When the NHL decided to expand this year’s postseason to 22 teams, one team that found their way into the Stanley Cup tournament was the Arizona Coyotes. As the 11th seed, the Yotes were decided underdogs in their play-in series against the Nashville Predators. That didn’t stop Darcy Kuemper and company from disposing of Colorado’s Central Division foe in four games.
With Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel leading the way up front, the Coyotes are a team known for limiting goals against but have built a group of forwards that no one should be underestimating. A combination of speedy veterans and youthful exuberance makes Arizona a team that could cause some fits for the Avalanche in the first round.
Taylor Hall - Christian Dvorak - Phil Kessel
Clayton Keller - Derek Stepan - Conor Garland
Lawson Crouse - Carl Soderberg - Christian Fischer
Vinnie Hinostroza - Brad Richardson - Michael Grabner
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Jason Demers
Jakob Chychrun - Jordan Oesterle
Niklas Hjalmarsson - Alex Goligoski
Maybe: Nick Schmaltz
The Coyotes didn’t do a lot of line-shuffling either leading up to the play-in round or during that preliminary round itself. Nick Schmaltz was out with injury, and he seems to be close to ready to return — but other than trying to slot him into the forward lineup, there’s not a lot of mystery as to what the Coyotes will look like when things get going.
Phil Kessel and Conor Garland were shuffled, taking Garland off of the top line to give a little more playoff experience with Taylor Hall and his effective two-way center in Dvorak. That seemed to work; both Hall and Kessel were tied for the team lead in shots with 10 apiece over the four-game series, and Dvorak managed to get two goals during the games as well. Garland didn’t fare quite as well, but his linemates were fantastic at driving play and likely earned him as their wing to try re-sparking his success during the regular season; he’ll be one to watch for as the series goes on.
Barrett Hayton rotated in for two games in the place of Vinnie Hinostroza, although both played fairly sheltered roles during their games and didn’t overly wow in their own right. The real surprise was veteran Michael Grabner; after nearly opting out of the return-to-play altogether, he ended up scoring two goals and driving the bottom six with his speedy skating and dynamic penalty-killing abilities as a part of the surprising spark Arizona found from their offense.
On defense, don’t expect much to change barring any injuries. The OEL-Demers pairing has been one of Arizona’s most steadfast over the last two years, and Jakob Chychrun rounded out the team’s trio of shot leaders with 10 of his own over the four-game series. Unless Jordan Oesterle finds himself in the doghouse, it’s hard to see the team making any swaps to that lineup once the games get underway.
The Starter: Darcy Kuemper
Kuemper was one of the most tested goaltenders from a shot volume perspective during the play-in round, facing nearly 41 shots per game over the four-game series between Arizona and Nashville last week. He did fine with that workload, but allowed a lot of soft rebounds that kept the puck down in Arizona’s end and ultimately allowed nearly three goals per game over the course of the series. When he’s good, he’s great — but he always seems to have that one weak goal that he allows during his ‘off’ games, and that could be all it takes for Colorado to gain the upper hand. He’ll either be their biggest foe or the reason they get the edge when all is said and done — especially if Arizona’s offense continues to be as pleasantly surprising as they were during the play-in round.
The Tandem 1B: Antti Raanta
During the season, Arizona benefited heavily from having an elite tandem in Kuemper and Raanta to buoy them; although Kuemper received the higher share of the praise, Raanta finished the year with a more-than-respectable .921 save percentage in all situations and actually took the lion’s share of the starts in the long run. He struggled with the team failing to provide adequate offense for him during his stretches in net, but was stellar down the back stretch — and likely would have gotten his first nod during the postseason had he not been hit in the head with a puck during warmups early in the series. He’s expected to be back to playing shape now, but his injuries are always something to watch for.
The Black Ace: Adin Hill
In a perfect world, Arizona wouldn’t even need to worry about Hill being along on the trip — but as mentioned above, a puck to the head for Antti Raanta meant that Hill was their number two already for at least a stretch of their postseason run.
Hill still hasn’t seemed to take that final step necessary to look like a legitimate NHL goaltender, but he’s certainly got the size — at 6-foot 6 and 202 lbs, he’s a force to be reckoned with. His game has plenty of agility, and when he gets in the way it’s hard to find holes to shoot at. But sometimes, his nerves can get the best of him and he can be goaded into moving too much — and at that point, it can be easy to capitalize quickly.
Taylor Hall and the Dvorak line
Both Hall and Kessel finished the play-in round with a point per game. Like Colorado’s top line, they bring an offensive attack that is based on speed and puck possession. With the two offense-first veterans on the outside, Christian Dvorak gives the line a center that can be counted on to bring the necessary three-zone responsibility you want to see from a top line pivot. They have some decent forwards in their middle-6 but Arizona’s offense will likely only go as far as their top line can carry them.
Colorado’s goaltending has been fine this year, even good — but Arizona’s goaltending, when examining the private data, has been top-10 for both of the guys they had in their lineup. Colorado is in for a tough time if they face Darcy Kuemper, but they don’t exactly get a free pass if Antti Raanta needs to take over either.
The days of Arizona’s necessity-driven moneyball ways are long gone; the team is able to pay now, and they’ve done so in the form of some bigger contracts via both free agency and trades. But they still have a bit of a holdover in their lineup in the sense that they remain a team that doesn’t have the most stacked top line, but have stronger options the farther down you get. Michael Grabner, for example, sits comfortably on their fourth line and has two goals already this postseason — it’s their depth players who burned Nashville with some evenly-spread scoring, and that could be a problem for Colorado.
As mentioned above, Arizona allowed nearly 41 shots per game during their play-in round — something they absolutely can’t afford to do again.
The Coyotes built a reputation last season on playing defensively responsible hockey, first and foremost. They were so defensively responsible from a perception standpoint, in fact, that they earned the “boring” moniker after playing a trap game to shut down the (at the time) high-flying Edmonton Oilers back in the fall. That occasionally came at a cost, though; they sacrificed a lot in the name of defense, and their offense was a bit stifled in the process.
They switched that up during their play-in round, and reaped the benefits. But if they can’t figure out how to explore some of that offensive creativity without handling things in their own zone, their biggest enemy could be something outside of the Avalanche lineup altogether — fatigue.
Their possession numbers in round one were abysmal, even if their scoring wasn’t. Ideally, Colorado could capitalize on that — and the fact that goaltender Darcy Kuemper isn’t known for helping with a strong zone breakout — and keep Arizona hemmed into their own zone until they tire and falter.
Head coach Rick Tocchet was brought in after winning a pair of Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh — and although many wondered if he had what it took after a pair of historically slow starts to his first two seasons with the team, he’s proven to truly have some spark when it comes to getting stuff out of the team when he needs it most.