Well here we are folks, ten games into the season and a .500 team thanks to a three game win streak that has seen us give up a total of three goals. Two if you believe that offside is still a rule that exists. Anyway, it’ a far cry from our 0-10 start last year, in which we surrendered 4.4 goals per game. So with some relative optimism, let’s get down to the questions.
1. What’s been the biggest difference between the team this year and last year?
Brandon: watching the team play now, it’s even more apparent that the players struggled to adapt to or understand Tocchet’s system. Last year, they understood he wanted them to play with speed, but failed to understand the structure, and it showed--when you’re not sure what you’re doing, there’s no way you can know what the rest of your teaammates are doing or where they’re supposed to be. Fast forward to our start this year and it looks like the team finally gets it. They’ve been energized for every game, have forechecked hard, and have put pucks on net. After our early scoring drought, we’ve even managed to make small changes like crashing the net and not always shoot high glove without completely going off the rails. This is a team that is comfortable with their system and it’s making for some darned exciting hockey. I’m going to cheat here and insert some visuals from HockeyViz comparing our shot volume this year compared to our first year under Tocchet and our last year under Tippett (note the abundance of red this year in front of the net):
Carl: Part of the problem with the team last season seemed to be a lack of conditioning which definitely seems to be solved. Arizona also seems to be able to control the pace of the game in a way that they haven’t in a long while. Part of this seems to be that the team is used to the Tocchet system, but I think that Tocchet is also more comfortable with his team. Tocchet was billed as a player’s coach and the first half of last season really didn’t make a good case for that being true.
Rose: I would say the biggest difference is confidence. Confidence in knowing they’re playing the system correctly, confidence their teammates will be in the right places at the right time and confidence in the goaltending. At the beginning of last season it was noticeable that the team was hesitant if not outright insecure. For fans, no lead felt safe and the last five minutes of a game were downright nerve-racking. This season, despite having three shut outs in their first four games, the team kept playing well outshooting and out-chancing opponents. Now they’re getting rewarded and the fans confidence has returned too.
Paul: A settled team. I agree with everyone else that they’re used to Tocchet’s system and playing the way he wants them to but crucially the players now seem like they’re fully convinced it’s the way they want to play, too. Also this year players know their roles and have accepted them fully to work towards the greater whole-something you didn’t feel they had last year. But having two legit NHL goalies healthy, a bunch of players with points to prove (Oesterle, Hinostroza, etc.) is huge. This is a team with legit Vegas potential in terms of how mentality can carry them a long way, and I think we’ve seen that this October as soon as they fought through the early adversity.
2. We started the season getting shut out in three of four games and have done a complete 180, scoring 24 goals in the last five games. What the heck happened?
Brandon: Those final changes I just mentioned above certainly help. So did sticking with the system - we were outshooting and largely outplaying each opponent we faced. It was only a matter of time until the results poured in. Kudos to the players for sticking with it.
Carl: The team definitely seems to be going to the front of the net more which is definitely helping. But I think the biggest difference is probably a bit of luck. Looking at the first 4 games I really don’t think the team played badly, and the fact that they were shut out so many times is kinda crazy. I think that luck plays a big part in why they were shut out so many times, and luck is playing part of some of the goals recently, I don’t expect us to score 7 goals against a team once every 10 games.
Rose: The team started off the season running into some very good goalies. Additionally, they weren’t challenging them often enough with screens or cross-ice passing. A little practice time can go a long way and cleaning up those issues has paid off.
Paul: We talk about luck, but as well as on-ice luck the return of Galchenyuk enabling the SPF line to form and hit a groove at the same time as Lawson Crouse finally found his spot and rhythm is a massive stroke of good October luck, which the Yotes never got last year until about January. Crouse coming in onto that top line was a major jump because it balanced the lines and enabled instant chemistry - he’s playing more of the role he played in junior as a legit power forward rather than a bottom-six grinder now and after a year to hone his game doing that in the AHL he looks far happier doing it. See also: Dylan Strome being allowed to play as a creative center more.
3. Who or what has stood out the most in a positive way/surprised you the most?
Brandon: For once, there’s a lot of bright spots on the team, so this is hard to narrow down. Dylan Strome, despite his recent scratching, has been miles above where he started last season. His speed is no longer an apparent weakness, he’s more active without the puck, and he’s done a much better job of keeping his feet moving when he does have it. Special mention to Lawson Crouse, who I worried about after being sent down to the AHL for the majority of last season. He could be this year’s Christian Fischer.
Carl: I am honestly more surprised by the penalty kill, which is probably the least discussed aspect of the Coyotes game. Sure the fact that we have more short handed goals then allowed power play goals gets noted, but the Coyotes penalty kill is next level. I want to make sure to highlight the play of Brad Richardson, I definitely underestimated him when he was re-signed and I’m happy to say that he is making me look foolish for doubting him.
Rose: Keeping in mind that it’s still early, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of Vinnie Hinostroza when he was acquired. I was hopeful that he would be a good addition because he had good underlying numbers. I’m very happy to see him giving Clayton Keller a run for his money as the team’s leading scorer.
Paul: Lawson Crouse. But also Hinostroza as Rose says. He’s playing like a man with a huge point to prove. Jordan Oesterle has been far above what I expected him to be (“serviceable 3rd pair” was my expectation and honestly he could probably jump up and down the lineup with ease). Brad Richardson’s been awesome too, but he’s massively underrated anyway and all we’re seeing now is what he did all year as the fourth-line pivot last year - it’s just now the rest of the team are firing around him, too.
4. Who or what has stood out the most in a negative way/disappointed you the most?
Brandon: I’m going to out myself here and say I can’t understand why there was so much animosity directed at Richard Panik last season. Overall, I thought he ended up being one of our better players down the stretch. So I came into this year expecting him to drive some of our possession metrics like he has done historically on the previous teams he’s been on and to show some veteran savvy in a top-9 that is largely wet behind the ears. Needless to say he has not produced and has found himself watching two of our most recent games from the press box. He scored our backbreaking seventh goal when he whiffed on a shot against the Lightning, so here’s hoping that he can keep it going from there.
Carl: It’s not much but I’m disappointed by the power play. I can’t really point to anything specific that I don’t like about it but I was surprised that its at the bottom of the league. Hopefully more time with Alex Galchenyuk will help the power play.
Rose: It’s so early that I don’t really want to call anyone a disappointment but since Brandon is making me: it’s Brendan Perlini. Maybe my expectations were too high but I thought his skill and shot would’ve helped the offense more. His production is just not high enough. This comparison is probably not fair but Alex Galchenyuk has played in seven fewer games this season and is one goal away from matching Perlini’s goal/assist totals. I genuinely hope he figures it out.
Paul: Going with Perlini as well, although with the big qualifier that I’m saying this just as he appears to have found a line that’ll serve him well in the SPF line. Hopefully we’ll be back here in ten games time talking about how he’s the player that’s turned it around.
5. Who has been the best off-season acquisition?
Brandon: Frankly, I’ve been a fan of all of our off-season acquisitions. Ilya Lyubushkin has come over from the KHL and done a decent job of being a physical defenseman in a league where you can take fewer liberties. Jordan Oesterle has shown he can be a reliable no. 6 guy. Galchenyuk has made the powerplay a bit more focused and dangerous, and I think we’ll start to see some dividends come as a result once he’s able to establish some chemistry. Vinnie Hinostroza is still learning, like many of our youngins, but he’s demonstrated lightning speed and good hands. My vote, however, goes to Michael Grabner, who also has speed, but most importantly, has transformed our penalty kill into an odd-man rush generator. It won’t last, but we’re currently more dangerous down a man than up a man. What will last is the penalty kill’s ability to keep opponents on their heels and frustrate them into making turnovers. Thanks Grabs for helping console me over the loss of Jordan Martinook.
Carl: Tough call because the easy answer is Galchenyuk because he missed so much of the first ten games. Michael Grabner seemed like a bit of disappointment at first, but I think that he is a key part of the penalty kill that has been so successful. I feel like Hinostroza could eventually work himself into the conversation but I don’t think he’s there yet. I do want say that Jordan Oesterle and Ilya Lyubushkin were great depth signings and likely won’t get much attention but they have been really solid role players especially with Jakob Chychrun being hurt.
Rose: Michael Grabner might just be the best free agency pickup we’ve seen in quite a while. Even before he scored his two-short handed goals in one game he was setting up Brad Richardson’s goal. About all I knew about him was that he was fast, but I didn’t know he was that fast. He’s making the penalty kill fun again.
Paul: Grabner, Hinostroza and Oesterle in a three-way tie, because Galchenyuk hasn’t really hit his stride yet. At the end of the season this answer may be different. I’m secretly hoping we’ll be mentioning Josh Ho-Sang here in a question like this soon, or even Jesse Puljujarvi, given their struggles with other teams’ managements - I think either could make a huge splash in AZ if Chayka can work his magic on them. Tocchet’s the kind of coach Ho-Sang will thrive under, for one.
6. What are you looking forward to most for the remaining 72 games?
Brandon: Three things: 1) watching this team move from being comfortable with Tocchet’s system to confident with Tocchet’s system; 2) to seeing who of Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Christian Fischer, Hinostroza, etc. make the necessary step forward and establish themselves as a top-6 player, and; 3) to the Coyotes joining the parade of teams to beat the Kings
Carl: I love watching Clayton Keller play, so often it seems like the other team needs to devote 2 people to cover him and even then he is going to find a way to do something amazing. I’m really curious to see him and Galchenyuk at the end of the season and see what kind of chemistry they develop. It’s not a game thing but I am excited to see a Coyotes team that isn’t a seller at the trade deadline.
Rose: Given the state of the big four sports in the Valley, I’m looking forward to all the bandwagoners joining in the fun, some of whom have already started. Call me petty, but I’m also looking forward to the folks who warned “Don’t sleep on the Coyotes!” being proved right; especially two of my favorite Canadian podcast hosts, Jeff Marek and Adam Wylde. I’m really looking forward to be able to convince more friends and family members to come watch hockey with me.
Paul: On-ice...watching OEL, Galchenyuk and Keller find the chemistry they’re bound too because that’s going to make for a lot of beautiful plays. Off it...spending many dark British winter nights hopefully running the FFH Twitter for games whenever I can. We’ve got a great Twitter community building on there and live-tweeting games in a unique way and just having fun with it so I can help us become THE Twitter place for fans to join in on is my own aim for the year for FFH. I love doing it, the community have taken this Brit to their hearts and hopefully it can be a thing I can do as often as possible, especially through a playoff run. And on that note...
7. Do the Coyotes make the Playoffs?
Brandon: Barring any significant injuries, I say yes for two reasons: first, I didn’t expect the team to look this good so early (the returns of Dvorak and Chychrun will only add to this as well), and second, I didn’t expect the Pacific division to be so painfully bad. Sure, I expected Vegas to regress a little, and no one outside of Rob Blake’s front office saw the Kings as being contenders anymore, but when Vancouver is second in your division and it’s not 2011, things are not good. I know the season’s already started, but I’m seriously considering entering a beer league team into the Pacific division to see if I can’t nab the third Playoff spot behind what will likely be San Jose and Arizona. At least I’d get to watch some free live Playoff hockey. Anyone want to play net?
Carl: I would say it’s still really early so I don’t want to say absolutely. But I think that if we can continue playing the way we have, and the Pacific Division continues to be a dumpster fire I am pretty optimistic that yes we will.
I want to believe that the Pacific Division will stay as trash as it has been. I think it’s unfortunate that the Coyotes haven’t had very many chances to take advantage of their divisional opponents. However, Elliotte Friedman has a yearly prediction that about 88 percent of teams who are four points or more out of the playoffs by November 1 stay out of the playoffs. I’d wager that the Ducks and Kings are likely part of the 12 percent that can change their fortunes because I’ve seen them flip a switch in January way too often. Right now the Coyotes are four points out of a playoff spot, if they win tonight maybe Elliotte’s prediction will hold true. At the very least, I think they’ll get closer than they have in years.
Paul: Yes. I think they make it now...but if they’re in a tight PO race then I think the Yotes have two pretty big advantages over many other teams, one being the team spirit and culture they’re building and two, arguably the most important one-and that’s John Chayka. If a player needs to be brought in to put the team over the top come February, he’ll make it happen. I’ve been relentlessly optimistic on the Twitter feed even through the rocky start this season, and I think that the Coyotes we saw from January on last year and in the second half of October are what this team is now, and it can only get better from here.
Fans: Agree? Disagree? Want to blame Panik for our lackluster play during the final years of the Tippett era? Let’s hear it in the comments!