The Phoenix Coyotes missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for a fifth straight season, but they also exceeded most expectations last year. Were the Coyotes really expected to be that bad? Or was the bar set that low in the Valley of the Sun?
The answer is probably a little of both.
Phoenix didn't accomplish enough of what most would consider a success, but the Coyotes did set out a plan and basically stuck with it from start to finish for the first time in a long time. The roster has resembled a bit of a revolving door for the past half decade, with changes in personnel and players made with seemingly knee-jerk reactions.
That wasn’t the case during Don Maloney's first year as general manager last season. Viewing the landscape, taking into consideration how young and talented teams were in both the Western Conference and their own Pacific Division, Maloney encouraged the Coyotes to remain patient, to nurture the players that have been drafted and developed, and react accordingly.
Youngsters Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Daniel Winnik and Daniel Carcillo made people take notice. Anaheim castoff Ilya Bryzgalov, an absolute gift plucked off the early-season waiver wire, turned out to be the answer in goal the Coyotes have been seeking ever since Nikolai Khabibulin patrolled the desert nets.
Even Wayne Gretzky chased the critics who suggested his immense talents as a player couldn't translate as a coach. The Great One was more disciplined, more driving and just seemed much more comfortable with his role behind the bench.
A bad year definitely had the feel of a good year.
And it was shortly after the team's first winning season since 2001-02 that Maloney & Co. surveyed what worked and what needed further adjustments. First, Phoenix realized if it is going to compete in the division it needed to get better in the middle of the ice. So the Coyotes turned a blockbuster by dealing two regulars on defense – Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton – in exchange for veteran center Olli Jokinen.
The ex-Florida Panther has the distinction of being the active player with the most games played (723) but without a single playoff game on his resume. At age 29, Jokinen is still in his prime and at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he's a good size to go up against top imposing rival centers such as Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, San Jose's Joe Thornton, Dallas' Mike Ribeiro and Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar. Jokinen, too, by averaging 27 goals and 84 points in the three seasons since the lockout, could be of immense help offensively to Shane Doan and Mueller, who figure to comprise Phoenix's top line.
Last season: 38-37-7, 83 points, fourth place Pacific Division, 12th place Western Conference. Fifth straight non-playoff finish, but best point total in six seasons. The Coyotes escaped the division basement for the first time in four seasons and remained in the playoff chase until mid-March.
Imports: C Olli Jokinen (2007-08 team: Florida Panthers), D Kurt Sauer (Colorado Avalanche), RW Brian McGrattan (Ottawa Senators), LW Todd Fedoruk (Minnesota Wild), C Garth Murray (Florida Panthers), D Sean Zimmerman (New Jersey Devils), RW Alex Bourret (New York Rangers), D Drew Fata (New York Islanders), D David Hale (Calgary Flames), LW Jeff Hoggan (Boston Bruins), D Ryan Lannon (Pittsburgh Penguins), RW Francis Lessard (minors).
Exports: D Keith Ballard (Florida Panthers), Nick Boynton (Florida Panthers), RW Craig Weller (Minnesota Wild), LW Mike York (Columbus Blue Jackets), LW Kevin Cormier (New Jersey Devils), RW Radim Vrbata (Tampa Bay Lightning), LW Mathias Tjarnqvist (available free agent), LW Marcel Hossa (Europe), C Niko Kapanen (available free agent).
Three keys to the season: The first might be as much mental as physical. The Coyotes simply are not going to sneak up on many teams this season like they may have last season. They are going to have to work harder to not only maintain the level they achieved last season, but also to earn those elusive 10 more points in the standings to go from 83 to 93. The sentiment in many circles was that Phoenix would be a playoff contender based off the improvement made last season, but Maloney clearly recognized the need to more than tweak his roster. This year's attitude has to be almost the same as at the outset of last season: us against the world.
Second, the defense is going to have to come together quickly, and it might need a breakthrough from a younger player to get the group over the hump. Veterans Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris will nail down the No. 1 pairing, and the under-rated Zbynek Michalek could play with offseason acquisition Kurt Sauer, formerly of Colorado. Ex-Flame David Hale joins a number of developing blue liners that include Matt Jones, Nick Ross, Keith Yandle, Drew Fata and Jonas Ahnelov. Training camp, exhibitions and the early stages of the regular season figure to feature a lot of experimenting with pairings and personnel. It's defense first, but the question of who is going to step up and supply some offense from the back line is a legitimate concern as well.
Third, it can't simply be assumed that Bryzgalov will be the savior on most nights like he was for many last season. Mental preparation and consistency have always been a key for the 28-year-old Russian native. He can't let last year's three-quarter season success go to his head. Nor can he let what challenges or shortcomings he faces in front of him on defense or up front affect his mental approach.
On the hot seat: Jokinen was the prized addition in the offseason, and he has a lot on his plate. He's changing conferences, he's expected to lead by example, he's expected to produce and, ultimately, he's expected the show Phoenix the way back to the playoffs, a place he has yet to visit in the NHL.
Poised to blossom: Dare we concur with Gretzky, who shocked hockey purists last season to suggest Carcillo, the league's runaway penalty-minute leader (324), has the hands of a 40-goal scorer? Well, we won't go that far out on a limb, but he definitely has Sean Avery potential if he reels in the overaggressive actions that have previously landed him in the penalty box and makes himself more available for ice time. Theoretically, Carcillo won't have to drop the gloves as often – he picked up 19 fighting majors in 2007-08 – now that Phoenix has acquired Josh McGrattan (to a large extent) and Todd Fedoruk (to a smaller one) to handle the policing. Carcillo, 23, has posted impressive goal-scoring totals in junior and minor-league hockey, so the potential is there, and that's why he's being penciled in at left wing on the second line.
Analysis and prediction: Phoenix is in for a rough go because regardless how much it improves, the Coyotes still probably have to find a way to finish ahead of either the Sharks, Ducks or Stars to reach the playoffs. We don't see that happening, and it's going to require more patience and more tweaking – probably on defense and maybe with a veteran scorer – to make this team more of a threat.