Season Preview: Phoenix
By Dennis Bernstein, TheFourthPeriod.com
Cinderella came up one step short of a fantasy trip to the Stanley Cup ball in
Arizona. They're buoyed by new ownership and a return to the fold of its
identity in Shane Doan. Coach Dave Tippett will extract every bit of energy from
his team and in a shortened season, the pesky Coyotes will have a legitimate
chance to repeat as Pacific Division champions.
The Coyotes demise in the Western Conference Finals was due to lack of scoring
and there doesn't appear to be any help on the horizon this season. Though they
kept Doan, they were unable to satisfy leading scorer Ray Whitney, and hoping
Radim Vrbata repeats a 35-goal season is a huge ask. They stack up well down the
middle with Antoine Vermette, Martin Hanzal and Boyd Gordon, but need a breakout
season from surprise playoff performer Mikkel Boedker to prevent a dip in
Smart, mobile and still underrated despite the Coyotes march through the West
last spring. Oliver Ekman-Larsson emerged as a top pair defenseman, providing
offense that was needed with a dip in production by Keith Yandle. Adrian
Aucoin's absence shouldn't be an issue with the return of Zbynek Michalek from
Pittsburgh. The Coyotes will go as far as their defense will take them.
From afterthought free agent to Vezina finalist in the course of 83 games, Mike
Smith was Cinderella in a goalie mask and pads. When most thought that Phoenix's
playoff chances left town with Ilya Bryzgalov, Smith fashioned a season that
eclipsed his predecessor and enhanced the value of Sean Burke as a goaltender
coach. Smith's combative nature between the pipes made him a locker room leader
and an indispensable player.
Is it possible to be a sleeper off a season that saw them fall three wins short
of a Stanley Cup Finals berth? You betcha, and with most saying last season was
a one hit wonder, it will give Tippett all the motivation he needs to keep his
team within striking distance. The shortened season will likely favor the more
defensive minded teams, so Whitney's absence could be mitigated. What they lack
in talent, they make up for in toughness and smarts, so expect them to be in the
mix come springtime.
3 Players to Watch
Can't flop, can't take a step backwards and may have to be better than last
season as the Coyotes won't be sneaking up on anyone with last spring's
success. At 30, he's in the prime of his career and possessing the level of
support he's received from the coaching staff, it would be no surprise to
see him as a return Vezina finalist.
The world tour he embarked on this summer simply brought him home. He's
secured his wish to remain a Coyote for the rest of his career (no matter
where they play), but will need to produce more than the 50 points he
tallied last season.
The bad guy with a huge target on his back must decide if he continues with
a style of play that causes injury or acclimates like Matt Cooke did to
become a productive and non-controversial player. He has the tools to be a
player of significance on this roster, but must decide what his legacy will