We're barreling down the stretch now with our season previews as camps are establishing their rosters. Jobs will be won, hearts will be broken, and some interesting developments can occur out of injury and necessity. Before you know it, the puck will drop on regular season hockey and we'll see how close to the mark (or how far off) we were with our predictions.
And now, the Phoenix Coyotes.
Team M.O.: Underdogs in the truest sense of the word, these guys are back for their second (and unfortunately, perhaps final) season since the team was placed into bankruptcy. Though no suitable owner's been found, there's some light on the horizon; there just needs to be an owner who believes in the team as much as the team believes in itself. And for good reason too...
Last Season: Fourth in the Western Conference, where they pushed the Detroit Red Wings to 7 games in the Conference Semifinal before getting dispatched. Though they lost to their pseudo-rivals (many Detroiters now living in Phoenix were making it known they weren' rooting for the home team), it was a great awakening for hockey fans throughout the Valley as to the type of team they almost lost. Hopefully it puts more fannies in the seats as the team's improved over the off-season.
Offense: Shane Doan's the heart and soul of the squad and no matter how good anyone else on the team can be, they always seem to suffer when he isn't around. Wojtek Wolski was a significant acquisition for the Coyotes and if he can give them the point-per-game production he was giving them toward the end of the season, he'll give something Phoenix hasn't had in a significant amount of time. Ray Whitney was brought over through free agency and gives the team a forward that's pure offense (something else they've seemed to lack lately, especially on the power play.) Martin Hanzal has just re-signed an extension and will continue his role centering the team's second line; he gives the team that big two-way center that any team would love to have. Radim Vrbata will be returning in a contract season for the Coyotes, so hopefully that translates to a 50 points or better (he's still a 40-45 point producer on an off-season.) Petr Prucha will likely start on that line, but he's gonna have to rediscover his scoring touch if he wishes to get an extension from the Coyotes (much less an NHL job in the subsequent off-season.) Scottie Upshall looked promising on a top-scoring unit until he went down with a knee injury; he might start lower on the depth chart until he gets comfortable and explodes. Speaking of which, Lee Stempniak was re-signed by the Coyotes and while he'll be out to prove that last season wasn't a mirage, he still gives the team a solid Top-6 scorer in a Top-9 setup. Eric Belanger was shored up after a dispute with the Washington Capitals; he makes the perfect addition to round out their forward corps as a two-way winger who can be pushed to produce if given the right linemates.
The fourth line will resemble your standard checking line with an edge. Taylor Pyatt provides the team with a big-bodied defensive winger while Vernon Fiddler excelled for the Coyotes on both the penalty kill and in the faceoff dot (though he might move back to his natural position of wing to accommodate the Coyotes' glut of centers.) Lauri Korpikoski remains the shootout specialist who can serve in a Top-9 role in a pinch while enforcer Paul Bissonette will get into the contests where toughness will be necessary. This leaves the competition for the final forward spot to come down between tryout Kyle Wellwood, depth forward Andrew Ebbett, and either rookies Kyle Turris, Mikael Boedker, or Viktor Tikhonov, all of which are blue-chip prospects with NHL experience.
While that lineup of forwards doesn't feature any other marquee names other than Doan, there's a significant amount of talent and balance in this lineup that is unparalleled to what the Coyotes have gone into their most recent seasons with. The players are relatively durable and even if injuries occur, the depth will be there thanks to all the rookies who've been marinating to perfection in the minors; this will be the season for them to breakout.
Defense: I was concerned at first about who the Coyotes were going into the season with but now that camp's underway, the smoke's clearing and things look clearer and for the better. Ed Jovanovski's in the last year of his deal so I expect him to put up some awesome numbers; hopefully he has a strong all-round year that gives both he and the team to see it fit for him to stick around. Derek Morris managed to come back and while he has the tools to be an offensive star, he seems to play at his best when he's used in a shutdown role. Keith Yandle's play continues to improve by leaps and bounds; should his production and defensive play continue to improve then he'll start getting first-pairing assignments on a regular basis. Adrian Aucoin seems to have found a new lease on life in Phoenix; his leadership and offensive ability has been a great benefit for everyone on the team from rookie to veteran. Sami Lepisto kicked off his first full-length NHL assignment last season and while he struggled at first, he managed to turn it up towards the end and can now confidently give the Coyotes a solid third-pairing defender who has the versatility to move up. David Schlemko's done very well in his assignments with the Coyotes to reasonably establish him ready for NHL duty as well.
The team has one more open spot on defense due to the sad fact that Kurt Sauer's still unable to play as a result of a concussion/vertigo/psychological/substance issues (it hasn't been disclosed so we can all but assume.) While youngsters Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Maxim Goncharov seem intriguing, neither have skated on North American ice. It would be better for them to take an assignment to the minors and sign Shane Hnidy (providing he doesn't have an absolutely awful camp) because he gives the team that physical defenseman they lost when Jim Vandermeer was traded to the Edmonton Oilers.
Aside from that, the Coyotes have sufficient depth at the minor league level that they can draw from if any of their players go down. From the crafty players like Ekman-Larsson and Goncharov to the solid defensive players like Jonas Ahnelov.
Goaltending: Ilya Bryzgalov darn near won the Vezina Trophy last season and if there was any criticism I have of the goaltending situation last season it was that Jason Labarbera was not used enough. I know that Bryzgalov's the "big money guy" but Labarbera should be penciled in for 25-35 starts this season so Bryzgalov will become more effective and refreshed come playoff time. He doesn't have to carry an underperforming team anymore so it's time to distribute the workload between a great Number 1 goaltender and a solid Number 1A.
Beyond them the team still has Al Montoya and Matt Clime in the minors, so their depth is also sufficient.
Management: GM Don Maloney won the NHL's General Manager Of The Year Award due to his shrewd moves that put together a team that broke 100-points despite being absolutely broke. Coach Greg Tippett won the Jack Adams Award for best coach due to the system he was able to install despite not having started training camp with the team. Shane Doan won the King Clancy Trophy for his leadership abilities. All they need now's an owner who believes in them too.
Prediction: Second in the Pacific Division and in the playoffs with the potential for a nice run.
Make no mistake. I do like the L.A. Kings better on paper, but we all know how that goes from time to time. If L.A. slips and San Jose performs as average as I believe they will, then these guys will have the division title. At first, the Coyotes were weak in terms of prospects, followed by a period where they didn't have enough veteran presence. Now, they have a perfect blend of both, so it's the perfect time for the pack to attack.