Phoenix Coyotes: Has Anyone Else Noticed the 'Yotes Are 13-4-2?

Scott WeldonCorrespondent IFebruary 23, 2017

ST. LOUIS, MO - NOVEMBER 12: Jaden Schwartz #9 of the St. Louis Blues takes position in front of the net as Zbynek Michalek #4 and Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 of the Phoenix Coyotes defend on November 12, 2013 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)
Mark Buckner/Getty Images

Amid a myriad of stories about how important a hot start is in the NHL, I have read about the great, young Colorado Avalanche. I have read how important new coach Patrick Roy has been to their epic success.

I have read stories about how Chicago is the most likely team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings did it back in 1997 and 1998.

I have heard that Tomas Hertl and the new-look San Jose Sharks are now finally built for playoff success.

I have seen how the St Louis Blues have all the tools to win a Stanley Cup and in fact have already done so on EA Sports NHL 14. Of course, that simulation also had the Edmonton Oilers beating out the Anaheim Ducks for the last playoff spot in the Pacific Division. That does not look good right now.

I have even read stories on the impossibility of stopping the Washington Capitals power play.

But of the Phoenix Coyotes, I hear nothing, I read nothing.  

Apparently, if the Phoenix Coyotes are not on the verge of financial collapse or are the team most likely to be moved back to Canada, they are not story-worthy. 

The Phoenix Coyotes have 28 points in 19 games. I know—I did not realize it either.

They are tied with Chicago and Colorado with the second-most points in the NHL. They are three points behind first-place Anaheim and a point ahead of the San Jose Sharks.

The Coyotes are two points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning—the best team in the east right now—and six points ahead of perennial Stanley Cup hopeful, the Pittsburgh Penguins.   

Recent Phoenix Coyotes success has seemed to rely on a disciplined team playing Dave Tippett's tight defensive system in front of a good goalie—Ilya Bryzgalov from 2007 to 2011 and Mike Smith since then. Tippett was chosen as the Jack Adams Award winner for NHL Coach of the Year back in 2009-10, his first year in Phoenix, when he managed a 24-point regular-season improvement out of the Coyotes.

That has been the Coyotes identity when successful. They score a little more than they give up. They tend to be tight defensively. Their offense is closer to the bottom of the league than the top. Their defense and goaltending has to be near the top of the league for any sort of success.  

The 2011-12 season was the best example of that when Phoenix gave up 2.37 goals per game, the fifth-lowest average that year. It made it to the Western Conference Final, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

Dave Tippett was often given credit for doing more with this team than could be reasonably expected. 

This year, however, the team has had an amazing start and perhaps only the Minnesota Wild are less talked about. 

This Phoenix Coyotes team is different from the teams of the recent past. They are giving up 35 shots against per game, which is the fourth-worst total in the league.

They are getting good goaltending. Smith is leading the NHL in minutes played (981:36) and shots against (555). His .917 save percentage is 11th among goalies who have logged at least 600 minutes in net so far this year.

However, the secret of the success of this team seems to be the offense.

I would just like to say that one more time. So far, the Coyotes' success seems predicated on their great offense. Nope, it just doesn't look right.

I think the last time anyone wrote those words they were actually talking about the Winnipeg Jets and Teemu Selanne or Dale Hawerchuk. I guess they could have been talking about Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk.

None of those players and none like them populate this roster, but their 3.10 goals scored per game puts them sixth in the NHL right now, just ahead of—you guessed it—the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin and the Tampa Bay Lightning and the now-injured Steven Stamkos.

How are they doing it?

The power play has improved. They were a miserable 14.8 percent, which was 25th in the league last year. This season, they have started at a nice 20 percent clip, 10th-best in the NHL.

There is almost no change between this year's lineup and last year's squad. 

The one addition of note is Mike Ribeiro.

He averaged a point a game with the Capitals last year. Playing in Phoenix, he has 13 points in 19 games—not spectacular—but he is providing extra offense it did not have last year. He has spent a lot of time on the power play, and while his personal numbers there (1G, 2A) are not great, you have to believe he has helped. 

The single biggest factor that seems to be responsible for the Coyotes' quick start is the development of Swedish defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He has blossomed into the NHL's least-reported star.

Ekman-Larsson was the Coyotes first-round draft pick (No. 6 overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft . He has evolved since joining the NHL in 2010 from being a half-point-a-game player to being almost a point-a-game offensive force.

It's been a quiet development, though, some writers have noticed it.

This year, Ekman-Larsson is being favourably compared to the more famous P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson. He is currently third in scoring among defensemen, behind only those two.

He is leading his team in scoring, and along with the more-established Keith Yandle, is part of the highest-scoring pair of defensemen in the NHL (29 points as opposed to 27 for Subban and Andrei Markov in Montreal).

Ekman-Larsson is a complete NHL defenseman in the quick, puck-moving mold that seems to be supplanting the old-school Chris Pronger type of defenseman.

Aside from having some of the best offensive defensemen in the league, the Coyotes have also seen improvement from 26-year-old Martin Hanzal.

They are still getting their expected contributions from veterans Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, Antoine Vermette and Derek Morris. They still hope for more from youngsters Mikkel Boedker, Rob Klinkhammer and in the future, defensive prospect David Rundblad.

Still, the success of this Phoenix Coyotes team so far this year has been surprising and underreported. The roster does not seem to necessarily support this success story, and it is hard to figure out why this year's team has been so much better than last year's, especially when the defensive play seems to have suffered. You have to wonder if the stability of ownership, the fact that the team actually has an owner, has inspired the players.  

I expect Tippett and Co. to get the defensive play under greater control before the playoffs roll around. If they manage to maintain this offensive surge while getting the goals against to a manageable figure, they could again be dangerous in a playoff run.

The Phoenix Coyotes won the Pacific Division back in 2011-12. That would be a harder task this year, but right now, it looks like they could do it.