Few narratives were more compelling than the reincarnation of the Phoenix Coyotes as a competitive hockey team in the 2009-10 season. Long consigned to the dustbin of the Western Conference, forever battling budget issues, poor prior decisions by management and an as-of-yet-unresolved ownership boondoggle, the Coyotes seemed poised to sink lower than the 1974-75 Washington Capitals in the summer of 2009.
Although restrained by considerable budget limits and an uncertainty about the identity of his future boss, Don Maloney made a number of subtle personnel changes that would go on to have a profound impact on the club going forward. The replacement of Wayne Gretzky with the far more accomplished Dave Tippett gets most of the attention (as evidenced by Tippett's Jack Adams award), as perhaps it should given the club's ascendance from possession sinkhole to outshooting club inside a single season.
There was more to the Coyotes meteoric rise than the coaching change, however. Perhaps encouraged by the success of other clubs promoting kids to prominent positions on the roster, the 2008-09 iteration of the club was riddled with inexperienced youngsters struggling to find their legs at the NHL level. With the wreckage of that failed experiment behind him, Maloney endeavored to restock the team with cheap, capable veterans in the intervening offseason. Because none of the guys in question were splashy acquisitions, the rebuilding effort was mostly perceived as little more than a shuffling of deck chairs.
A more appropriate analogy in light of the club's vast improvement may be tug of war: if possession is a contest to pull the other team over the center line, then the kids on the Coyotes were guys who couldn't even pull their own weight.
Phoenix Coyotes, 2008-2009 Possession tug of war
Player GP TOI/60 Corsi/60 Zonestart
Martin Hanzal 74 12.52 -5.76 38.4%
Victor Tikhonov 61 9.94 -6.73 49.7%
Peter Mueller 72 12.22 -7.30 55.0%
Shane Doan 82 14.48 -8.19 48.6%
Mikkel Boedker 78 12.00 -9.10 46.6%
Steven Reinprecht 73 11.60 -12.18 44.1%
Todd Fedoruk 72 10.19 -12.68 47.2%
Enver Lisin 48 11.80 -11.12 53.0%
Joakim Lidstrom 44 11.37 -12.71 49.8%
Kyle Turris 63 10.03 -14.72 60.0%
The table above shows forwards of the 2008-09 Phoenix Coyotes by games played, total even strength ice per 60 minutes, Corsi rate per 60 minutes as well as percentage of offensive zone faceoffs to defensive zone draws. For the sake of simplicity, players who were traded to or from the team mid-season, and players who appeared in less than 40 games, were excluded.
What's clear from the data is:
1. The entire team was underwater in terms of possession
2. The kids mostly acted as boat anchors, with the exception of the increasingly impressive Martin Hanzal, who handled the toughest assignment amongst the Coyote forwards and still led the group in terms of Corsi.
The rest of the peach-faced brigade basically sunk the club. Kyle Turris, Enver Lisin, Peter Mueller, Joakim Lidstrom and Viktor Tikhonov were are all at or above a 50% zonestart ratio, but nonetheless spent most nights chasing the puck around their own end. The worst culprit was former third overall draft pick Kyle Turris, who despite consistently being given the high ground to the tune of a 60% offensive zonestart, managed to have one of the very worst Corsi rates on the team. In fact, his -14.72/60 rate was the seventh-worst amongst regular skaters who played more than 50 games and five even strength minutes per game that season. Clearly, Gretzky tried his best to feed Turris the most favorable circumstances possible and the kid still struggled.
The lone Phoenix rookie not to enjoy a favorable starting position was Mikkel Boedker. Considering his circumstances, his relative Corsi rank wasn't terrible. The cause was likely more Martin Hanzal (who was Boedker's line mate for about 30% of his even strength ice time) than anything Boedker did however.
When players tasked with softer assignments are watching the puck bounce off their goalie (or into the twine), the task becomes nearly impossible for the rest of the clubparticularly on a team lacking truly elite talents up front in the Ovechkin/Crosby/Datsyuk mold who can drive possession against other quality players. As a result, veterans like Shane Doan and Steven Reinprecht were left with the unenviable task of "pulling the rope" by themselves, obviously without much in the way of success. However, things turned around the following season:
Phoenix Coyotes, 2009-2010 Possession tug of war
Player GP TOI/60 Corsi/60 Zonestart
Robert Lang 64 11.75 11.65 63.7%
Petr Prucha 79 12.08 8.42 50.6%
Radim Vrbata 82 12.67 8.26 49.6%
Shane Doan 82 14.17 7.59 54.8%
Martin Hanzal 81 13.44 4.9 46.6%
Matthew Lombardi 78 13.13 3.52 57.7%
Taylor Pyatt 74 11.98 1.83 49.0%
Vernon Fiddler 76 10.57 -0.45 41.1%
Daniel Winnik 74 9.86 -7.49 42.9%
L. Korpikoski 71 9.91 -9.72 51.8%
This table shows a similar batch of data, this time for members of the 2009-10 Coyotes. The mean Corsi rate swung from -10.05 per 60 minutes in 2008-09 to +2.85 per 60 minutes in 2009-10, a massive +12.90 per hour improvement across a ten player sample. The biggest contrast was between the likes of Matthew Lombardi/Robert Lang and Kyle Turris: instead of ceding possession despite a high percentage of offensive zone draws, both Lombardi and Lang held their heads above water. Appropriately, only youngster Lauri Korpikoski struggled to move the puck north despite a favorable starting position. Fortunately for his club, there weren't six "Korpikoskis" taking their first uncertain steps all at the same time as there had been the previous season.
Glancing again at the roster he had to work with, one can muster some empathy for Wayne Gretzky. The Great One had a patchwork quilt of youngsters, and in some cases seemed to be making the rational choice (or at least the best choice available). He clearly identified Kyle Turris as a player who needed extensive sheltering and worked to give him some pretty cushy ice time (not that it helped much). The problem, of course, was that nearly half the forward roster needed adequate sheltering and there is a limited quantity of relatively "easy" minutes available during any given game, not to mention the fact that the kids he was sheltering failed to press the advantage in those circumstances, in part because none of them were ready for prime time, but also because they were often playing together, thereby multiplying their deleterious effects on the Coyotes puck possession. For example, here is a list of Turris' linemates and the approximate percentage of even strength ice time he spent with them in 2008-09:
Kyle Turris' linemates, 2008-2009
Player % of ES
Peter Mueller 14.27
Joakim Lidstrom 12.70
Viktor Tikhonov 12.04
Mikkel Boedker 11.00
Enver Lisin 10.79
The effect of stacking kids on top of kids was no doubt a cumulative one in terms of the Coyotes inability to keep the puck in the offensive zone. Phoenix had 11 players with 100 or less NHL games see 300 or more even strength minutes in 2008-2009, with five of them of them playing relatively significant roles (600 minutes or more): Boedker, Keith Yandle, Mueller, Turris and Tikhonov. That total shrank to four in 2009-10, with only the aforementioned Korpikoski (724 minutes) and defender Sami Lepisto (1,060 minutes) seeing significant ice time. The move from an inexperienced squad to a veteran one was in part facilitated by the natural maturation of the some of the players in 2008-09 (Mueller, Yandle and Hanzal for example), but mostly due to the expulsion of Turris, Tikhonov, Boedker, Lisin and Lidstrom, either through demotion or trade.
This speaks to the larger issue of young players being perceived as a panacea in the post-Lockout NHL. Due to the fact that entry level deals are the best place to find value in a capped NHL as well as the relatively swift manner in which guys like Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane and Toews have tasted success, there's been both a shift in NHL general managers' acceptance of playing rookies as well as the fans' demand to "give the kids a chance". The truth is that players like Crosby et al are generational talents (meaning, exceptionally rare) and they were certainly not surrounded by a cadre of rookies when they won their divisions/conferences/Cups.
Young players enter the NHL weaker, slower and dumber than the average veteran and are at a significant disadvantage relative to established guys. Breaking in several green troops simultaneously is therefore a sure way to poor puck possession, and more often than not, a poor record as well. The contrast between the 2008-09 Coyotes and the 2009-2010 Coyote
serves as an object lesson.