By: Seth Askelson Photo By: Zachary BonDurant
It is no secret that the Arizona Coyotes have struggled offensively in recent years. Even in the 2011-2012 season that ended in a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Coyotes finished 18th in the league in goals for per game. Plus, in the three consecutive seasons the Coyotes made the playoffs (2009-2010 to 2011-2012), the Coyotes finished 21st in the same category over that time span.
The powerplay has been a major reason for the struggles. Arizona converted on only 14.8% of its man-advantage opportunities in the regular season over the three consecutive playoff years mentioned above, the worst in the entire NHL by a half of a percent.
The powerplay issues have never really disappeared for the Coyotes, no matter how well the team was doing in the standings or what talent was on the ice. Arizona finished 26th in the league in powerplay percentage in the first two years under head coach Rick Tocchet, and an improvement in that area could push the Coyotes over the hump.
The best solution to solve powerplay woes is to hire the greatest American-born player to play in a man-advantage situation. Over his 21 year career, Phil Housley amassed 612 powerplay points, the most by an American-born player, and ninth all-time in NHL history.
Housley has been a great influence on the man-advantage units, as the powerplay has converted 19.2% of the time this season, a 2.9% increase from the year before. While there is a lot more talent on the power play than in years past, it also takes the group coming together and working as one.
“I think they’ve got a good understanding,” Housley said. “We’ve set some parameters, some guidance in what we’re looking for so we’re not overpassing. We’re trying to be more of a shot-mentality team.”
Familiar foe for Schmaltz
Nick Schmaltz became a part of the Chicago Blackhawks organization when he was drafted 20th overall by the team in 2014. He eventually made his NHL debut two years later, and was a part of the season that marked the end of the Blackhawks’ dominant run that lasted nearly eight years.
The Blackhawks won the regular season Western Conference title, as well as the home ice advantage all throughout the conference portion of the postseason. Schmaltz and his teammates look primed for a fourth Stanley Cup run in seven years, as they headed into the first round matched up with the Nashville Predators.
The Predators had never gotten past the second round, and the team was determined to break through. The Predators pulled off the most stunning first round upset in years, taking the Blackhawks down in four games, eventually making it to the Stanley Cup Final.
That playoffs laid the groundwork for the current Predators defensive core. While PK Subban is no longer in the yellow and navy, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm used that postseason to take their games to the next level that has been displayed over the last three seasons.
Schmaltz participated in all four games of that 2017 series, only recording two penalty minutes and leaving without a point in his only playoff appearances. He will be matching up against the same defensive players who played a huge role in shutting down the juggernaut Blackhawks, and will have to help his teammates get past Nashville and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Those guys are world-class players,” Schmaltz said. “Especially in the playoffs, I think things tighten up a even more, a lot less time and space. You have to pick and choose when to make plays out there. There’s not a lot of plays to be made in such tight checking, especially with the style they play.”
While the Coyotes are most likely set in its top 7 defensemen, it can get a little murky on the depth chart when deciding who would be next up in case of an injury. The Coyotes could go with Aaron Ness or Kyle Capobianco, both of which have played for Arizona this season. An option that is also on the table is dressing Victor Soderstrom for his NHL debut.
Soderstrom played his second consecutive year in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) after being taken eleventh overall in last summer’s draft. The resumption of the NHL gave him a chance to practice at the NHL level. He has made his way up to Edmonton with Arizona, getting important reps and practice time every day in the highest competitive environment in the sport.
If Soderstrom is to make his debut in the Edmonton bubble, he will have a lot of experience on the back end to lean on. Nik Hjalmarsson has his names engraved in three different spots on the Stanley Cup, Alex Goligoski has lifted the coveted trophy once, and Jason Demers has participated in 52 playoff contests. There is a wealth of knowledge and support for him to lean on in the defense core, and he has been learning all during camp.
“Those guys told me it’s like a new start of a season,” Soderstrom said. “If you go all the way, it’s a new season. It’s tough to play, you’re in a tough schedule, and every game is very important. You need to take care of your body in between very carefully. Just give 100 percent every second out there on the ice.”