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Sean Leahy

NHL 2010-11 Season Preview: Wrestling with Phoenix Coyotes

Sean Leahy
Puck Daddy

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Colorful characters, revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene...

Last Season (50-25-7, 107 points. 2nd in Pacific, 4th in the Conference)

If someone had told you last summer that the Phoenix Coyotes would finish the 2009-10 season with 50 wins, 107 points and force the Detroit Red Wings to a Game 7 in the opening round of the playoffs, you'd probably think they were drinking some funny Kool-Aid.

Sure enough, all of that came true; and despite a summer that was overshadowed by Jim Balsillie's attempts to acquire the team, the Coyotes didn't let all the off-ice distractions get to them and put together their first playoff season in eight years.

Now, with a renewed passion for hockey in the desert and some changes in the lineup, can Phoenix write a sequel to their storybook season from a year ago?

Key Subtractions

The biggest loss came on the blueline when GM Don Maloney stuck to his NHL-approved budget and didn't throw the big bucks at shutdown defenseman Zbynek Michalek(notes), who signed in Pittsburgh. The Coyotes' leader in time on-ice (22:38) will be missed, but Phoenix's top four blueliners is dominated by experience.

Veterans Mathieu Schneider(notes) and Robert Lang(notes) were not re-signed and remain unrestricted free agents.

The departure of Schneider, along with Jim Vandermeer(notes), to Edmonton should give rookie Oliver Ekman-Larsson(notes) an opportunity to make the team, as well as David Schlemko(notes) a chance for an extended stay with the Coyotes after playing 17 games a season ago.

New Additions

After a brief tiff with his former employer, Eric Belanger(notes) signed a one-year deal with the Coyotes. Belanger comes off a season where he hit career highs in points (41), assists (26) and shots (151).

In hopes of boosting the NHL's 24th ranked offense last season, Phoenix added Ray Whitney(notes) to their top line. His average of 67 points over the past five seasons is only bested by captain Shane Doan's(notes) output.

Forwards

It was goal-scoring by committee for the Coyotes last season with eight forwards finishing in double digits in goals. Radim Vrbata(notes) returned to Phoenix and led the way with 24 goals, nearly match his 27-goal total during his first stint with the Coyotes in 2007-08.

Captain Shane Doan saw a drop in his production (18 goals, 55 points), but the offense was boosted by a career season by Matthew Lombardi(notes), Scottie Upshall's(notes) 18 goals before his ACL injury and the late-season acquisition and subsequent hot streak from Lee Stempniak(notes) (14 goals, 18 points in 18 games).

Also acquired at the trade deadline was Wojtek Wolski(notes) who enters 2010-11 coming off a career season (23 goals, 65 points) and is in the top 30 in shootout percentage all-time.

Martin Hanzal(notes), with more ice time last season (18:28), chipped in 11 goals and dealt out a team-high 175 hits. After a shell-shocking rookie season in 2008-09 at age 19, Kyle Turris(notes) was sent back to San Antonio of the AHL to develop; now 21, he will get another opportunity to stay with the big club.

None other than Twitter fan favorite Paul Bissonnette(notes) will deliver the toughness. Only playing in 41 games last season, BizNasty had an eventful summer, but his online personality has won him fans all ove rthe league.

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Wrestler(s) That Best Symbolize the Team

After a semi-memorable stint as Papa Shango, Charles Wright eventually morphed into The Godfather and found success in the WWE after a few character changes. Such is life at the moment for the Phoenix Coyotes: initial success after their move from Winnipeg, then a long dry spell and now, potentially, a run of success. No wordif Phoenix has a hooooooo train.

Defense

Other than the play of Vezina Trophy finalist Ilya Bryzgalov(notes), the Coyotes defense wasn't too bad either, to earn them 3rd in the NHL in goals-against per game (2.39). The Western Conference's best defense (196 goals allowed) was also a pretty good offense. Every Phoenix defenseman except Ed Jovanovski(notes) (minus-12) finished a plus player and both JovoCop (10 goals) and Keith Yandle(notes) (12) led the blueline offensively.

Now without Zbynek Michalek, there's an open spot on the defense that could be filled by rookie Oliver Ekman-Larsson, David Schlemko or Maxim Goncharov(notes).

It's a good mix of veterans (Jovo, Adrian Aucoin(notes), Derek Morris(notes)) and youngsters (Yandle, Lepisto). Yandle, for example, is blossoming into a top offensive defenseman coming off a 12 goal, 41-point season. Aucoin and Jovanovski continue to be reliable offensively and able to play 22 minutes a night.

The next step is now for guys like Lepisto and Schlemko, who will be given every opportunity to replenish the off-season losses in front of Bryzgalov.

Goaltending

The acquisition of Ilya Bryzgalov on the waiver wire from the Anaheim Ducks was the beginning of the turnaround for the Phoenix Coyotes. Winning 42 games, eight shutouts, posting a 2.29 goals-against average and a.920 save-percentage, Bryzgalov's play earned him a Vezina Trophy nomination and calls for him to be included among the Hart Trophy discussion.

In relief of Bryzgalov is Jason LaBarbera(notes) who put up respectable numbers in 17 appearances last season: 8-5-1, 2.13, and .928 percent.

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Match We'd Pay To Watch

Jim Balsillie against Ice Edge Holdings in a steel cage match refereed by Globe and Mail columnist David Shoalts, featuring a surprise run-in by Matthew Hulsizer. Winner gets more press about supposedly being the owner of the Coyotes.

Breakout Player

On the verge of being the Coyotes' "breakout player" last season -- and maybe he was despite playing just 49 games -- Scottie Upshall was cruising to a fantastic career season until he torn the ACL in his right knee in January, ending his season. Last season's production was a sign that the 26-year old is developing, but can he remain healthy?

Potential Flop

When Lee Stempniak was dealt to Phoenix at the trade deadline last season, no one expected him to finish with 14 goals in 18 games as a Coyote. Then the playoffs came and Stempniak was frustrated by the Red Wings and only produced two assists in the seven-game series. Now with a fresh, two-year contract, was that hot streak just a blip on the radar for a guy who had a couple of down years after his 27-goal, 52-point season in St. Louis back in 2006-07?

Finishing Move

Shane Doan's ferocious celebratory scream not only intimidates opponents, it also inspires Puck Daddy Photoshop contests.

Special Teams

There was a big discrepancy between the power play and shorthanded units for the Coyotes last season. Phoenix was 28th in the league with a 14.6 percent success-rate with the man advantage, including a league-worst 13.6 percent at Jobing.com Arena. The penalty kill was much better at 84.5 percent, good enough for 6th in the NHL, and the shorthanded unit had the second-least amount of shorties with three.

Coach/GM

Being given the reins behind the bench during training camp wasn't the most desired start for Dave Tippett's coaching career in Phoenix, but he quickly established himself and employed a system that suited to his player. The results weren't expected, but the work paid off in a playoff appearance and a Jack Adams Award for Tippett. With a slight change in some personnel in the off-season, what adjustments can he make in order for the Coyotes to find that success again?

Working within an NHL-approved budget, GM Don Maloney has done a wonderful job. Through the drafting of prospects and shrewd free agent signings, he's put together a competitive team in a hockey market that some have given up on. It's a battle against the tide, but Maloney is slowing turning around the hockey culture in Phoenix and the winning product on the ice last season was a great step in the right direction.

But the perils of a budget out of your control also mean some turnover, as was seen in the departures of Matthew Lombardi and Zbynek Michalek. Now that winning is back in the organization, can Maloney sustain it despite not being able to spend like other teams?

2010-11 Preseason Report Card:

Forwards: B
Defense: B
Goaltending: A
Special Teams: B
Coaching: A
Management: B+ (Maloney's worked magic with the NHL's dime)

Main Event or Dark Match? (Prediction)

Matching a 50-win, 107-point season will be a feat many don't believe the Coyotes can do again. But with another strong year from Ilya Bryzgalov and balanced scoring up front, there's no reason to believe Phoenix can't find their way in the Western Conference playoff mix. Despite the improvements of some other teams in the off-season, the Coyotes couldn't spend much to fill the losses left behind by Michalek and Lombardi and now is the time to see how their drafting and development of players can pay off.

Phoenix Coyotes' Entrance Music to the 2010-11 Season

Shelton Benjamin's "Desperate Times" is fitting, because the off-ice news paints that picture of the Coyotes. With an unknown future at the ownership level, all the team can do is go out and worry about hockey. Winning takes the off-ice issues out of the minds of fans, something the team needs to desperately continuing to do so.

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