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Phoenix Coyotes: WTF?

I didn't hold out much hope for the Phoenix Coyotes at the start of this season.  But they're going to finish in a completely different dimension than I had them in:


Actual 227 202 108
Predicted 222 254 80


All stats are from before last night's game and those predictions come from Tom Awad's Vukota system.  Interestingly, the driver of Phoenix's success this season is blindingly obvious when you look at those numbers - Tom hit the offense dead-on, but he had team defense and goaltending pegged at more than eight wins worse.  So what happened?  First of all, Phoenix's two goaltenders have played out of their minds:


Goalie Career SV% Sv% Shots Goals Saved
Labarbera 0.906 0.928 404 8.9
Bryzgalov 0.914 0.921 1850 13
Total 0.913 0.922 2254 21.9


As Tyler Dellow noted, Labarbera has made Phoenix's record about three points better...And he has no value in the playoffs.  Bryzgalov has played unexpectedly well and has a claim to be the second-best goaltender in the league given his even-strength save percentage.  But that's not enough - if the goaltenders merely played at their career averages, Phoenix would have a 227-224 goal differential, which would put them in the low 90s points-wise.

But no one could have predicted that Phoenix would go 17-6 in overtime and the shootout.  That kind of play is simply unsustainable for any modern NHL team.  So let's give them average luck: a 12-11 record in extra frames.  Then we're at 222-229 in the goals department.

Phoenix has had an extra benefit: timely scoring.  They lead the league in winning percentage when scoring first, which is the same kind of talent as winning one-goal games: not repeatable.  So while 222-229 might normally make you an 90-point team, in Phoenix's case, timely scoring got them to 97 points, with unexpectedly good goaltending carrying them the rest of the way to 108.

Still, Phoenix was a 90-point team and not an 80-point team as projected.  So something else must have gone right.  Well, Kurt Sauer went down at the beginning of the season, which pushed Ed Jovanovski into a shutdown role that he hasn't played in years.  Jovo's been getting shelled, though less so than Sauer was last year, and together with Keith Yandle's step up, the defense has stayed afloat.  But it's not what's driving a ten-point improvement.  Nor is Phoenix's "core" of young players the driver - though Martin Hanzal has played better than he did last year, Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller and Viktor Tikhonov have produced essentially zero for the big-league team this season, which is less than they brought to the table last year.

No, the true changes are very subtle: a huge improvement in faceoff percentage, from last year's historic bad to this season's league-average; and some improvements around the edges with acquisitions like Scottie Upshall, Vern Fiddler and Radim Vrbata.  Vrbata, in particular, has been great.

So while this Phoenix team should have beaten their projection by a number of wins, they are fundamentally not the 108-point team they're going to finish as.  If they come up against Detroit in the first round of the playoffs, they should be a serious underdog.