The Phoenix Coyotes came into the 2011-2012 season facing a lot of questions. Yes, they had made the playoffs the past two years under Coach Dave Tippett and probably would have gone further if they had not met the veteran laden Detroit Red Wings squad in the first round both times; however, the roster looked much different this year than in the past. Key role players were let go, but the most noticeable difference was between the pipes. Ilya Bryzgalov, one of leagues top talents in net, would no longer be in a Coyotes sweater. With all these changes, could the Coyotes still be a playoff contender?
The season has been a roller coaster ride so far. In the first two months of the season there were only seven games where the Coyotes did not earn a point, but then in December the team recored their longest losing streak of the Tippett era. The Coyotes also saw talented but disgruntled former first-round pick Kyle Turris sit out the first two months of the season due to a contract holdout, play in six pointless games, and then be shipped out to Ottawa for defenseman David Rundblad and a second-round pick.
Some major milestones have been reached this season as well. Ray "The Wizard" Whitney recorded both his 350th goal and 600th assist and captain Shane Doan recorded his 300th goal. Doan also reached another milestone that some fans may have found surprising. On Jan. 7th Doan recorded his first career hat trick with no time left on the clock in a win that revitalized the entire roster.
Here is a look at how the Coyotes units have performed so far this season.
Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata have been lights out for the Coyotes. The duo have accounted for 70 points combined (36 for Whitney with 14 G and 22 A, and 34 for Vrbata with 20 G, 14 A) this season and have been the primary point-getters in a lineup that has struggled to put the puck in the net consistently. The Coyotes 2.5 goals per game average ranks 24th in the league.
The Coyotes have been hampered by players being out of the lineup this season. Daymond Langkow, Martin Hanzal and newcomer Boyd Gordon have all missed significant time for the 'Yotes, and Raffi Torres missed two games due to a suspension.
Dave Tippett continues to shuffle his lines more than a card dealer in Vegas, and it works. The Coyotes have proven to be a deep squad that can threaten the opposition with all four lines when healthy. At one point Kyle Chipchura was centering the first line! The Coyotes do not have a perennial 40-50 goal scorer (even though Vrbata may get close this year) and are built off the entire roster producing balanced scoring. Before Shane Doan's hat trick Jan. 7th only Vrbata and Whitney were in double digits in goals.
The Coyotes rank ninth in goals against with 2.5 and rank seventh in shots against per game. Keith Yandle continues to be a force from behind the blue line, registering five goals and 20 assist so far this year. Oliver Ekman-Larrson has been one of the biggest surprises of the year and has developed into the player the Coyotes expected him to be. The 20-year-old defenseman is averaging just over 20 minutes of ice time and has registered 17 points. Coach Tippett has even used OEL in multiple shootout situations this year.
When David Rundblad, fellow Swedish countryman of OEL, gains a permanent spot in the Coyotes lineup the Coyotes will have one of the best young defensive units in the league (Yandle, 25, OEL 20, Rundblad, 21, Shlemko, 24).
Young is something Derek Morris has not looked this year. The 13-year veteran has been a healthy scratch multiple times this year, and it is a surprise he is still on the roster. Fans in Phoenix have got use to seeing Morris through the years bolstering the Coyotes defense, but this year has been, by far, his worst. Morris has been exploited by faster opponents and his poor decisions in the defensive zone have hurt the Coyotes. Morris has posted a team worst minus-11 and has yet to register a goal.
Coming into the season goaltending was the Coyotes biggest question mark after letting Bryzgalov go to the Flyers. Who was Mike Smith? After posting a 12-4-3 record through the first two months of the season Smith had Coyote fans saying "Ilya who?" Smith was a top ten goalie in every major category through November.
Then December came. The month opened with a 1-0 loss at Winnipeg and would only get worse. Multiple blowout losses would happen through the month and Smith's once stellar stats looked downright awful. Smith would post a 3-6-0 record with a 3.53 goals against average and a groin injury sustained on Dec.20th would bring an abrupt end to the terrible month for the Coyote goaltender. Despite recent struggles Smith looks to get on track after coming back from injury. He has done better than anyone expected and has been able to keep the team in games despite the offensive struggles.
Jason LaBarbera has seen some time between the pipes, but has not been anything special. LaBarbera looked good in relief appearances of Smtih this year, but his 3-6-1 record and 2.71 GAA are backup goaltender numbers.
The Coyotes power play has been a train wreck. At one point they had only scored one power play goal in forty attempts (2.5 percent). The man-advantage unit has looked a little better lately, but they still rank next to last in the NHL with 13.1 percent.
What kept the Coyotes in games was a stellar penalty kill to make up for the horrendous power play unit. At one point the Coyotes were a top three penalty kill in the league, but in recent weeks have come back to earth. They now rank 12th overall with a 83.3 percent.
If the 'Yotes plan to make the playoffs, they will have to start scoring on the power play. The development of Ekmann-Larsson and Rundblad, who led the Swedish Elite League in points by a defenseman last year, can go a long ways to improve the struggling power play. Having two options other than Yandle at the blue line will keep teams on their heels and provide more opportunities.
At the halfway mark the question of the Coyotes being a playoff contender has not yet been answered. The Coyotes sit in 11th place in the Western Conference with 46 points and a 20-17-6 record, just three points out of the final playoff spot and five points out of third place. In such a tight playoff race every game will have major implications.
Overall Midseason Grade: C+