Jam-packed Pacific, Pt. I: Coyotes reach All-Star break in tight division race
The Arizona Coyotes have reached the All-Star break in one of the most tightly-contested division races in years. Below is a breakdown of the teams in the race, including two Central Division teams that are contending for Wild Card spots. Next week, we’ll predict how the race will shake out.
If you’re looking at the NHL standings, don’t blink — they might change again by the time you open your eyes.
Arizona was in first place one minute, in fourth place the next. The margins are that thin. As the NHL enters its All-Star break, the Coyotes have 57 points in the standings with 51 games played. Calgary (57 points, 50 games), Edmonton (57 points, 49 games) and Vancouver (58 points) are ahead of Arizona, so the Coyotes occupy the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
The Vegas Golden Knights have the other Wild Card spot.
(The first tiebreaker in the standings is games played. Thus, Arizona is behind Edmonton and Calgary, despite having the same point total.)
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston noted on Saturday, Jan. 18 that the top five teams in the Pacific Division were separated by only one point (that was still true on Thursday), and that was the latest that had happened in any division since Jan. 1, 1987.
So, what now? There are a number of factors that have contributed to each team’s successes and failures so far this season, so here’s a look at every team in the thick of the playoff race — including the Coyotes — and things to consider as the league enters the home stretch of games:
Vancouver Canucks: 1st place in Pacific Division (58 points)
Coyotes’ record vs. VAN this season: 0-1-0
Predicted before the season as more of a bubble playoff contender, the Canucks find themselves in first place at the break.
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom has been stellar. Among NHL goalies with as many or more games played as him (34), Markstrom’s .916 save percentage is third behind only Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. He also ranks 12th in the NHL in goals saved above average (GSAA), according to Evolving-Hockey.
Forward Elias Pettersson ranked third in the division in points with 51 (21 goals, 30 assists) and rookie standout Quinn Hughes has been a big part of the Vancouver blue line. There’s not a glaring weakness for a team that ranks in the top half of the league in both special teams functions and is second in the NHL in faceoff percentage.
Edmonton Oilers: 2nd place in Pacific Division (57 points)
Coyotes’ record vs. EDM this season: 1-1-1
Head coach Dave Tippett deserves some credit in his first year with the Oilers, who went from second-to-last in the division last year to a likely playoff team this year.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the same-old studs as the two leading point-getters in the league, but beyond that, it’s slim pickin’s: The Oilers’ next-leading scorer (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) has 42 fewer points than Draisaitl, and even with two of the most elite offensive hockey players in the world, Edmonton ranks only 12th in the league in goals per game.
The Oilers also rank only 19th in the NHL in fewest “expected goals against per 60 minutes,” an advanced metric that measures defense. They also don’t have outstanding goaltending.
Calgary Flames: 3rd place in Pacific Division (57 points)
Coyotes’ record vs. CGY this season: 1-1-1
Out of the top 12 teams in the Western Conference, the Flames have the worst goal differential at -12. They’re 25th in the league in scoring, 13th in goals allowed per game, 22nd in power play percentage, 25th in faceoff percentage and have the third-worst team shooting percentage in the league. Star forward Johnny Gaudreau is on pace for the least productive NHL season of his career.
All that said, Calgary has a respectable .915 save percentage as a team with David Rittich and Cam Talbot in goal (Rittich was selected to replace the Coyotes’ Darcy Kuemper in the All-Star game). The team’s penalty kill ranks seventh in the NHL, and then there’s the stat that matters: The Flames hold a divisional playoff spot after a hefty sample size of games.
Arizona Coyotes: 1st Wild Card spot (57 points)
The Coyotes have lost five of the previous six games going into the All-Star break, have seen injuries to both of their top two goaltenders, haven’t had the elite PK unit they did last year and rank only 22nd in scoring. But they still hold a playoff spot at the break, which should be encouraging to panicked fans.
Arizona should get Darcy Kuemper back after the All-Star break if all goes according to plan, and Niklas Hjalmarsson being back ought to help a defensive corps that has been the identity of the team the past couple years. The Coyotes still have one of the best goals against per game averages (5th in NHL), and there’s been a long-enough list of contributors on offense for the Coyotes this year that they can afford to have guys go cold from time-to-time.
Like other teams in the division, it would only take a winning streak or a losing streak to completely change the narrative of this season for Arizona. But in a year in which the Coyotes have held first place quite often, this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered.
Vegas Golden Knights: 2nd Wild Card spot (57 points)
Coyotes’ record vs. VGK this season: 1-1-1
In a move that was baffling to most, the Golden Knights fired head coach Gerard Gallant last week. It seems weird, then, to note that Vegas is a playoff team at the moment.
Vegas has lost six of its last seven going into the All-Star break, but perhaps its .902 save percentage as a team is more troubling. The Golden Knights have been fine offensively, but their goals-for and goals-against averages are both 3.04. Their goal differential is barely positive at plus-2.
Winnipeg Jets: 3rd in Wild Card standings (54 points)
Coyotes’ record vs. WPG this season: 1-0-0
The Jets are in the Central Division, but could challenge Arizona for a playoff spot if it comes down to Wild Card positioning.
The Jets have a minus-8 goal differential this season. They have the fourth-worst penalty kill in the league. They also have several elite offensive players on their roster and a goaltender who was voted as the midseason Vezina Trophy winner in Connor Hellebuyck.
If the Jets get into the playoffs, Hellebuyck is going to be a big reason why. But similar to Edmonton, it’s fair to question whether a team has what it takes when they rely on one or a few players too heavily. It’s also worth questioning whether Winnipeg’s defensive corps — which lost Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Dustin Byfuglien this year — will withstand the final stretch of hockey to get to the playoffs.
One last thing to chew on: The advanced analytic +/- expected goals per 60 minutes (+/-xGA60) measures a team’s “expected” goal differential per 60 minutes of playing time, based on probabilities generated by the quality of the shots a team generates compared to the shots it faces. The Jets are dead last in the NHL in this statistic, and it’s not close, at -0.77. The next-worst team is Detroit at -0.49, which has the worst record in the league by a huge margin.
Chicago Blackhawks: 4th in Wild Card standings (54 points)
Coyotes’ record vs. CHI this season: 2-0-0
The Blackhawks are in the Central Division, but could challenge Arizona for a playoff spot if it comes down to Wild Card positioning.
Right off the bat, one troubling thing to note about the Blackhawks is the fact that they are giving up more shots per game than any other team in the league (35.2). They also are only 19th in the league shots-for. Like Winnipeg and Calgary, Chicago also has a negative goal differential (-6).
But goaltender Robin Lehner has been a great signing for the Blackhawks with a .922 save percentage, and rookie Dominik Kubalik’s 21 goals have put him in the Calder Trophy conversation. If they get hot through the end of the season and see production from stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat, the Blackhawks have an outside chance.