Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cup Crazy's 2008-2009 Phoenix Coyotes season preview

I'm not sure if I'll be doing this for all 30 National Hockey League teams, but for now, I will do this one from the start. Here, my focus is on the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Coyotes are a team in which they are at a crossroads in regards to their future. The lack of playoff activity in Phoenix has taken its toll on the fan base and its economic well-being. Despite playing in a beautiful new arena that is just under five years old, attendance has been a problem. But there are reasons now for why fans should be coming out in larger numbers to show their support for the Coyotes.

It has been seen before. For an example, prior to the start of the 2003-2004 season with impending opening of Arena, a new team logo and uniforms and the free agent signing of future Hall of Famer Brett Hull, there was a general sense of excitement in the team with the branding overhaul and ownership taking hold. But still, the Coyotes failed to make the playoffs. Then coming out of the lockout, former general manager Mike Barnett did a major makeover of the roster over the course of the 2005-2006 season by bringing in the likes of Ladislav Nagy, Petr Nedved, Geoff Sanderson, Steven Reinprecht, Dave Scatchard, Oleg Saprykin, Mike LeClerc, Jamie Lundmark, Oleg Kvasha, Denis Gauthier, Dennis Seidenburg, Sean O'Donnell, Jamie Rivers, David Tanabe, Krystofer Kolanos, Josh Gratton, Pascal Rheaume, Michael Rupp, Jeff Taffe, Curtis Joseph, Philippe Sauve and Brian Boucher.

Only Reinprecht remains from that group of players.

Did that overhaul work? No, it did not. Phoenix finished last in the Pacific Division with a 38-44 record and 81 points. Only three Western Conference teams finished with a lower point total then them.

Then the following year, it was Ed Jovanovski, Owen Nolan, Yanic Perreault, Georges Laraque, Nick Boynton and the return of Jeremy Roenick. Once again, Phoenix's 2006-2007 season was a failure to make the playoffs and by doing even worse. With a 31-51 record and just 67 points to settle at the bottom of the Western Conference, only the Philadelphia Flyers were worse off in the entire league than the Coyotes.

Among those players mentioned, only Jovanovski is still in a Coyotes uniform today.

Even though it has been six years since hockey fans in Phoenix have seen playoff hockey, last year brought hope. With Don Maloney taking over as general manager of the team, he once again helped re-shape the roster and an influx of youth. Players such as Daniel Carcillo, Daniel Winnik, Martin Hanzal, Matt Jones and Keith Yandle were those who helped make a positive impact. But when all was said and done, the Coyotes fell short of the final West playoff spot by just eight points. Phoenix was contention up until the last two to three weeks of the regular season.

But this offseason that is about to officially end seems to be different. Whether or not that is true remains to be seen.

The Coyotes took a major step forward by making a blockbuster trade at the 2008 Entry Draft by acquiring All-Star forward Olli Jokinen from the Florida Panthers for Boynton, fellow defenseman Keith Ballard and a 2008 second round draft pick (Colby Robak). Ballard was one of Phoenix's up and coming star defenseman who brought an element of hard-nosed hockey along with his steady blueline play. He was even considered to be a future captain by many observers. But in order to get something, the Coyotes had to give something of significance up. That was Ballard.

Then at the draft itself, the team selected forward Mikkel Boedker as the eighth overall draft pick and forward Viktor Tikhonov at #28 overall. Both were very satisfying choices for part-owner and head coach Wayne Gretzky and may very well be with the Coyotes to begin the new season. Then through free agency, Phoenix inked forwards Brian McGrattan and Todd Fedoruk to provide protection for the skilled players on the club.

One of those players they intend to protect is a someone who will play in his first full rookie season. Highly touted forward Kyle Turris brings the kind of skill Phoenix desperately needs, someone that can score but also be helpful in finding open teammates with his good on-ice awareness. After he made his NHL debut late last season, the 2007 third overall draft pick didn't look out of place and had the kind of confidence you'd typically find in veteran players. If he lives up to his potential, don't be surprised if he is a contender for the Calder Trophy.

Overall, the Coyotes did pretty good for themselves in improving the makeup of the team during the summer.

With the acquistion of Jokinen, the Coyotes have themselves a top flight forward for the first time in many years. He is most likely to be paired with captain Shane Doan and a player that scored 22 goals in his rookie season last year. That would Peter Mueller. With Jokinen feeding him the puck and having already notched a season under his belt in playing with Doan, this could very well be a dangerous top scoring line for Phoenix.

Will it be a breakthrough year for Mueller? If his hat trick in a 5-1 preseason win over the San Jose Sharks on September 29th is any indication, the answer might as well be "very likely" to most certainly "yes".

Where do the Coyotes fare best? Their top scoring line with Doan, Jokinen and Mueller would be an obvious strength. In what some may consider to be a brillant roster move by Maloney last season, the waiver wire pickup of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov drastically improved Phoenix's goaltending to a point he earned himself a new contract and become the undisputed starter. As he enters his first full season in the desert and should he be stellar between the pipes, there is no telling how many more wins the Coyotes get this upcoming season.

But where is Phoenix's weak areas? Working against them is inexperience in the most important games. As one of the NHL's youngest teams, it showed down the stretch last season when trying to snag a playoff berth that ended up out of reach. It is great to see them get younger and highly talented players, but until they perform in key situations against quality opponents, there may be growing pains with this group.

And despite the loss of Ballard, there is the uncertainty with how the defensive corps will perform. Can Jovanovski, Derek Morris and Zbynek Michalek provide enough stability on the blueline to lessen the pressure on Bryzgalov or even backup goaltender Mikael Tellqvist? Can Jones or Phoenix's free agent signees David Hale and Kurt Sauer help out? This is a question mark and has to be answered almost immediately.

At the same time, after the Doan-Jokinen-Mueller line, can Gretzky rely on steady offensive production from his other three lines? He's going to need everyone to put up numbers consistently to get somewhere in 2008-2009.

Where does this team end up by next April? It is safe to say the Coyotes will contend for a playoff spot, but given it is a highly competitve Western Conference, it will be a tough task. Phoenix will need a team or two to underachieve while they must meet or exceed expectations. It is still possible the Coyotes may not finish higher than fourth in the Pacific Division. Should Bryzgalov have an outstanding season, top scorers and complimentary players have solid years and if Gretzky and Maloney agree to make any transactions that addresses weaknesses in the team, Phoenix should be playoff bound.

Excitement and optimism is higher than it has ever been since their last playoff appearance, but Gretzky and company is ready to take that next step toward contending again. Now it is finally time to deliver.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great in depth look at the recent past and an eye on the immediate future of the Desert Dawgs. We here in Phoenix are hoping the team gets off to a good start this year and can build some momentum which will help propel this team through the upcoming campaign and also put more butts in the seats as the season winds down to help push this young team through the last few weeks and months of the season and into the playoffs.