The good news is attendance improved for the Phoenix Coyotes during their second home preseason game on Friday night. The bad news is the count was approximately 3,000, or about half of the 6,200 announced for the 17,800-seat arena.
This is how it's going to be until there's a definitive answer to the future of the franchise, and even when U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Redfield T. Baum decides who should own the franchise – the league, Jim Balsillie or no one at present – then support for the club is going to be minimal.
And that's a real shame because what few fans realize is that general manager Don Maloney has worked hard and smart to put a pretty decent roster together. If all the talk wasn't dominated by the ownership of this team, focus would be on the fact that the Coyotes might actually surprise a few people this season.
Recall just past the midseason point last year when Phoenix was 24-19-5 and sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference standings. That’s right, with nearly 60 percent of the season in the books the Coyotes were right in the thick of a playoff chase despite featuring a lineup of youth and inexperience.
The success didn't last as Phoenix proceeded to drop nine of 10 and 13 of 16, but instead of feeling like a failed season it provided a window into the opportunity the Coyotes might have going forward. And that brings us to here and now, never mind all of the predictions of franchise gloom and doom.
There is a lot of young talent that should have benefited from the experience, players such as Mikkel Boedker(notes), Martin Hanzal(notes), Peter Mueller(notes), Viktor Tikhonov(notes), Keith Yandle(notes), Kyle Turris(notes) and Daniel Winnik(notes). Every one of those players was drafted and developed by the Coyotes, and each appears not only fit to play on an NHL roster but to contribute to a winner, too.
Maloney blames himself for not having enough experience around the young core for the stretch run last season, and despite the uncertain future and a limited budget the GM did a nice job of addressing those needs in time for the start of the new season.
Maloney bolstered the defense with the steady Adrian Aucoin(notes) and the physical Jim Vandermeer(notes). He added to the group up front by getting Vernon Fiddler(notes) and Radim Vrbata(notes) and made sure to re-sign Scottie Upshall(notes) and Petr Prucha(notes) for the same reasons.
All in all, the Coyotes are in as good a shape as anyone could expect considering the circumstances.
Last season: 36-39-7 (79 points), fourth place in the Pacific Division, 13th place in the Western Conference and 25th in the overall standings. The Coyotes have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, but they’ve got bigger problems than that.
Exports: RW Taylor Pyatt(notes) (Vancouver), LW Nigel Dawes(notes) (Calgary), RW Brian McGrattan(notes) (Calgary), LW Todd Fedoruk(notes) (Tampa Bay), RW Steven Goertzen(notes) (Carolina), D David Hale(notes) (Tampa Bay), D Dmitri Kalinin(notes) (Russia), C Garth Murray(notes) (Calgary), C Brandon Prust(notes) (Calgary) and Steven Reinprecht (Florida).
Salary cap: No surprise here, the payroll of approximately $45 million is among the lowest in the league and closest to the minimum that must be spent according to cap rules (staying within $16 million of the ceiling). The Coyotes have about a $14M pad.
Three keys: First and foremost, the Coyotes are going to have to forge ahead with blinders on. The irony of their situation is the fact the team might be able to focus more intently on the task at hand since they already are so tired of hearing and reading about all the possibilities of the franchise's future.
Still, it presents a challenge because the crowds will be small at home and the questions will be endless on the road. There will be no escape from trying to answer the same questions day after day, especially when there are no answers.
Second, Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) was not the same goalie last season that he was in 55 games the previous year after moving from Anaheim to Phoenix. Whether he struggled to perform after establishing himself as a No. 1 and got complacent or truly didn't have enough help in front of him can be argued.
But the numbers are rather disappointing. Bryzgalov went from sporting a winning record (26-22-5) with a 2.42 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 2007-08 to a 26-31-6 mark with a 2.98 GAA and .906 save percentage last season. The 29-year-old Russian needs to work as much on his mental game as the fundamentals physically to pick up the pieces.
Third, the Coyotes need to be ready to make adjustments on defense if the mix isn't right. Outside of Yandle, who is 23, and the under-rated Zbynek Michalek(notes), 26, Phoenix's defense is older than it would probably like to keep the blue line in sync with the core group of forwards.
Ed Jovanovski(notes), Adrian Aucion, Kurt Sauer(notes) and Jim Vandermeer need to prove then can still keep up with the pace of the new NHL. The Coyotes are fully aware of the possible blue line turnover, or need to force it, as they had 25 players listed on defense among the preseason candidates at the position.
On the hot seat: Everyone is wondering what the future holds for Wayne Gretzky. Because of the franchise uncertainty and his ties to the old ownership, Gretzky felt it was in everyone’s best interest if he just stayed away until something is decided.
What an odd predicament for the modern game's greatest player. Truth be told, Gretzky might not be as cut out for coaching as he thinks. While more patient and less impulsive than when he began, Gretzky is still very emotional on the bench and he's going to have to be held accountable for Phoenix's missteps at some point.
Poised to blossom: Take your pick – Mueller, Hanzal, Boedker – or even all three. Hanzal has the most size at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds. He's 22 years old and still will fill out. The Czech native got his feet wet the last two seasons by scoring a combined 19 goals and 66 points in 146 games.
Mueller, a Bloomington, Minn., native, has a little better numbers – 35 goals and 90 points in 153 games – and pretty good size himself, too, at 6-2, 205. Boedker surprised the most, stepping from junior hockey into the NHL last year at age 18 and scoring 11 goals and 28 points in 78 games. Plucked from the unlikely destination of Copenhagen, Denmark, the 5-11, 195-pounder might have the biggest upside of the three.
Time has passed: The decline showed last season, and don't expect the numbers to improve any this year because 33-year-old Ed Jovanovski is not only not getting any younger he also not getting any better. Not that offensive numbers are the ultimate gauge, but Jovo slipped from 12 goals to nine and 51 points to 36 while appearing in all 82 games last season. He averaged 22 minutes a night and logged a career-low minus-15.
Jovanovski generally skates free of the criticism that might label him a draft bust, but consider the fact the No. 1 overall pick by Florida in 1994 has cracked the 50-point plateau only once and he's hardly regarded as the defenseman players fear to go up against.
Prediction: It's easy to write the Coyotes off because of their predicament, but Shane Doan(notes) is a pretty savvy captain and he has heart and character. That's what it's going to take for this group to move forward through this season. And if Los Angeles isn't ready to climb the ladder and Dallas slips, Phoenix could be the third-place team in the division and challenge more seriously for a playoff spot.
- Jim Balsillie