October 26, 2009
Sometimes reality is worse than the perception
TFP Columnist Dennis Bernstein visited the home of the Phoenix Coyotes this past weekend.

[GLENDALE, AZ] -- I'm not one to pile on. I try to resist from hitting someone when they're down. Heck, everyone likes a nice slewfoot now and then but when the guy can't skate, what's the point?

So here I sit in the press box of the gorgeous Jobing.com arena just 45 minutes from a 6PM Saturday game between the division leading Phoenix Coyotes and the Los Angeles Kings. The site lines are perfect since the building was built specifically for hockey; the temperature inside the venue strikes a perfect balance between chilling the ice and not making the customers too chilly. The music blaring from the PA is at a palatable noise level adding to a pleasant in-arena experience.

Just yards from the entrance sits a destination with restaurants and bars, making it easy for fans to nourish themselves before the match it's really a little slice of hockey heaven in the West Valley of Phoenix.

There's only one problem: No fans.

There were less than 100 people in the arena when the teams came out for their pre-game warm-up. If the Toronto Maple Leafs scrimmaged on an outdoor rink in the Northwest Territories in January, they've have more fans watching.

It's too bad because despite all the negativity surrounding the team, they've had a good a start as any team in the NHL. They were the ones to pin the only loss on Pittsburgh in the Penguins' first ten games. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's work has been sterling between the pipes. GM Don Maloney smartly took the heat off youngsters Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhanov by importing veterans Robert Lang and Radim Vrbata so the kids can develop properly in the minors. On ice, while they'll be offensively challenged all season but they play a speedy, up-tempo game and have a great leader in the charismatic Shane Doan.

While most think it's difficult to create a winning atmosphere with the massive weight of off-ice issues around their necks, Los Angeles Kings Coach Terry Murray claims just the opposite.

"They've got absolutely no expectations on them," he said. "There's no pressure on them whatsoever and that makes them a very dangerous team."

Murray proved to be clairvoyant as just hours later; his team got thumped 6-3 in the Los Angeles' home opener. Surprisingly, the case can be made to put Phoenix in the mix for an unlikely playoff berth.

One need only look back to last February when Phoenix was hovering in the 5-6 spot with great play from Bryzgalov and the skaters heeding then-coach, now-debt collector Wayne Gretzky's urgings from behind the bench. While the end play found the Coyotes suffering from the combination not enough goals and too much youth found them wanting for post season action, there was a foundation for the franchise to build on.

But then the deep, dark clouds of the economic decline swooped in on ownership and pulverized that foundation. The court cases and the ownership battles have been documented ad nauseum so to recant them here would only serve as to be redundant. The shame of it for loyal Phoenix hockey fans is that when this team does depart (and they will), they will be leaving a team that is traveling a parallel track to the rapidly developing Kings. While Gretzky's presence behind-the-behind commanded immediate respect, the age of question regarding the ability of great players to teach lesser lights was proved out when looking at 99's coaching record.

A team in need of any break got a huge one when rookie Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk foolishly canned Coach Dave Tippett and replaced him with the bombastic and widely disliked Marc Crawford. Tippett has the right mentality and approach to lead this team no matter where the may strap on the skates next season. The surprise ouster in Dallas gives the Coyotes as motivated a coach as can be to prove his employers wrong.

This night, the attendance was announced at 7968, but in fact it looked about half that total. You can't really blame any Phoenix hockey fan for not purchasing a season ticket because you're in essence asking them to invest in a stock of a bankrupt company. I spoke with a well known Coyotes fan, UFC play-by-play man Mike Goldberg for a feature in the upcoming Fall issue of The Fourth Period Magazine and he still believes that hockey in the desert can work.

"They do a great job on game night. I bring my kids and the in-house entertainment is the best I've seen. It's a really fun experience," Goldberg said, giving high praise considering he has worked in Detroit, Minnesota and Vancouver in addition to doing games for ESPN back in the day.

The team will get nice single game sales for the likes of the Penguins and the Red Wings and if they're still playing well in January when football season ends, they might break five figures a night in attendance. But suffice to say that if the presiding judge in the bankruptcy case, Reinhard T. Baum sat next to me in the press box and saw the (lack of) crowd on this night, the only ruling that would be just would be let the Coyotes run wild and free north of the border.

KOPITAR LIVING LIKE A KING IN L.A.

While it's not unusual to see makes like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin at the top of the early season scoring list, there's one entry that most people might be surprised about, it reads: Kopitar – LA.

The Kings first round draft pick (11th overall) in the 2005 draft burst on the scene out of Slovakia in his rookie year, but in his third NHL season, his play hit a plateau. As the Kings faded from playoff contention for yet another year last spring, the questions surrounding Anze's ability to play as a number one center in the league kept popping up.

Kopitar, with support from team captain Dustin Brown went on the offensive, claiming that the team needed to get him more support. GM Dean Lombardi served that volley back over the net by saying that both players need to be better this season and that his number one center needed to come back in shape to compete through the rigors of an 82 game (and hopefully beyond for Kings' fans) schedule.

While using the stick, Lombardi served up a tasty carrot for his center to munch on as training camp started. He swapped emerging defenseman Kyle Quincey and the high-priced but invisible Tom Priessing for the veteran left winger Ryan Smyth. Colorado GM Greg Sherman admitted that his franchise wasn't at the level that was best suited for Smyth's talent and leadership.

"We decided to go young and Quincey's only 24 years old, so it's was the right move for our team," Sherman said.

The Kings, with expectations now at level where a playoff appearance is necessary, saw Smyth as a key part of the puzzle combined with free agent signee Rob Scuderi that would get them close, if not in, the top eight of the ever-difficult Western Conference.

A major weakness of the Kings in this decade has been their lack of toughness around the net as most of their players were of the finesse variety. Smyth came with a hard hat and tool box not seen at Casa del Staples since the days when another former Av, Adam Deadmarsh crashed his way in to the hearts of Kings' fans. With Smyth leading by example and Kopitar possessing renewed vigor combined with a stronger upper body, the pair has worked wonders in the early going.

"You can't really measure the effect the Smyth's had on Kopitar but Ryan is the type of player that doesn't take nights off," Los Angeles coach Terry Murray conveyed.

Anze's hat trick against the Dallas Stars last week was the made of the stuff first line centers do. On his first tally of the evening, Kopitar shed Dallas blue liner Stephan Robidas and then deeked netminder Alex Auld out of position for an easy marker, a move than didn't go unnoticed by his coach.

"Last season, he goes behind the net," Murray noted.

The level of his play hasn't gone unnoticed on his teammates either.

"He's playing as good as any center in the league," noted second-year man Wayne Simmonds, who's filing in for Justin Williams on the first line.

Simmonds has played as if he doesn't want to leave the trio because of the plethora of opportunities that come to his stick: "I don't know how he throws those passes, it's like he has eyes in the back of his head."

IS THIS THE DAY?

The NHL does nice production work on commercials promoting their rising stars and teams. I like the one where they feature the Chicago Blackhawks and ask at the end, "Is this the year?"

Professionally done and if I didn't get into games for free, it might spur me on to buy a ticket.

But I've got a much better question.

"Is this the day Ron Wilson gets fired?"

Those in the know say, 'no way' because Toronto GM Brian Burke is in too deep with Wilson. Not only is he the coach of his Maple Leafs but Burke picked him to coach the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver this coming February.

The hard feelings that would exist if Wilson got whacked before the Olympics as Leafs' head man would cause too much damage to the Red, White and Blue's chance for Olympic gold is the conventional wisdom that shields Wilson from jeopardy.

Other Wilson apologists will point out that the GM has given the coach a team devoid of talent. Burke is looking to replicate the success he had in Anaheim but inherited a reserve list far inferior to what he reaped by the beach in California. Burke's short term solution is that if we can't beat you, we'll beat you up. The coach can't win without talented players, can he? No horses, no playoffs, right?

Hold on, Tex.

It's not that they can't win, at least through nine games, they haven't won, period. Of course Wilson is protected by virtue of his dual coaching roles but if the Leafs opened the season 0-13-2 (but they won't), how could you not show the man Don Cherry calls "Genius" the door?

His defenders call him a better than average coach but the last time I saw any semblance of that was in Anaheim over a decade ago. The harsh reality is that under his stewardship, a talented Sharks team underachieved and an undermanned Leafs squad isn't overachieving. So where's all the great coaching in that body work? His failure to get the Leafs going hasn't gone unnoticed by the rest of his coaching brethren. The face is that Wilson's not well liked by most coaches in the league, they think he's too much sizzle and not much substance. It's ok to be cool and arrogant when you got a couple of Stanley Cup rings on your hand but a single U.S. world championship won eleven years ago doesn't put you in same sentence with Toe Blake.

Indeed, LeafsNation hasn't seen a Cup since 1967 so Wilson lovers say, 'why not wait a couple of more years for Burke to right the ship?' I'm sorry, but decades of failure should mean less tolerance of failure, not more. Even casual watchers of this team notice that the team isn't close to playoff caliber and that ultimately reside with the man behind the bench.

The best thing Burke could do in a town where everyone lives, breathes and craps Leafs would be to take the heat off of Wilson by letting him go to singularly concentrate on bring home an Olympic gold for the lower 48. Burke's out is to refer to Wilson's Toronto win-loss record as substantiation for the change and even the staunchest Wilson supporters have to agree that this is the wrong coach at the wrong time.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.

  Archives:
Sept. 30, 2009 Brooins Brewing for a Cup
Sept. 3, 2009 Ray to Heatley's rescue
May 16, 2009 Do the math... 117 is less than 0
Apr. 14, 2009 Wanna Bet?


 

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