Grab bag: Arizona Coyotes offer fresh mix of good and bad in season’s strong start

The Arizona Coyotes are off to a promising start to the 2023-24 season, but the first nine games have revealed a mix of strengths and challenges. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)

PHOENIX – The Arizona Coyotes are off to their best start in years.

Barely a handful of games into the season, there have been some interesting and disappointing factors in the young core.

True, the 4-4-1 record is merely the best start over a nine-game span since the 2019-20 season. What has given life to the Coyotes’ first month of the 2023-24 season? While the sample size is still small, some patterns have emerged.

Good: The top power-play unit

The Coyotes’ power play has been powerful out of the gate. They’re currently operating at a 23.7 percentage, which is the 10th-best in the league. It couldn’t have been done without the top power-play unit, which features forwards Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Barrett Hayton, Logan Cooley and defenseman Sean Durzi. Their chemistry to start the season has been unreal. They know where each other is on the ice and that helped the team win its home opener. Both of Arizona’s goals were on the man advantage, including Keller’s game-winning goal.

“I think our power play has been great to start the season,” coach Andre Tourigny said. “I think we have two units that can produce at any time so that’s a big thing for us.”

Bad: The Matt Dumba-Travis Dermott pairing

The Coyotes had some major additions to their blueline over the offseason, including defensemen Matt Dumba and Travis Dermott. Unfortunately, the pairing hasn’t worked out, resulting in a terrible +/- record to start the season.

Heading into Thursday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, Dermott is still looking for his first point as a Coyote and has been out of the lineup because of illness. Meanwhile, Dumba hasn’t scored since the first game of the season. Besides Durzi, most of the players on the blueline appear to be lagging and have relied heavily on their goaltenders. It could be an area where Tourigny makes some changes.

Good: The goalies

There is no way to simplify how great the goaltending tandem of Karel Vejmelka and Connor Ingram has been to start the season. The friendship and commitment for the team between the two is strong, leading to Arizona’s encouraging start.

“We’re really good friends,” Vejmelka said. “It’s a great friendship for sure. We just want to support each other and support the team.”

Vejmelka has started four games and is currently at a .916 save percentage, which is good enough for 13th place in the NHL. Even with a 2-3-1 record, he has a 2.75 goals-against average to start the season. Ingram, with a .914 save percentage, has had some very good games to begin the season. If both goalies continue this trend and the players in front of them fix their defense, the Coyotes could begin to sneak into playoff discussions.

Bad: Barrett Hayton’s slow start

While Hayton, a center, isn’t a superstar player who will be a point-per-game player, his first nine games of the season have been a bit disappointing. He’s on the first power-play unit, which has been excellent, but he’s been held off the scoresheet. He’s also on that explosive topline with Keller and Schmaltz but still nothing has come from the 40-plus point scorer from last season. Most of the Coyotes’ points have come from Keller, Schmaltz and Cooley, but if the Coyotes want to keep up with deep offensively talented teams, they need their whole lineup to score, and that includes Hayton.

Good: Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz

Not trading Schmaltz might be an underrated move during general manager Bill Armstrong’s rebuild of the Coyotes. The 27-year-old forward has eight points in nine games and has had great chemistry with Keller, who also has eight points in nine games.

Keller also has four goals which is tied for the team lead. Moreover, the duo’s chemistry means they know where to find each other on the ice, resulting in the two picking up where they left off last season. Schmaltz just needs to stay healthy as he still hasn’t played a full 82-game season due to injury. Meanwhile, Keller is seeking to break the record he tied last season: most points (86) in a single season. With the way he’s been playing and if he keeps putting up points every game, it could very well happen.

Bad: The penalty kill

Despite a decent-looking penalty-kill unit in the home opener, the Coyotes have not had a great PK. The unit is currently operating at a 71% success rate – the fourth worst in the league. The team has relied on its goalies a lot, perhaps explaining why the unit has yet to gel. The lack of chemistry could also be blamed on the defense as Durzi and J.J. Moser are the only defensemen with a positive +/- record. Either way, the penalty-kill unit has been a concern for the Coyotes, who have allowed opponents nine power-play goals in nine games.

Good: Logan Cooley

It’s an overstatement to already call Cooley the best rookie so far but the stats are facts. The forward has seven points and is tied for first in scoring for rookies this season. He’s looked good on his line with Jason Zucker and Matias Maccelli and on the top power-play unit. He’s perfectly capable of passing and making some nifty moves. The only real improvement he can make is shooting the puck more. He’s only got one goal this season. Besides that, he’s been excellent so far in his first season in the NHL.

It has been a good start for the Coyotes as they hunt for a playoff spot for the first time since 2020. The feat will require the scoring to keep its pace and the goaltending to keep performing above average. However, the team is proud of its play so far and most importantly they’re having fun.

“You know, there’s a brotherhood in here,” forward Liam O’Brien said. “We are all close. We’re having fun. So let’s keep it rolling.”

Chase Beardsley(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Chase Beardsley expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Beardsley has been a beat writer for teams and sites such as the ASU ACHA women’s D1 hockey team and The Hockey Writers.