Jam-packed Pacific, Pt. II: Predicting the Coyotes’ playoff race
The Arizona Coyotes are exiting the All-Star break in one of the most tightly-contested division races in years. Last week, we gave you a breakdown of every team in the race. Now it’s time to predict how the race will go.
Images of Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet standing behind the bench at the NHL All-Star weekend are in the rearview mirror now. There’s a stark juxtaposition of the fun exhibition games that took place in St. Louis on Saturday contrasted with the intense homestretch of regular season hockey left to play.
Arizona has 31 games left. Given the way the Pacific Division playoff race (and the Western Conference Wild Card race) has gone, there’s not a lot of margin for error.
The good news for them is that the parity in the division means no one team has run away, out of reach for the Coyotes to chase down. It also means that predicting it is difficult. We won’t let that stop us.
Here are a few predictions for the Pacific Division playoff race before Arizona plays its first post-All-Star game on Wednesday night at Anaheim:
Coyotes finish second in Pacific Division
The Coyotes have a better expected plus-minus of goals per 60 minutes (xG+-/60) at 5-on-5 play than the Canucks and Oilers, but worse than the Golden Knights, Kings and Flames. Their actual plus-minus at 5-on-5 is the best in the division.
This discrepancy between expected results (based on shot data) and actual results might point to a regression, but there’s a large sample size to go off of; and part of the reason for that discrepancy is strong goaltending. Their save percentage as a team is the best in the Pacific Division.
That’s a good segue to this: With All-Star goalie Darcy Kuemper on his way back, Arizona will make the playoffs if it gets more of the same from its anchor in net. The Coyotes also have the 11th-ranked power play (fourth-best in division) and the 14th-ranked penalty kill (fourth-best in division) in the NHL, the latter of which might see improvement as penalty-killing defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who missed most of the first half with an injury, gets in more games.
First-place Vancouver has as good a chance as anyone to win the division if the Canucks keep up their division-best goal differential and get more strong goaltending (you see a theme here?) from All-Star Jacob Markstrom, who has the second-best goals saved above average in the division behind only Kuemper, per Evolving-Hockey.
I also like Vegas’ chances, mostly because they have the weapons, the experience and a few analytics all working their favor (although I really did not like the move to fire their head coach). Between Vancouver and Vegas, Arizona ought to beat out one of them — and I think those three teams will make up the top three in the division.
Arizona has goaltending, sharing the wealth to thank for playoff berth
It’s worth saying that if the Coyotes make the playoffs, it will be because of the contributions of many players. That’s in contrast to a team like the Edmonton Oilers, who would be lost without their stars, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
In the absence of Kuemper, Antti Raanta and Adin Hill have stepped in. For a team with Phil Kessel, Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller, it’s the unlikely trio of Conor Garland, Christian Dvorak and Carl Soderberg who have led in goals with a combined 42. Spreading the wealth like that is good, because it leaves some margin for error when someone cools off.
As mentioned in a previous story, the Coyotes have one of the league’s highest numbers of players with double-digit goals this season.
The Coyotes making the playoffs will be in large part because of their depth. Arizona is relying on it and will need to continue to do so, particularly in net and at the forward position.
The Calgary Flames miss the playoffs
The Flames have the second-best team save percentage in the division. Apart from that, the stats mostly aren’t pretty.
Their shots-for and shots-against per game are both within the worst half of the league. Their power play ranks 22nd (although their PK is eighth). Their goal differential is the worst among Pacific Division teams who are within a stone’s throw of the race. Their best player, Johnny Gaudreau, is having a down year. The team’s shooting percentage is the second-worst in the division.
Calgary does have this going for it: The team is 14-7-1 since Geoff Ward took over as head coach earlier this season. But as previously mentioned, I see the Canucks, Coyotes and Golden Knights taking the division spots in some order. That leaves us with two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference…
Winnipeg Jets make the playoffs
The Edmonton Oilers and the Central Division’s Winnipeg Jets will take the top two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference.
I’m a sucker for good goaltending, and the Jets have it: Connor Hellebuyck’s goals saved above average (GSAA) is elite. His .917 save percentage is the second-best in the NHL behind Dallas’ Ben Bishop (qualifier: 30 games played). And he also leads the league in games played with 42.
The Jets also have depth at forward: Four of the top 50 point-getters in the league play for Winnipeg (Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler).
Some of the analytics say they’re in trouble, but in prediction land, anything goes. My predictions in the past have been spot-on, anyway.