GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes reached the midpoint of the 2013 season in a place they didn’t expect to be: outside looking in on the playoff race, with the four teams immediately ahead of them all having a game or two in hand.
The culprits in this disappointing 11-10-3 start are easy to spot. Goalie Mike Smith hasn’t shown more than glimpses of his 2011-12 incarnation, the team’s once-trademark defensive zone coverage and puck management have been shoddy, and key injuries to forwards Radim Vrbata, Martin Hanzal and Matthew Lombardi along with defensemen David Schlemko and Derek Morris have robbed the club of depth, skill and continuity.
It is tempting, maybe even warranted, to say the Coyotes have not established an identity 24 games into this lockout-shortened season.
“If we’re going to be successful in the second half, we have to recognize who we are,” coach Dave Tippett said. “Right now, we’re giving up too many chances, and right through our lineup – that goes from the goaltender on out – we don’t have anybody that we would say, ‘OK, this guy’s at the top of his game.'”
But that statement relies on the premise that this club can regain the form it showed in a run to the Western Conference final last year. What if the club’s 2013 identity is exactly what we’ve seen thus far — a maddening penchant for inconsistency, defensive lapses and mental breaks due to a dearth of practice time and a dearth of rest in this condensed schedule?
It’s a thought nobody is willing to entertain yet.
“The identity of our team hasn’t changed,” captain Shane Doan said. “We’ve just got to do it on a more consistent basis. It’s not a matter of finding it. You have to do it.”
Here are our midseason grades:
This grade falls largely on Smith since backup Jason LaBarbera has only seen action in six games, a mere three of them starts. If you were to go simply by Smith’s numbers, this grade would be even worse. His 3.09 goals-against average ranks 39th in the NHL, and his .894 save percentage ranks 34th – well off the top-eight numbers he put up last season of 2.21 and .930 with eight shutouts. But Smith’s teammates haven’t done him any favors this season, allowing teams to attack the slot with regularity. Smith gave up one, maybe two rebounds he shouldn’t have in Thursday’s 6-3 loss to St. Louis. He also didn’t steal enough great chances from the Blues, but the defensive zone coverage hung him out to dry on at least two goals, and that has been happening too often. On the flip side, Smith doesn’t appear to be tracking the puck as well as last year, his rebound management hasn’t been as solid and his confidence doesn’t appear as high, a problem that infects the team in front of him.
When the Coyotes shed aging veteran Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival while adding Zbynek Michaek in the offseason, most analysts assumed they had improved the blue line to the point where it was one of the best in the NHL. From a production standpoint, the group is doing well. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is tied for the team lead with 16 points, Keith Yandle is second with 14 points and 11 of the Coyotes’ 70 goals have come from defensemen. It’s the other end – the one you most associate with their job description – that’s been the problem. Phoenix isn’t defending well in its own zone (the forwards play a major role in this as well) and has been careless with the puck. The result has been a stunning 2.88 goals allowed per game, which ranks 20th in the 30-team NHL. Yandle has had well-chronicled struggles in his own end, but he’s far from alone. Injuries to Derek Morris, David Schlemko and the highly underrated Rusty Klesla forced Tippett to play youngsters Michael Stone, Chris Summers and David Rundblad more than he wanted, and all three showed signs of youth. Even Ekman-Larsson (minus-4) and Michalek (minus-3) were victimized Thursday. Maybe health will lead to better consistency. It had better, because this was supposed to be a strength.
The good news is that the Coyotes are scoring 2.79 goals per game – an increase of .38 goals over last season — despite the loss of Ray Whitney in free agency. The bad news is the Coyotes aren’t taking care of the puck as well and aren’t adhering to their defensive zone assignments. Mikkel Boedker (four goals, team-high 16 points) has taken a step forward and may be the club’s most consistent forward this season. Boyd Gordon and Antoine Vermette have been terrific on faceoffs, and before Thursday, center Kyle Chipchura had been a revelation, but Steve Sullivan hasn’t been able to match Whitney’s production from a year ago, Doan is off last season’s production and Hanzal, Vrbata and Lombardi, the team’s biggest offseason forward acquisition, haven’t played enough games due to injuries to have a consistent impact. If the Coyotes can get healthy over the next couple weeks, this unit could take a big step up in play. But it has to happen at both ends of the ice for the Coyotes to be successful.
Despite the absence of some key performers due to injury, the Coyotes’ penalty-killing unit still ranks ninth in the NHL, killing off 83.8 percent of opponents’ chances. Despite frequent criticism, the Coyotes’ power play has been OK, clicking at a 16.3 percent clip to rank in the middle of the NHL pack (17th) — and at a far better rate than last season’s anemic 13.6 percent clip, which ranked second to last. It would be nice to get a little more production, but the simple truth is the Coyotes don’t have the skilled offensive personnel to do that on a consistent basis. In sports parlance, it is what it is.
Tippett downplayed the role that minimal practice time has had on his club, but think about it for a minute. One of this club’s greatest strengths is the fact that it has a master tactician for a coach, a guy who prides himself on examining every pore of the game for potential clogs. He’ll never use it as a public excuse, but it has to be maddening for Tippett to watch his team stray away from its finely tuned defensive system and not be able to get them on the ice, so he and his assistants — Jim Playfair, John Anderson and Dave King — can correct it. He is right when he notes the importance of rest during this grueling, lockout-condensed schedule. “They can’t do what you want them to do if they’re not rested,” he said. But if the Coyotes do disappoint this season, this may go down as one of the greatest underlying reasons. It will also bear watching how the team manages its goalies the rest of the year. Tippett said Thursday that he talks with goalie Sean Burke every day about the mental and physical state of his goalies, adding that the games are so important in this lockout-shortened season that they felt it best to ride Smith as much as possible. But Smith hinted recently that playing so often has been mentally taxing. Will LaBarbera’s recent game in Anaheim give the staff enough confidence to spell Smith on more occasions?
GM Don Maloney added some helpful pieces this season in Michalek, Lombardi and forwards David Moss and Nick Johnson. But health hasn’t allowed Lombardi to establish himself yet, Maloney is still operating on a shoestring budget that prevents bigger moves and the trade deadline (April 3) has yet to arrive, so the jury is still out.