Coyotes Notebook: Sink Or Swim

Arizona Sports News online

In our notebook previewing the Coyotes’ 2021-22 season, we speculated that it would not take long to figure out whether they would sink or swim.

Three games into their schedule, the Coyotes are already treading water. The team is 0-2-1, and has suffered two blowout losses, including an ugly 8-2 drubbing at the hands of the Blue Jackets on opening night. The team has at least shown some signs of growth, and has time to turn things around, but it remains to be seen whether or not those small victories will be enough to keep them afloat. Here are the five biggest trends, good and bad, of Arizona’s season so far.

Sloppy Defensive Play

Poor puck management and disorganized play in the defensive zone are the two main catalysts for the Coyotes’ 0-2-1 record. The team has allowed 12 5-on-5 goals, the vast majority of which have resulted from turnovers and poor positioning. Arizona’s defensemen have been especially susceptible to turnovers when pressured by opposing forecheckers and have regularly been caught out of position on rushes, both of which were readily apparent in the Coyotes’ 7-4 loss to Saint Louis on Oct. 18. The abundance of new faces on the Coyotes’ defense has undoubtedly played a role in their struggles so far, but that fact alone cannot account for all of the mistakes.

“I know we’re a very new team with a lot of different guys but I think we just need to make it easier on ourselves,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “We can’t just keep using that as an excuse.”

Suspect Goaltending From Carter Hutton

While defensive miscues have been a major problem for the Coyotes, those mistakes have been greatly exacerbated by a lack of timely saves from starting goaltender Carter Hutton. Hutton has allowed fourteen goals in his two starts to date and boasts a save percentage of .689 (league average is .910). Though he has yet to give up any truly “bad” goals, backup Karel Vejmelka has easily been the better goaltender of the two, and if Hutton continues to struggle, it won’t be long before his status as the starter is called into question. Head coach André Tourigny has given no indication that he plans to reduce Hutton’s workload, but he may have no other choice if Vejmelka continues to outplay him.

“We’re all accountable for [Hutton’s struggles,]” Tourigny said. “It’s not on [him], it’s everybody. He’s part of the team and we need to have better brotherhood and help each other be relentless.”

Lack Of Physicality

The Coyotes will likely need to embrace a physical style of play in order to win games against faster, more skilled teams, but they have been slow to do so. Prior to the season, Tourigny stressed that he wanted his group to have some “bite” to them, that is, be tough to play against. It seems like the players have yet to take his his message to heart, as the Coyotes rank 25th in the league in hits despite having noted shift disturbers like Antoine Roussel, Lawson Crouse and Christian Fischer on the roster. They aren’t a soft team by any stretch of the imagination, but they haven’t exactly imposed their will on their opponents either.

Power Play Success

The Coyotes’ power play has been easily the biggest bright spot of the season so far. Officially, it has converted on two of its ten opportunities on the season, but it has also scored two goals in situations where penalty time had expired, but the penalized player had not re-entered the play. Although they do not all properly count as power play goals, the Coyotes’ man advantage unit has directly contributed to goals on four of its ten tries, which is a good sign for a team that needs to scrounge up goals by any means necessary. The sample size is still relatively small, but power play coach Phil Housley seems to have found a formula that works.

“[Housley] puts us in the right spots to succeed,” Gostisbehere said. “He gives us a blueprint and we go out and follow it.”

The Tourigny Effect

When André Tourigny took over as the Coyotes’ head coach, he promised to bring up-tempo, end-to-end hockey to Gila River Arena. So far, he has kept that promise. Tourigny’s Coyotes pride themselves on quick breakouts and generating scoring chances off of the rush, and while it hasn’t yet translated to wins, it is far more enjoyable to watch than the sleep-inducing neutral-zone chess matches that defined Rick Tocchet’s tenure as head coach. Tourigny’s fast-paced style does open up more room for mistakes, and therefore more goals against, but it has ensured that the Coyotes will be an exciting team to watch, whether in victory or defeat.

In the grand scheme of things, three games is nothing more than a blip on the radar, and it is far too early to hit the panic button on the Coyotes. There are things to like about their play so far, but there is also plenty of reason for concern, and the team has precious little time to iron out its imperfections, especially in the unforgiving Central Division. If they fail to shed the bad habits that have weighed them down in the early going, they risk sinking to the very bottom.