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January 8, 2013 | 6:01pm ET
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.

Forwards

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 production.

Defense

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.

Goalies

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.

Projected Outcome

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
 
Mike Smith
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.
Shane Doan
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.
Raffi Torres
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 be.

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