Predators vs. Coyotes Preview: A Look at the Coyotes Forwards

The Yotes have plenty of name recognition up front, but can any step up against the Preds?

If you’re a fan of high-powered offensive hockey led by a group of dynamic scorers at the height of their game...then why are you reading about this Coyotes vs. Predators playoff series?

Ahem. All snarkiness aside, the Arizona Coyotes’ forward corps are somewhat in the same boat as the Predators’.  The talent is there, especially with the additions of players like Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall over the past year or so.  But for whatever reason, the Coyotes just can’t seem to score on a consistent basis.

The Coyotes finished 23rd in the league in scoring, with just 2.68 goals per 60 minutes.  In terms of expected goals, the Coyotes fall to 25th in the league at 2.56 xG/60, meaning Arizona is one of the worst in the league at creating quality scoring chances.

One factor could be chemistry.  The chart below represents the forward combinations the Coyotes have used each game.  Each player is represented by his own color, and where the color is on the line chart represents which line that players was primarily slotted in a game.

If all you see is a jumbled mess of colors — well — that’s because the Coyotes didn’t have a ton of consistency in terms of line combinations and deployment.  Head coach Rick Tocchet did a lot of mixing and matching throughout the season across all of his combinations.

The Headliners

The aforementioned Hall will be the Coyotes’ X-factor for the series.  While he’s nowhere near the form he displayed during his Hart Trophy-winning season in 2018, Hall has still been a steady source of scoring.  He leads all Arizona players with 52 points, 27 of which (10 G, 17 A) have come in his 35 games as a Coyote.

Hall will be under the microscope perhaps more than any other player in this series.  He’s expected to be the top free agent forward on the market whenever it opens.  The Coyotes are so invested in keeping him, team owner Alex Merulo and CEO Xavier Gutierrez are reportedly handling contract negotiations, not general manager John Chayka.  But there’s no doubt 30 other teams around the league will be watching his playoff performance closely, hoping to catch a glimpse of the franchise-changing player that scored 98 points two seasons ago.

Apart from Hall, it’s been a quartet of young forwards who have carried the Coyotes this season.  Conor Garland and Clayton Keller have each spent time on the top line opposite Hall.  Garland, 24, led the Coyotes with 22 goals in his first full season in the NHL.  Keller, 21, has struggled to stay consistent since his Calder-nominated rookie season in 2018, but has the speed and hockey IQ to single-handedly create offensive chances.

One thing the Coyotes lack is a true number one center.  Nick Schmaltz led Arizona in assists (34) and was second in points (45), but ended the season on a massive slump, finding the net just four times since the new year—two of which came in the final game before the stoppage. Christian Dvorak was the center who spent the most time playing alongside Hall after the trade.  He’s evolved into a reliable two-way player, not unlike former Arizona #1 center Martin Hanzal.  But Dvorak isn’t the scoring threat a true 1C provides (just 18 G, 20 A this season.)

The Supporting Cast

It’s unusual that we’ve come this far into a discussion about the Coyotes’ forwards without mentioning Phil Kessel.  But this has been a year to forget for America’s favorite hot dog aficionado.  Kessel managed just 38 points (14 G, 24 A) his first season in the desert, a huge drop from the 82 he scored in Pittsburgh the year prior.

And yet, Predators fans don’t need a reminder of just how dangerous Kessel can be when he’s on.  He scored two goals against the Nashville in the two teams’ first matchup against each other this season.  Kessel has also become an underrated playoff performer. He’s registered 56 points over his last four playoff trips, and is just a year removed from two of the best years of his career, so it’s naive to think Kessel is anywhere past his prime.  He’s a legitimate finisher who could gain a hot hand if one of Arizona’s other playmakers starts heating up.

The bottom six is where most of the Coyotes depth lies.  Derek Stepan, while not quite the player he was in New York, can play virtually anywhere in the lineup without looking out of place.  He’s not going to dominate the scoresheet like he did with the Rangers, but he’s always a threat to score at a critical point in the game.  The same can be said for Carl Söderberg, another veteran capable of adding a steady stream of scoring from the middle six.  Lawson Crouse, a former first-rounder, is a big body who can win puck battles around the net.

The Coyotes fourth line could see a few different looks throughout the playoffs.  Brad Richardson — one of the league’s better defensive forwards and a key cog in Arizona’s fifth-ranked Penalty Kill — will likely anchor the bottom trio.  Veteran speedster Michael Grabner will compete for time on the wings along with younger guys Vinnie Hinostroza and Christian Fischer.

A Potential Up-And-Comer

The expanded rosters will give Arizona a couple of intriguing options that could earn a look in the postseason.  Barrett Hayton, the fifth overall pick in 2018, had his first professional season derailed by an injury in the World Juniors.  Even when he was healthy, Hayton did not have much of an impact, scoring just one goal and three assists this year.  But he was impressive both at the Juniors and in his short conditioning stint in the AHL, and a full training camp with the NHL club may give Hayton a little more confidence.