Friday, April 29th, 2016

The Desert Dawgs


I don’t have very much to say about the hockey game last night. A tie was a fair result. (That’s how I see games that end up in a shootout these days. Vancouver and Phoenix each deserved a point last night. Neither team deserved two.) I do, however, have something to say about the Phoenix Coyotes. The great job that Maloney and Tippett have done in Arizona has largely been lost amidst the financial circus. Despite the soap opera, they’ve built a good hockey team in the desert. They are not a fluke. They are going to be competitive for the forseeable future, and if they get lucky…

(A decent team is surely a necessary precondition for financial success and they are better than decent. Will they find a market? It was good to hear “Go, Coyotes, Go” in the third period last night. Maybe the cheer was born to drown out a band of Canuck fans, but still the rink felt alive and it’s been a long time since I’ve said that about a regular season game in Phoenix.)

The Coyotes have adopted the same strategy as the Nashville Predators and they are getting similar results. Despite the flood of new statistical measures, no one can yet say whether an elite goalie or an elite defenseman contributes more to winning than an elite forward. Most fans – including myself – think Sidney Crosby is the best player in the game. But is he really better than Shea Weber or Carey Price? We think he contributes more to winning, but how can we really tell?

One thing that is certain is that elite goalies and elite defensemen are less expensive than elite forwards. They also tend to be taken later in the draft. Both Nashville and Phoenix appeared to exploit those discrepancies and they built their teams from the net out. The Coyotes have excellent goaltending, an excellent defense and a group of fundamentally sound forwards who aren’t quite good enough to be stars.

It is hard to move the puck through the neutral zone against the Coyotes and as a result it is hard to get good scoring chances. They may be offensively challenged up front, but they can score anyway because the defense contributes both directly with points and indirectly with a good transition game. So it works. On a budget. Whether a team built this way can be good enough to win it all is very much an open question, but I don’t see why not.

The Coyotes are the mirror opposite of the Edmonton Oilers. They did not tank several seasons (they’ve made the playoffs three of the past four years) to get top picks in the draft. Despite that, they were able to build a quality team around Mike Smith, Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Oilers have been excellent tankers so they have a group of very talented forwards. Unfortunately they have very little else. Both teams spend about the same money but they spwend it in very different ways.

A team with a very good defense and goaltending can compete even if the forwards are thin on talent. A team with very talented forwards and very little else can’t.

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8 Responses to “The Desert Dawgs”
  1. Rajeev says:

    Odd that one of the bigger spending teams, or just one with a significant fan base or even just a less uncertain future, hasn’t been able to poach Maloney and/or Tippett. It’s clear that they’re in the upper echelon of GM’s and coaches, respectively, and having them toil in the desert with the horror show that that organization has been seems like a bit of waste.

    • beingbobbyorr says:

      I suspect that they enjoy some combination of (a) the challenge to do more with less, and (b) to work without being under much of a media microscope.

      • Rajeev says:

        Maybe. I’d personally prefer a better chance to win a championship and a higher salary. With player salaries capped, the high revenue teams should be spending more money on the relatively few non-player costs that meaningfully affect performance e.g. GM and coach salaries.

    • Tom says:

      Maybe Maloney and Tippett – like Poile and Trotz – enjoy the job security. Expectations for them are quite reasonable. If they produce a good team – not great, not necessarily a winner – year after year on a budget they earn the applause. David Poile figured out a way to do that and Maloney was smart enough to follow the blueprint.

  2. James Mirtle says:

    No question a great goalie has biggest possible impact. Trouble is so few of them are great every single year.

    Coyotes win with goaltending and coaching, really. Nothing wrong with that.

    • Tom says:

      Much of what we believe is goaltending is actually team defense. As long as it is hard to get good scoring chances against the Coyotes, their goalie will look good. A really good goalie will post great numbers in Phoenix. I don’t think a great goalie and a great coach can win. I don’t think you can make that combination into “good team” and I think the Coyotes are a good team like Nashville at their best was a good team.

      I think you underestimate the quality of some of their players. If I was Craig MacTavish and was willing to do something bold, I’d offer Nugent-Hopkins to the Coyotes for Ekman-Larsson.

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