Which Team is the Biggest Surprise of the 2019-20 NHL Season?

Roughly 35 games into the 2019-20 NHL season, the standings look mostly as expected. The Bruins sit atop the Atlantic, the Capitals have a big lead in the Metro, and the Blues and Avalanche are neck and neck in the Central.

However, in the Pacific, the current hierarchy is not one that most would have predicted. The Arizona Coyotes, a team that hasn’t finished better than fourth in the division or made the playoffs in the last seven years, a team that finished bottom-five in the NHL in goals last year, a team that generated the fewest high-danger scoring chances in 2018-19, is currently on top of the division.

Arizona is one point ahead of Vegas, the preseason favorites to win the Pacific, with a game in hand. They also boast a +14 goal differential, which is +7 better than the Golden Knights and at least +11 better than every other team in the division.

Can Arizona Keep It Up and Win the Pacific?

At best, the answer is a noncommittal “maybe.” More realistically, the answer is a pessimistic “probably not.”

Advanced analytics suggest Arizona’s fast start is not really sustainable. Over the last two seasons, the Coyotes’ Corsi and Fenwick were both well under 50%, meaning they were giving up more shots and shot attempts than they created. In terms of high-danger chances, they were giving up nearly 5% more than they created (52.4% to 47.6%).

This season, they are still in the negative in terms of Corsi and Fenwick, and roughly 50/50 in high-danger opportunities.

They are still struggling to score goals, but not quite to the same extent. They are averaging 2.77 GPG this year versus 2.59 last year. Even before acquiring former MVP Taylor Hall on Tuesday, they were verging on middle-of-the-pack in overall offensive production.

In other words, they have made some progress, but probably not enough to jump from fourth to first.

The real key to Arizona remaining a Pacific Division-title contender will be defense and goaltending. Darcy Keumper sits second in the NHL in both goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.935). He is first in the league in goals-saved above average.

Last year, he posted a 2.33 GAA and .925 SV% in his first season as a starter. (He’d spent the previous five years as a backup in Minnesota and LA.) Those numbers were far better than his preseason fantasy projections. This year has been off the charts.

It’s possible that Keumper maintains his Vezina-caliber play, but it’s more likely that he drops off a little, and a little drop off may be all the surging Golden Knights need to overtake Arizona.

Home-Ice Could Be a Hinderance

The Coyotes have had no discernable home-ice advantage this year. They are 8-8-1 at home and a remarkable 12-4-3 on the road. Only the NHL-leading Capitals have been better away from home (15-3-1).

If the Yotes don’t improve their play at home, it’s going to be hard to hold onto the division lead whether Keumper regresses or not.
Arizona is averaging 1.42 points per road game. Last year, only the Presidents Trophy-winning Lightning finished with more points-per-game on the road (1.52). Columbus was a distant second at 1.26.

It’s extremely unlikely the Coyotes keep up their current pace away from home. They are not the 2018-19 Lightning, a team that finished with 62 wins and 128 points.

Oddsmakers Don’t Buy Into the Coyotes

It’s common to see the best teams in the NHL – teams like the Bruins, Capitals, and Avalanche – as roughly -200 favorites when playing average or bottom-third teams at home.
The NHL odds page at sportsbettingdime.com shows that St Louis was a -180 favorite against Edmonton on Wednesday evening. Arizona, however, was only a -134 favorite against Minnesota on Thursday night. Minnesota sits five points behind Edmonton in the standings and is a woeful 7-13-2 on the road.

The odds reflect the reality that Arizona has overachieved so far. They are a good team and Rick Tocchet has them playing sound systematic hockey. That said, they are winning a lot of close, low-scoring games on the strength of a goaltender who’s having by far the best season of his mediocre career.

Enjoy the division lead while it lasts. There’s a black and gold chevalier picking up its pace on your left.
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