(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
After a banner year in Phoenix, literally, not to mention three rounds of playoffs, the Coyotes were going to be in tough to surpass the accomplishments of the 2011-12 season in 2012-2013. But they absolutely did it.
Not on the ice, though. There, they regressed bigtime, finishing 4th in the Pacific and failing to make the playoffs. Some of the blame falls squarely on Mike Smith, who failed to replicate his brilliant debut season in Arizona, instead reaching too far into the past and replicating something more closely resembling his 2008-09 season in Tampa Bay. Not bad -- just not elite.
But after the first playoff-free year in three seasons, a disappointment, the Coyotes accomplished something nobody expected them to accomplish: they found a new owner. What's more, they stayed in Arizona. After everything this club has been through, that's a feat that trumps pretty much anything else they could do.
Armed with an actual ownership group, and a few new faces, can the Coyotes refind their identity, and the postseason to which it usually leads?
Keith Yandle dumps the puck into the Wild zone, only to have it deflect off the side boards and, somehow, miraculously, into the net. What in the heck.
Considering how uncertain everything was, the Coyotes did an incredible job retaining their core pieces, both in the front office (Don Maloney, Dave Tippett) and at ice level (Mike Smith). Of course, we'd expect nothing less, as this team has been busier while in purgatory than Dante and Virgil combined (and way busier than those laggards on the fourth terrace).
The most noteworthy departure is shutdown centre Boyd Gordon, who's off to Edmonton by way of free agency. He was the prototypical Dave Tippett player, and he'll be missed.
Rather than sign another defensive-minded guy, the Coyotes opted to instead add a little flourish to their forwards corps, inking centre Mike Ribeiro to a four-year, $22 million deal.
Backup netminder Jason LaBarbera left as well, and will be replaced by former Shark Thomas Greiss.
Forward: Captain Doan is the key here, of course, and at 36, there's always worry of a decline due to oldness, especially after he put up just 27 points in 48 games in 2013. But the addition of a bona fide first-line center in Ribeiro could help to boost his production.
Ribeiro's arrival gives the Coyotes something resembling a true top line for the first time in ages. In training camp, he's been skating alongside Doan and the recently re-signed Mikkel Boedker, and the trio has looked good, showing some early chemistry.
Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata make up two-thirds of the second line, but who will play the left wing remains to be seen. It could be a young player -- first-round pick Max Domi will get a look, as will Lucas Lessio and big Chris Brown, both of whom showed well for Portland last season. Finding someone to complete that trio and give the Coyotes two full, dangerous lines is among Dave Tippet's top priorities this training camp.
Antoine Vermette and Kyle Chipchura are centres three and four, and they're surrounded, as always, by the Coyotes' big cast of tireless checkers and character guys -- skaters like Lauri Korpikoski, Brandon Yip and, on occasion, Paul Bissonnette.
Defense: Led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is, in my opinion, a top 10 defender in the NHL, the Coyotes' blueline is quietly one of hockey's best. OEL skates with prototypical defensive defenceman Zbynek Michalek. They worked beautifully together last season.
Pairing two is much the same, with Keith Yandle and his shouldering the responsibilities as breakout starter and Derek Morris playing the dutiful stay-at-home partner. Rotislav Klesla and Mark Stone, who had a breakout first season in the desert, round out the likely top-six, with David Rundblad and Brandon Gormley waiting in the wings as depth options and 20-year-old Connor Murphy making a case that space needs to be made for him.
Goalies: In order for the Coyotes to return to the postseason, Mike Smith needs to return to the type of goaltending that got them there two years ago. They believe he can, which is why the club signed him to a six-year deal worth $5.67 per season. Smith knows the pressure's on him now, though he doesn't think the new contract adds to that.
"I don't think it's more pressure," he told NHL.com. "If you're a No. 1 goalie in this League, you've accepted that," Smith said. "I think I'm at a point now in my career where I've learned how to deal with that. I've grown as a player tremendously in the last couple of years. Obviously having that great year, I gained a lot of confidence in how I need to play and what I need to do to be successful."
Thomas Greiss is the backup option, so expect Smith to play a lot of games.
Dave Tippett and Don Maloney have worked wonders in Phoenix during wartime, keeping this team competitive with no money and no owner for years. But now the Coyotes are owned, leaving Loney and Tips to focus exclusively on owning the competition.
The biggest difference between this season and last is that Tippett has a full training camp to establish and tighten up the team's signature defensive shell. That should make a difference.
Blast from the past! Pierre the Fanatic Hockey Snowman, one of Phoenix's best creations, sings his 2008 campaign theme song.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who led the Coyotes in scoring last season with 30 points. I love him, and I feel like, if he were playing in the East, more people would too. He's as creative, dynamic and entertaining to watch as any defender in the West.
Defense! The trick to watching Phoenix Coyotes hockey is learning how to appreciate unyielding defensive posture. Do that and this team is a blast.
Shane Doan is one of hockey's most passionate captains. Get him angry, which isn't difficult, and he becomes a sociopath, shooting from everywhere and hitting everyone. Playing with an actual playmaker could make him more offensively potent as well.
The Coyotes' margin for error remains awfully slim. Even with Ribeiro added, they're still not going to score a ton of goals, which means keeping the score low is a must. If Mike Smith can't refind his old form, or there are any cracks in the defence, this team's not going anywhere.
The Coyotes don't look like a playoff team, but under Dave Tippett, they're consistently greater than the sum of their parts. Still, the new Pacific Division is a tough one, since it retains all the teams from the old Pacific Division, and adds one more likely playoff team in the Canucks. The Coyotes will be in contention all year, but I'm not convinced they'll be one of the division's top four teams when the dust settles.