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McConnell's Blog: What We've Learned About the Coyotes After 10 Games

Tuesday, 11.01.2011 / 7:35 PM / McConnell's Blog
By Matt McConnell
GLENDALE -- A season ago, the Coyotes posted a 3-4-3 record in their first 10 games of the season. This season, their mark stands at 5-3-2. And while it’s true the team rattled off seven straight wins in November, this season’s start is both impressive and in many ways understandable from a squad that wasn’t given much of a chance by preseason prognosticators.

Here’s why:

Goaltending
Mike Smith
It was the biggest story surrounding the Coyotes heading into the season. Ilya Bryzgalov bolted to Philadelphia via trade in the off-season, which opened up an opportunity for subsequent free-agent signee Mike Smith. Along with steady Jason LaBarbera, Smith’s start has allowed many fans to begin forgetting about Bryzgalov. In his eight starts, Smith has allowed two or fewer goals five times. He ranks higher than Bryzgalov in goals allowed, wins, goals-against average, saves and save percentage. LaBarbera has been effective when called upon as well. His 23-save performance in the team’s win at Nashville during Week 2 was textbook as he was forced to make several tough saves off Predators deflections. This was the same Nashville team that had the NHL’s best home record for the calendar year. Goaltending was a transitional position for the Coyotes heading into the season. In October, it was the strength of the team.

Blueline King Klesla
Rusty had been a bit of an unknown to me. Since I had spent most of my broadcasting career in the Eastern Conference, I rarely had the opportunity to watch him live, whether in Phoenix or
Rostislav Klesla
when he played for the Columbus Blue Jackets. After an average training camp, Klesla exploded with confidence as demonstrated in his steady play. His emergence on the Coyotes blueline came when veteran Michal Rozsival went down with an injury during the season opener at San Jose. Klesla is just plain smart on the back end with his angles and decisions. Stay at home? Sure, if you look strictly at points. But he also has done an effective job of getting pucks to the net. He ranks second among Coyotes defensemen (behind Keith Yandle) with 21 shots. It’s obvious he’s gained the confidence of Head Coach Dave Tippett and Associate Coach Jim Playfair as his ice time per game has increased from about 18 minutes per game to roughly 21 minutes per game. Over the first 10 tilts, I’m not sure there’s been a more reliable Phoenix defenseman than the Czech Republic native.

The Leader of the Pack
Shane Doan
Shane Doan has enjoyed one of the best starts of his career, registering 10 points in the first 10 games. A season ago, Doan didn’t record his 10th point until his 17th game. It also took him 18 games to tally four goals, his current total for this season. But his contributions on ice tell only part of the story. His leadership off the ice has been a storyline ever since he arrived in the National Hockey League way back in 1995. He continues to take ownership of a locker room mixed with veterans, newcomers and kids. His pleasant personality morphs into a consuming business demeanor in practice and on game days. At practice, Doan is often one of the last to leave the ice as he works on one-timers from the circle over and over and over again. It remains to be seen if he can maintain the point-per-game pace for the rest of the season. However, the leadership thing became a foregone conclusion years ago.

The Killjoys
While the power play has been better this season, it’s been the penalty-killing unit that has stolen the special teams spotlight. The PK didn’t allow an opposition goal in six of the first 10 games. In fact, if you pull out the opening night meltdown in San Jose in which the Coyotes allowed three Sharks power-play goals on six attempts, the team’s kill rate stands at 91.2 percent. That would make them the fourth-best unit in the circuit instead of the 14th best. They finished the month by killing 11 of 12 over the last four games, which leads me into the team’s discipline factor. Over the first five games, the Coyotes’ penalty kill went on the job an average of five times per game. Those opposition chances decreased to just three per game in the final five games.

Yes Commissioner
Maybe it’s time to start referring to center Boyd Gordon as the Commissioner of Faceoffs. Brought
Boyd Gordon
in from the Washington Capitals as a replacement for the departed Vernon Fiddler, Gordon has exceeded expectations with his work in the circles. The team ranked sixth in the NHL in faceoff success and so did Gordon, successful nearly 60 percent of the time. He established himself as a top ten option in the league over a three-game stretch when he won 34 of 52 draws, a 65 percent success rate. In a sport where possession is a critical ingredient for success, Gordon has been a major factor of the team’s ability to control games at critical times.

►Oh yeah, one final thought for you. Did you know the Coyotes are scoring more this season? True story. In their first 10 games, they are generating an average of 3.0 goals per game compared to 2.3 per game over the same span last season.

Look, I know I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you in this blog. But numbers are black and white. Sure, team rosters change and strength of schedule varies from one year to the next. But a 5-3-2 start in which six of the 10 matchups were against playoff teams from a season ago is certainly encouraging.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Follow Matt McConnell on Twitter @sparty8185.
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