I feel bad about writing this one. I like the Coyotes. I like Coyotes fans (and yes, they do have fans). I like what GM Don Maloney has done on what amounts to be a bare-bones budget/being under Gary Bettman’s thumb. Maloney has also been able to do pretty well in the draft for the Coyotes and it shows with their current lineup.
All that aside, the ownership fiasco that’s been covered ad nauseum elsewhere across the Internet and semi-ad nauseum here has derailed any kind of happy thoughts about this franchise. Of course, on the eve of the start of the season, things have come to a head and Judge Redfield T. Baum has declared that both Jim Balsillie’s and the NHL’s bids for the team are no good and have thrown out Balsillie completely by saying that the NHL has every right to decide who they want to own a team.
With that fiasco aside for the time being, it’s time for the team to hit the ice and the product they’ll hit the ice with isn’t overly terrible especially now that one of the people more responsible for the lack of forward development is out of the way, part of the collateral damage of the mess with Jerry Moyes. That person being former head coach Wayne Gretzky.
Gretzky was a no-show for training camp this year, leaving assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson in charge. Also tossed out was goaltending coach Grant Fuhr and replaced with former Hartford Whalers super goalie Sean Burke. Former Blue Jackets coach Dave King was brought in to be an assistant coach to someone and then finally a foregone conclusion was reached when Wayne Gretzky announced he was stepping down as coach of the team.
Much the same way that Odin Mercer at SBN’s Five For Howling feels, I too think this is a move that was overdue and will help the team. After all, the old saying goes, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Well Wayne Gretzky did everything in the NHL and there’s not another player alive right now that sees or plays the game at all the same way that Wayne did and every person that walked into the Phoenix locker room had to be starstruck having him as the coach. After all, he’s only the greatest hockey player of all time – how do you handle getting instructions and teaching from a guy that sees the game on a completely different level than every human being alive? You don’t, that’s how.
Enter new head coach Dave Tippett. Tippett is the former coach of the Dallas Stars and for six seasons he lead the Stars to the playoffs, peaking in 07-08 in the Conference Finals and then indescribably getting the boot after failing to lead the Stars to the playoffs last year, and that’s after the Stars were stuck with a miserable start of the season by Marty Turco and that whole Sean Avery thing. Tippett gets the job done, Tippett teaches winners and better yet, young guys won’t totally crap their pants every time he barks out orders.
With all that aside, I like how the Coyotes are made up and I have enjoyed what they’ve been doing for the last couple of years now. The Coyotes and the Kings are my not-so-secret crushes in the NHL and while the Kings don’t have the off-ice problems (and may actually get Gretzky back in some capacity) they too have been able to capitalize on years of poor play and making the draft work for them. The Coyotes have been doing the same thing but just haven’t been able to land a guy as awesome as say… Anze Kopitar.
Instead, the Coyotes have loaded up on highly-touted young forwards. Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, Kevin Porter and Kyle Turris (currently in the AHL) make up a great group of talented skaters up front that Desert Dogs fans have been patiently waiting to blossom. Among them, Porter should get his first real shot to break out this year after spending last season riding the bus between Phoenix and San Antonio.
Guys like Mueller and Hanzal are the “veterans” among them and Boedker had a solid first season last year. Turris is the interesting guy to watch as he’s touted as the guy with the biggest upside and the most talented of them all. Yet last year he spent his time getting sent up and sent down to the AHL and this year he’s starting off the season right out in San Antonio. GM Don Maloney said that he wanted to see how Turris would develop and with him coming off back surgery in the off season, perhaps going to San Antonio to start the year might not be the worst idea.
Then what to do about the center spot? After all, who is going to be there to play alongside blue-collar man of the franchise Shane Doan? This is where the Robert Lang signing comes in. Lang is coming back after an injury-shortened 2008-2009 season with Montreal and while he did not participate with any team in training camp, the Coyotes and Maloney used this as an opportunity to bring in solid scoring veteran. Savvy move indeed and it takes the pressure off the front office to play the shuttle game with Turris this year, provided Lang can stay healthy. Adding Lang to another crafty free agent signings like Taylor Pyatt, Vernon Fiddler and Lauri Korpikoski and suddenly the mix of youth and veteran leadership up front doesn’t look so bad. Peter Prucha and Radim Vrbata (returning from a year wrought with moving from Tampa Bay to the Czech League) add depth to the forwards and provide a full line of Czech Madness (with Martin Hanzal centering).
What about the defense though? Ed Jovanovski is still here and youngster Zbynek Michalek continues to improve. Veterans Adrian Aucoin and Jim Vandermeer were acquired in the offseason and help add some steadier veteran play on a blueline that remains mostly unspectacular with Kurt Sauer and Keith Yandle filling out ranks. Sami Lepisto gets to play the part of the plucky youngster looking to carve his niche in this group of veterans.
In goal, Ilya Bryzgalov is the man – plain and simple. His stats last year were a bit subdued but on a team that played as sketchily as the Coyotes did last year… You can understand why. Should things for Bryzgalov go sour, the backup situation isn’t quite so appealing as the Coyotes signed journeyman Jason LaBarbera to back him up. Al Montoya lurks in the AHL waiting for anyone to slip up so he can attempt to fulfill the prophecy as a first round selection to play goal.
Should the Coyotes goaltending come down to calling on either LaBarbera or Montoya for an extended period, perhaps getting the Vancouver Canucks on the phone to ask about Cory Schneider’s availability might be a good plan of action.
Much like I said last year in talking about the Los Angeles Kings lack of opportunity to make the playoffs, I make this choice for failure with resignation because I like what’s happening here, at least on the ice. I like the young make up of the team, I love the youth that are in place, I’m a fan of Ilya Bryzgalov and I’m a huge fan of the Dave Tippett signing for the coaching position. So why won’t they make a run at a playoff spot? It’s the Western Conference and they play in what may prove to be one of the toughest divisions in the NHL. Anaheim and San Jose will fight to the death for the top spot, Dallas should be more improved and Los Angeles is on the verge of upsetting the balance in the West. Phoenix, for now, is going to have to tough it out this season.
With that said, this may also prove to be the team that by the end of the year, they could be threatening to prove me wrong if everything breaks correctly. Most publications and prognosticators are eager to write off the Coyotes (except for the Two-Line Pass that haikus them in eighth) completely based upon what’s happened off the ice and while I admit I’m doing the same thing here… If the Coyotes go all St. Louis Blues on me and prove me wrong I’ll happily eat my bowl full of crow.