For the second straight season, the upstart Phoenix Coyotes will face the league's longest running semi-dynasty in the Detroit Red Wings. Phoenix managed to extend the first round series to seven games last year before finally being overwhelmed by Detroit's superior depth. Neither team has drastically changed since that last encounter, so a similar outcome is not unexpected.
Detroit offense vs. Phoenix defense
Detroit Red Wings offense: +33.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes defense: -12.2 GVT (Rank: 24th in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes goaltending: +12.0 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total: Detroit Red Wings, +33.2 GVT
As usual, Detroit remains one of the most potent teams in the NHL. Even though the Red Wings lost Pavel Datsyuk (26 games), Brian Rafalski (19 games) and Daniel Cleary (14 games) for significant amounts of time, they still managed the second-most dominant overall offense behind only the Vancouver Canucks (+34.0 GVT). The secret of their success is the dual Selke-caliber play of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyukat even strength, both managed to be well above water in terms of possession despite being hard-matched against other team's top-lines and starting more often in the defensive end than any other regular skater on the team. Even under those circumstances, both Zetterberg and Datsyuk scored more than 2.00 ESP/60 (2.14 and 2.72 respectively), to say nothing of their dominance on the power play (6.62 PPP/60 and 5.68 PPP/60). Assisting Zetterberg and Datsyuk in the heavy lifting are guys like Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Danny Cleary. Todd Bertuzzi and Valteri Filppula are questionable talents at five-on-five but can still provide punch on the man advantage, while supporting characters Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Patrick Eaves are better than average fourth-liners.
The Red Wings attack is augmented by Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. The aging stars remain quality puck-movers and power play quarterbacks, ably directing traffic and controlling play at whatever game-state you care to name. Lidstrom in particular continues to defy father time, managing an NHL best 6.62 PPP/60 amongst blueliners.
Although Dave Tippett is known for his defensive acumen, the Coyotes had a below average defense this year. The loss of hard-minutes defender Zbynek Michalek this past summer to free agency no doubt hurt, as did injuries to first line/shutdown center Martin Hanzal and top-two defender Ed Jovanovsky for periods of time. Midseason acquisitions Rostislav Klesla and Michal Rozsival helped to stabilize Phoenix's depth somewhat, although they are middle-rotation talents at best. Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin and the emergent Keith Yandle round out the back-end which is good if not terribly impressive in terms of overall defensive ability. Adrian Aucoin can still play between 18-20 minutes a night and was an impressive +18 this season. His mobility is limited and although he can make up for it with positioning and veteran savvy, he's a guy that can exposed by quicker forwards. Derek Morris is good at everything, but excels at nothing in particular. A lot of shutdown duties have fallen to him this season.
Another perhaps overlooked loss to the Coyotes depth was Daniel Winnik, who was moved to the Colorado Avalanche and has since turned into a rock-solid third line defensive option for the Avs. Winnik was also buried in terms of zone starts in Phoenix during his time there and his departure left a bit of hole in the bottom-end of the roster for Tippett to fill. Robert Lang and Matthew Lombardi left in the summer as well as neither figured much in Tippett's defensive scheme. However, with both gone, Martin Hanzal moved from third-line shutdown type duties to a more hybrid first-line role. His counting numbers improved as a result, but the defensive burden shifted slightly more to the third and fourth liners like Taylor Pyatt and Vernon Fiddler as a result.
In the crease, Ilya Bryzgalov continues to put up quality numbers and is considered on the fringes of the Vezina conversation every year for a reason. His +12.0 GVT and ES SV% of .931 were some of the best measures in the league amongst starting goaltenders. Behind him, the 'Yotes have the dependable Jason LaBarbera, whose .926 ES SV% in 17 games played wasn't too shabby either.
Advantage: Detroit Red Wings
Phoenix offense vs. Detroit defense
Phoenix Coyotes offense: +1.0 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings defense: -5.5 GVT (Rank: 19th in the NHL)
Detroit Red Wings goaltending: -8.9 GVT (Rank: 19th in the NHL)
Total: Phoenix Coyotes, +15.4 GVT
Phoenix continues to be a middling squad in terms of offense. The aforementioned losses of Lombardi and Lang were somewhat assuaged by the signing of Ray Whitney, who continues to be a decent top-six NHLer. Wojtek Wolski, acquired for Peter Mueller during a career year in Colorado last season turned out to be a bust, spending long periods of time in Dave Tippett's doghouse due to his inconsistency. Originally penciled in as a winger with Hanzal and Radim Vrbata, Wolski was eventually dumped for Rozsival, improving the blueline but eroding the talent up front.
The Coyotes top-end is populated by the aforementioned Whitney as well as Hanzal, Vrbata and Shane Doan, with Doan being the only forward to manage more than 2.0 ESP/60 during the regular season. The only other regular forwards to score in that range were youngsters Lauri Korpikosi and former first rounder Kyle Turris. The former was actually well under water in terms of possession (-11.12 corsi/60) and was the beneficiary of an unnaturally high PDO (105.3) including a team-high on-ice SH% of 11.51. Korpikoski has been a fairly marginal player since breaking into the league, so we can safely assign his scoring rate to the "aberration" category.
Turris, on the other hand, played in an incredibly sheltered role (bottom-six opposition and a zone start above 60%), but he managed a team-best possession rate as a result (+8.29 corsi/60). He adds some scoring punch to the bottom-end at least.
The only true threat from the blueline for Phoenix is Yandle, who broke out with a career-high 11 goal and 48 assist season. The 24-year-old is a good skater and smart puck-mover with a lethal shot. Being the lone notable weapon on the back-end, Yandle's ice time frequently creeps above the 25-minute mark, especially on nights when the Coyotes enjoy a lot of power plays.
For Detroit, defensive duties will obviously fall to Datsyuk and Zetterberg up front. Johan Franzen is also a very capable two-way player who routinely finishes in the black in terms of possession, so expect him to share in the heavy lifting. Daniel Cleary is also a very capable everyman who can play at both ends of the ice, so Detroit is able to ice at least two lines of highly adept defensive forwards. On the blueline, Lidstrom and Rafalski are also the shutdown duo, but are supported by Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl. The middle of the rotation is pretty strong, particularly if Kronwall is active and healthy. A smart player and heavy hitter, Kronwall would be on a lot of top pairings in the league. Brad Stuart never turned into the dominant defender many expected, but he's good enough as a number four guy. After that, things fall off quickly, with both Ericsson and Kindl being mostly detriments. Ericsson is huge and skates well enough for a big man, but still has problems reading the play and handling the puck. He's fine as long as he's carefully managed and not asked to do more than play on the third pairing. Kindl made the NHL full time this season and struggled to keep his head above water most of the time. Mike Babcock tends to shelter Kindl with nominal match-ups and high zone start ratios and that limit the damage. Rounding things out is mediocre veteran Ruslan Salei.
Detroit's defensive rating was surprisingly middling this year. Part of that may be due to some of the injuries mentioned and another part is the existence of weaknesses like Ericsson and Kindl on the back-end along with the odd marginal defensive forward like Filppula up front.
In net, Jimmy Howard came back down to earth this season after an outstanding rookie year. His overall and even strength save rate (.908 and .916) were completely average. The bad news for the Wings is that Howard is by far the best puck stopper they have: Chris Osgood took another step towards retirement this year, finishing the year with a .903 SV% while 31 year-old Joey MacDonald has been an AHLer 'tweener for his entire career.
Advantage: Phoenix Coyotes
Detroit Power Play vs. Phoenix Penalty Kill
Detroit Red Wings Power Play: +12.9 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes Penalty Kill: -10.7 GVT (Rank: 26th in NHL)
Total: Detroit Red Wings, +23.6 GVT
Unfortunately for the Coyotes, their bottom-third power play will be tested by the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, Filppula, Lidstrom and Rafalski. Looks like it would be a good idea for Phoenix to stay out of the box as much as possible.
Advantage: Detroit Red Wings
Phoenix Power Play vs. Detroit Penalty Kill
Phoenix Coyotes Power Play: -5.3 GVT (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings Penalty Kill: -1.0 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Total: Phoenix Coyotes, -4.3 GVT
In concert with their general defensive mediocrity, the Red Wings weren't all that good on the PK this season either. Good news for them is the Coyotes were even worse on the man advantage. Only Ray Whitney and Shane Doan managed more than 4.0 PPP/60 with the man advantage for the Coyotes this season. Not even Keith Yandle, he of 59 points from the back-end, crested the 4.0-point per hour mark.
Advantage: Detroit Red Wings
Injuries and Intangibles
The Coyotes are a remarkable story given the fact the organization is a ward of the state. With ownership in shambles and a limited budget, it's a surprise that this club has been able to manage back-to-back playoff appearances. All credit goes to Don Maloney, Dave Tippett and the players on the ice. Heck, the Coyotes are a team that would probably be a favorite in a series that didn't involve a juggernaut like the Red Wings or Canucks.
Unfortunately, this one does. The Wings still boast some of the best players in the league at their various positions and obviously have superior depth, especially up front. The Coyotes lone, true advantage is in net with Ilya Bryzgalov being clearly superior to Howard and company.
The other piece of good news for Coyotes fans is that Henrik Zetterberg is starting the series with a bad knee and is likely to watch the first few games from the press box. Zetterberg is a truly elite forward, so if he's out for any length of time it will increase the Coyotes chances considerably.
Advantage: Detroit Red Wings
Detroit Red Wings: +20.0 GVT (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes: +5.0 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Total: Detroit Red Wings, +15.0 GVT
The Coyotes don't have the top-end to reasonably compete with the Red Wings. Detroit is the superior by just about every angle, except for the goal position. Phoenix's only real hope in this series is to stay out of penalty trouble and hope Byzgalov can steal a few games.
Prediction: Detroit in six games