September 23, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Twelve in the Western Conference (38-37-7, 83 points). After snagging him off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks, Ilya Bryzgalov helped backstop a young Phoenix Coyotes team into contention for most of the season. They were a legitimate threat to land the eighth seed in the West, the since-departed Radim Vrbata was an offensive revelation and the team's young prospects were playing gritty hockey beyond their years. Phoenix faded, but the future was bright.
Suddenly, during the NHL Entry Draft, the future became now: The Coyotes traded Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton to the Florida Panthers for center Olli Jokinen, a player that's two years removed from a 91-point season. The summer was filled with thoughts about what a player like Jokinen could do with offensive weapons like Peter Mueller and Shane Doan.
(That is, when we weren't thinking about Paulina Gretzky's golf game.)
The Coyotes haven't made the playoffs since 2002. With Jokinen in place, young stars maturing and a solid defense in front of Bryzgalov, can they make the cut in the tough Western Conference?
Homecoming King (Top Player): On paper, the Coyotes are the distinct winners in the Jokinen trade, acquiring a No. 1 center without having to give up any of their offensive talent. Jokinen comes to Phoenix from a poisonous situation in Florida, where his name was mentioned in trade rumors more than it was as captain.
And about that captaincy: If GM Jacques Martin is correct that the burden of leadership was too much for Jokinen to handle, then moving to the desert will suit him well. Jovanovski and Doan have the team leader thing down; you concentrate on putting up another 33 points on the power play for your new teammates, Olli.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): The supremely talented Peter Mueller had 22 goals and 54 points last season. He was one of the team's best 5-on-5 performers offensively, but his numbers should continue to rise with Jokinen's addition to the Phoenix power play. He needs to shoot the puck more. Although his uncanny ability to morph into Jim from "The Office" is unparalleled.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): Paying Radim Vrbata $3 million a season based on a breakout walk-year would have been idiotic. He could still put up some flashy numbers with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But he's also someone who just posted more than 20 goals for the first time, and is hardly a clutch player.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Besides Jokinen, the Coyotes did a nice job snagging Kurt Sauer from the Avalanche and David Hale from the Calgary Flames in order to address the sudden holes on their defense. In Sauer's case, Phoenix is getting a vastly unappreciated player who is getting better with age.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The Coyotes also decided to knuckle up this off-season, acquiring Brian McGrattan from the Ottawa Senators and bringing in Todd Fedoruk from the Minnesota Wild. Both players can play a little more than your average pugilist. But they're afterthoughts on a team that has Daniel Carcillo, the league's penalty-minute leader with 324.
We discuss Carcillo as a preeminent pest and brawler in a bittersweet way, because we fear he may not be long for the ranks of pugilists. He's a very talented power forward, and one whom Gretzky feels could have a 40-goal season in him.
We sort of feel like Carcillo is Jim Carrey on "In Living Color" right now, before the movies took him away from us. Hopefully, he can be a dynamic offensive player while still keeping it real. We simply don't want to be deprived of this kind of excitement:
Teacher of the Year: I had a contentious back-and-forth with Phoenix Coyotes bloggers last season after I wrote that Wayne Gretzky "didn't have it" as an NHL head coach. I'll admit that Gretzky is a better tactician than he's given credit for being, as the Coyotes rolled lines and used an aggressive fore-checking game to excel last season. But after Phoenix's hot streak faded, the credit for it happening clearly goes to Ilya Bryzgalov and Don Maloney rather than the coach.
Gretzky is literally and figuratively invested in this team. He wants to be behind the bench when the young players get this franchise into contention. Whether he should be is a separate issue from whether he will be, because Gretzky is determined to take his middling coaching record and produce a winner. He won't step down before that.
The Custodians (Goalies): Ilya Bryzgalov signed a three-year contract with the Coyotes on January 22. His record after the contract was 10-12-3, with two no-decisions. He had a GAA of over 3.00 in 12 games after signing the deal; from Nov. 17, 2007 through Jan. 22, 2008, Bryzgalov had 10 games in which his GAA was over 3.00.
Whether you believe the defense around him faltered or Bryzgalov started to wear down or the stats were just an anomaly, these are the facts about the Coyotes goalie after signing his new contract, before reaching UFA status in the summer.
Draw your own conclusions about whether or not he was just singing for his supper during that mid-season Vezina candidacy.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): You have to give to get sometimes, and the team will miss Ballard and Boynton on this blueline.
Ed Jovanovski played well over 22 minutes a game and had a career-best 51 points last season for Phoenix. Kurt Sauer could see his ice time jump by two minutes per game, as he's being counted on as a defensive stopper for the team. Another former Colorado Avalanche defender, Derek Morris continues to be a constant source of trade scuttlebutt (he's a pending UFA due $3.950 million this season); his numbers the last two seasons are about what you'll get. Zbynek Michalek is an underrated D-man.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Sorry, but we're just not sold on Bryzgalov. It was a great run, and he deserved the contract he received. Last season was his first as a legit starter, and he had several all-star weeks followed by some average ones. For the Coyotes' sake, here's hoping we're wrong on this one.
AV Club (Media): Two words: Darren Pang.
The Arizona Republic does what it can, but the local hockey coverage in Phoenix leaves fans searching out their own info online. One Fan's Perspective is a terrific Coyotes blog, and we also like True Coyote Love and Coyotes Hip Check.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Besides being in the group of death that is the Western Conference, establishing a second scoring line is essential. There are several young players on the roster who could fall anywhere in the lineup, but ideally Kyle Turris would be your No. 2 center. Martin Hanzal, Daniel Winnik, Carcillo, maybe Viktor Tikhonov ... even someone like Steve Reinprecht could be a candidate for secondary scoring. But this can't be the Jokinen line-or-bust, or else the Coyotes are done.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Goaltending: C+ (until proven otherwise)
Special Teams: B (assuming the power play improves)
Prom Theme: "Diamond Dogs" by David Bowie. The Coyotes have a chance to be the diamonds in the rough again this season, clawing their way into the same playoff slots that the Blue Jackets, Predators, Blackhawks and Oilers are all fighting for.
Expected Graduation: They're not a better team than Anaheim. They're not a better team than Dallas. They're not a better team than San Jose. And since there's absolutely zero chance the Pacific sends four teams to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Coyotes miss the cut again. But they're a team that could still surprise, if the goaltending is good.