division playoff spot, and three points behind the Nashville Predators for the second Wild Card spot should they fall out of third place in the Pacific.

Admittedly, that's not much of a margin for error, but the Coyotes have been in a dogfight all season and have given as well as they've got, so it's possible for them to walk the line and make the postseason if they can do three things:

  1. Stop the Bleeding on the Penalty Kill - The Coyotes average 3.4 shorthanded situations per game. Their penalty kill is effective just 76.6% of the time. That puts the Coyotes dangerously close to giving up one power play goal per game on average. That's not good enough. They don't have to become a Top-10 PK unit, but they do need to escape the bottom-five.
  2. Keep Winning Games in Regulation or Overtime - Arizona has the regulation/overtime win tiebreaker over Anaheim, Vancouver, and Nashville. There are far fewer shootouts this season compared to last season, which means every shootout win means a lot in the standings. If the Coyotes can get it done without resorting to the skills competition, they may be able to just edge out a team or two at season's end.
  3. Keep Playing the Best Goaltender - Mike Smith will likely return by the end of February. He will probably get a couple of starts to get back into action. But if Louis Domingue continues to play +.920 save percentage hockey through the end of the month, he should receive the lion's share of starts.

Room for Improvement

General Manager Don Maloney is in a tough position. The Coyotes are pretty clearly beating expectations, despite receiving a harsh reality check from 2013 to 2015. Maloney has the unenviable task of trying to improve his roster without sacrificing too many roster spots and prospects for rental players.

The top priority on Arizona's wish list ought to be another puck-moving defenseman who can play in the top-four. Kevin Shattenkirk is the name that seems to come up most often, but the Coyotes might also want to inquire about the availability of guys like Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, and even Dougie Hamilton (again).

Each of those defensemen is signed through at least next season, and all are under 30 years old. The Coyotes could theoretically get several productive seasons out of any of those players just as their forwards enter their scoring prime.

Final Thoughts

There really is no reason to think the Coyotes can't make it all the way to the playoffs; they've had practically no cushion to speak of all season long, and even a bumpy end to January was still not enough to prevent the Coyotes from recording 14 points in the month.

It's going to be tough skating, especially now that the Ducks appear to have remembered how to score goals. But the Arizona Coyotes continue to defy the odds, and may be able to do so all the way into April.