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September 30, 2013 | 8:56am ET
2013-14 Season Preview: Phoenix
By Dennis Bernstein, TheFourthPeriod.com

The Coyotes defied the odds over the summer, a team that appeared to be on the verge of relocation was saved just hours before a league-imposed deadline of obtaining local ownership expired.

The Renaissance Group, led by George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc, came riding through the desert on their white horses to insure that hockey will be played in Arizona over the next decade and beyond. Hopefully Renaissance will create their namesake in Glendale for hockey. They should provide stability and injection of capital to the teamís marketing budget and they believe they have a plan that will put butts in seats.

Ownership acquires a highly competitive team due to the exceptional work done by GM Don Maloney and pledge publicly not to mess with the hockey operations side of the business. Maloney, the former Rangers, Whalers and Islanders forward, has been able to find value with limited maneuverability and it garnered him the NHL General Manger of the Year award in 2012.

Though the new ownership group has deep pockets donít expect the Coyotes to spend with the likes of Philadelphia and Boston, the goal is to be a team that spends at the mid-point of NHL teams.

They missed the Western Conference playoffs by only four points and by removing the constant distraction of the ownership issue lifted, it would be no surprise if Dave Tippett leads the pack back to the post season in April.

FORWARDS

The Coyotes finished in the bottom third in scoring for the 2013 season, but Maloney appears to improve the offense with the free agent acquisition of Mike Ribeiro. The slick passing center wonít have the talent surrounding him that he did in Washington but the ability to be reunited with Tippett was a major factor in agreeing to a four year deal. His inclusion in the pivot makes Phoenix competitive in the division down the middle.

When you add Martin Hanzal, Antoine Vermette and Kyle Chipchura to the mix, the center position is clearly the strength of the forward wall. The wingers on the Coyotes are a mixed bag, some reliable producers while others are underachievers that need to revert to previous form to give the Coyotes the production they need to make the post season. If Keith Yandle repeats as team leading scorer you can bet that it will be back-to-back seasons with no playoffs in the desert.

Mike Ribeiro -- He'll start the season as the No. 1 pivot and his offensive flair is welcomed on a team of primarily grinders. Though Tippett employs a safety first approach, Mike enjoyed his two best statistical season in Dallas and heís excited to be reunited with the coach. While itís unlikely that heíll approach the point per game output of last season, he needs to emerge as the teamís leading offensive weapon.

Shane Doan -- The heart and soul of the team and the one thatís most likely to be given a boost by the solidifying of the ownership situation. Shane no longer has to answer nightly questions about the uncertainty of the franchise in his role as captain and can focus on hockey for the first time in a long while. Heís shown no sign of slowing down and should pot 25 goals along with leadership and rugged play.

Mikkel Boedker -- The organization is waiting for the 23-year-old Danish winger to emerge, but itís yet to happen. He tallied only seven goals in a first line left wing role last season and if those numbers are replicated, it will seriously impact the Coyotes post season chances. He possesses the tools to be a prime time player and Maloney is hoping that the arrival of Ribeiro is the missing link to development into a first line winger.

DEFENSE

The strength of this team is on the blueline, they have a little known star in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and an offensive stalwart in Yandle. The trio of Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris and Rositslav Klesla provide veteran leadership but even with Tippettís slowdown style, the Coyotes were a middle of the pack team defensively. This groupís improvement may be executed through the development of two younger defensemen, Michael Stone and David Schlemko, the former was a breakthrough performer last season while the latter has the highest plus/minus rating (+15) of any Phoenix defenseman over the last two seasons.

Keith Yandle -- Like Doan, heís a big benefactor of ownership stabilization. When Ekman-Larsson signed his $33 million, six year deal, most assumed it was the beginning of the end for Yandle in the desert. The promise of an increased payroll allows Yandle to stay in Arizona and if focused solely on hockey, he can return to the top five in scoring for NHL defenseman as he did last season. Yandle doesnít log massive minutes (ranked 54th in TOI for defenseman in 2013) since heís a left handed shot like Ekman-Larsson which adds to his effectiveness in the offensive zone.

Michael Stone -- The former Calgary Hitman was a surprise hit last season in the desert. He posted strong numbers with the Coyotesí Portland AHL affiliate and was recalled when the NHL season commenced. Stone showed steady improvement and became one of the teamís more effective defensemen down the stretch. With the top two right defenseman in their thirties (Michalek and Morris), the 23-year-old Stone has a shot at becoming an impact player this season.

GOALTENDING

As last season ended, there was great concern that Mike Smith has played his final game in a Coyotes sweater given the uncertainty of the franchise. Once Maloney got the go ahead from the league that he could offer Smith a competitive contract, he locked up Smith on a six year extension the day before free agent frenzy started.

By keeping Smith in the desert, Maloney believes that Smith will revert to the form that carried the team to the Western Conference Finals. Smith suffered through an injury-racked, statistically sub-par season in 2013 that was a major factor in the Coyotes failure to return to the post season. The drop in productivity will provide all the motivation Smith needs to return to form and show that his 2012-í13 was a mirage.

The dozen starts available behind Smith will go to former Sharks backup Thomas Griess but it could be a cameo as heís inked for only this coming season and the organization would like to see further progression from 2010 1st round pick Mark Visentin this season in Portland.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams were a major factor in the Coyotes failure to return to the playoffs, they landed in the bottom of the league in both power play and penalty kill execution. Itís no surprise that this offensively challenged group ranked 25th on the power play overall and they staggered to a league worse 10.8% efficiency on the road. The expectation is that the injection of Ribeiro to the powerplay will improve production with the man advantage substantially.

Given the pivotís offensive gifts, one would suspect the team production would improve by default. One third of Yandleís production came on the power play but the key to improvement lies with Vrbata and Boedker who combined for a paltry five markers with the man advantage last season. If the duoís production is anywhere close to last season, it will make it very difficult for the Coyotes to land in the top eight of the Western Conference and make it impossible to win the Pacific Division.

Smithís 12-game absence and overall subpar season contributed to their surprising 22nd ranking with a man short. If he returns to his 2011-12 form, the Coyotes should be in the top half on the league on the penalty kill.

PREDICTION

The Coyotes will change their name next season (Arizona Coyotes), but theyíll be no change in style anytime soon. They will grind out low scoring affairs and rely on Mike Smith to backstop them to victory. With a bounce back season from him and forwards Boedker and Vrbata, thereís good reason to think that the increased marketing push provided by new owners will be for a team headed to the playoffs.

While Phoenixís roster is a cut below their division rivals Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver, Maloney will have the ability to fill a need (likely a scoring wing) by the trade deadline. If they falter, it will be due sub-par years from one of their stars, Doan, Yandle or the newly-acquired Ribeiro. Thereís simply not enough offense depth on the roster to afford underachieving by one of its major contributors. Smith played in only 70% of the teamís game and must be able to get on the ice for upwards of 70 games for the Coyotes to have a shot at the post season.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period.


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