It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
With the NHL still owning them, the Phoenix Coyotes played in front of empty seats and rumors about the franchise's future. But once again, Coach Dave Tippett managed to lead a team without much punch (on paper) into the Western Conference playoffs as a No. 6 seed (43-26-13, 99 points).
Alas, in the playoffs, it was a humbling and quick exit at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, as goalie Ilya Bryzgalov couldn't rise to the occasion.
It would be Bryzgalov's last appearances for the Coyotes, one of a few significant changes from last season. Can Tippett work more magic and get the Coyotes back to the playoffs for a third straight season?
The biggest offseason news for the Coyotes was the departure of Bryzgalov, whose rights were traded to the Philadelphia Flyers before he signed a nine-year deal.
The last four years saw him as a borderline elite keeper for the Coyotes and in Tippett's system. Mike Smith, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was signed to a 2-year deal to try and fill what might be a void that can't be filled.
Another significant change: Defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who spent the last five seasons in Phoenix, returned to the team that drafted him in the Florida Panthers, taking away a veteran physical presence from the Coyotes — even if his impact was diminishing. Vernon Fiddler, a solid two-way forward left for Dallas. Faceoff ace Eric Belanger bolted for the Oilers.
The Coyotes signed former Vancouver Canucks winger Raffi Torres to a 2-year, $3.5 million deal, adding some talent on left wing and more than a little physicality. Former Capitals forward Boyd Gordon arrived on a 2-year deal. Patrick O'Sullivan, Alex Bolduc, Nathan Oystrick and Kyle Chipchura were also free agent pick-ups.
On the trade front, streaky winger Lee Stempniak was sent to Calgary for veteran center Daymond Langkow, a former Coyote who rebounded from injury in a dramatic way last year.
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At forward, Shane Doan continues to be the face of the franchise, even if that face is sometimes an orgasmic banshee shriek in the postseason. His 20 goals and 60 points led the Coyotes last season, as did his 172 hits.
Doan played a bit with Ray Whitney last season, as the 39-year-old Wizard scored 57 points in 75 games. They've partnered with Langkow in the preseason, giving the Coyotes a veteran trio that could produce solid numbers.
Whitney also saw time with the Coyotes' other primary offensive threats at forward last season: Center Martin Hanzal (26 points in 61 games) and winger Radim Vrbata (48 points in 79 games). Vrbata also had 10 power-play goals. Taylor Pyatt (18 goals) could skate with them this season.
High-end production for Torres would be around 20 goals, a number he nearly hit two years ago. Mostly, he'll settle in around 15 goals and provide a physical presence for the Coyotes — sometimes getting a little too physical.
Gordon brings some sandpaper and penalty killing prowess. Kyle Chipchura didn't score a goal in 40 games with Anaheim last season. GM Don Maloney is high on winger Brett MacLean as being a potential breakout this season. Andy Miele, the 5-9 Hobey Baker winner from Miami (OH), could be a sleeper at center.
If and when free-agent Kyle Turris signs, the Coyotes could ask for more than the 11:16 average TOI he played last season. There's a ton of untapped potential there … question is whether Turris will ever be able to tap into it.
Lauri Korpikoski was a revelation. His 19 goals and 21 assists were career highs, earning him a new two-year deal. The Coyotes need more out of Mikkel Boedker, who had 14 points in 34 games last season. Viktor Tikhonov is still battling for an NHL slot. Petteri Nokelainen, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Patrick O'Sullivan and Alex Bolduc were all in the mix this preseason.
The Coyotes' Stanley Cup chances are clearly in the large hands of Paul Bissonnette. Expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 goals … wait, sorry, that should read "characters."
On defense, Keith Yandle had a star-making season with 59 points (26 on the power play) and skating 24:22 TOI per night. He didn't play shorthanded, which hurt his Norris campaign, but he blocked 103 shots last season. Yandle was given a 5-year contract extension. His defensive partner was Derek Morris (16 points, 136 blocked shots), and that duo should be back this season.
Adrian Aucoin tallied 22 points in 75 games last season with a plus-18. Michal Rozsival had 21 points between the Rangers and Coyotes, and enters his walk year with Phoenix. He saw time with a number of different defensemen last year, including Rostislav Klesla (1 goals in 16 games), the underrated David Schlemko (14 points in 43 games) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the former first-round pick who had 11 points in 48 games.
Also in the mix are Tyler Eckford, Maxim Goncharov, Chris Summers and Nathan Oystrick. Former first-round pick Brandon Gormley is pushing for a spot in the NHL as well in his second preseason camp.
In goal, Mike Smith is reunited with Dave Tippett, who coached him in Dallas. Smith never found his game in Tampa Bay, nor could he establish himself as the starter. He entered Coyotes camp in a competition with Jason LaBarbera for the majority of the starts. Neither goalie is exactly a Vezina-winner-in-waiting, but behind Tippett's system they could thrive.
Tippett has won 93 games and led his team to the postseason in consecutive seasons, which is pretty miraculous given the rosters he's had to manage. He surrounds himself with solid assistants and his defensive system has allowed Phoenix to play with, and overcome, more talented foes. He's one of the best coaches in hockey, and perhaps Phoenix's greatest asset.
GM Don Maloney works within the budget given to him by the NHL and has found his share of diamonds in the trash heap while ensuring fiscal sanity for the franchise (like playing hardball with his own free agents). He also most have a prominent place on Glen Sather's holiday card list for curing some of his salary-cap headaches.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson has offensive upside as a talented puck-moving D-man. He'll need to earn his time, or perhaps even wait until some veterans leave the blue line this season or next summer before seeing it increase. But when he gets his shot, expect him to confirm the expectations of his lofty draft position.
Smith. His numbers have always been average and he's been unable to be anything more than a tandem goaltender in a tandem. One school of thought is that another goalie can replicate — but not match — Bryzgalov's numbers inside Tippett's system. The other school of thought is that it takes an elite goalie to make it work, which Bryzgalov could be and Smith most certainly isn't.
BizNasty on Next Question. What a beauty.
What if the team is actually sold to someone during the season who actually wants to keep in Glendale and isn't seeking some kind of out-clause? Can stability in ownership lead to a better atmosphere in the arena and confidence on the ice?
There are two teams in the Western Conference that you underestimate at your own peril because of their coaches: Nashville and Phoenix. Logically, the Coyotes should take a step back minus Bryzgalov and with some questions offensively. But you simply can't ignore the fact that Tippett's been getting this team into the playoffs with smoke, mirrors and an impressive head of hair for two years.
That said: The West is so incredibly competitive that we expect the Coyotes to finish right outside the money this season, hopefully with a new owner helping the ease the fans' pain.
- Ilya Bryzgalov