Last-place Coyotes aim for turnaround vs. Blue Jackets
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Puck management is a helpful lens through which to view the Columbus Blue Jackets and Arizona Coyotes before their meeting on Saturday at Gila River Arena.
Columbus was abysmal in that department last season on its way to the NHL's fourth-worst record, but the maturation of defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones played a major role in lifting the surprising Jackets into the upper half of the league's possession rankings this season, and into its top 10 in points.
Despite an emphasis on puck possession that extends back at least to the 2011-12 season, when Arizona advanced to the Western Conference Final, the Coyotes consistently struggled to hang onto the puck this season. They rank dead last in the NHL with a Corsi For percentage of 45.08 percent, and they are tied for last in the NHL standings with 19 points.
"We bring so much trouble on ourselves it's frustrating," coach Dave Tippett said after a 4-3 loss at home to Los Angeles in which the Coyotes committed a critical late turnover that led to the Kings' game-winning goal. "We just need some people that can do the job. Sometimes, it's just a simple play to gain a line. When you don't get them made it comes back to bite you."
It's been all the more painful for Arizona this season because it played so many tight games. Nine of the team's last 10 games were decided by one goal and only six of the team's 22 games this season have been decided by more than one goal.
"We've got to be better at puck management," left winger Tobias Rieder said. "We've got the puck on our sticks a lot of times and we turn it over and that's how we get scored on. We're always talking about gaining zones, so we've got to get the puck in deep and get our forecheck going."
Jones' emergence as a No. 1 defenseman, and Werenski's emergence as a Calder Trophy candidate at age 19, is making a world of difference for the Jackets when it comes to quick, clean zone-exit passes from their defense to their forwards.
"You can see how (Zach) can control the game with the puck," Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. "We have a lot of teaching to do with him without the puck, but the God-given ability that he has, it's at a different level than a lot of other players in this league."
Columbus' improved possession game is impacting multiple other facets of its play. As of Friday morning, the Blue Jackets were tied for the second most goals per game (3.18) in the NHL, and they were fifth in goals allowed per game (2.23).
Cleaner zone exits have ignited an underrated cast of young, skilled forwards. Cam Atkinson leads the team with 21 points in 22 games and Nick Foligno is tops in goals with nine, but Columbus has eight players with five or more goals.
The Jackets are also suppressing shots, allowing 29.5 per game, which ranks 11th. Last season, they were 27th at 31.1. The lesser workload is allowing goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to regain his form of two seasons ago. Bobrovsky is tied for 13th in the NHL in save percentage (.929) and 11th in goals against average at 2.08.
"They've got a lot of good young players that I don't think the league knows about yet," Tippett said of the Blue Jackets. "You're starting to see the fruits of their labor. John has done a good job. They look like they're playing well."
As of Friday afternoon, Tortorella hadn't named his starter in goal between Bobrovsky and Curtis McElhinney, but the Jackets did activate left wing Matt Calvert (head) off injured reserve.
Mike Smith is expected to start in goal for Arizona, which is healthy other than center Brad Richardson (broken tibia and fibula). Richardson is out indefinitely.