First of all, I hope everyone had a very Happy New Year. Looking forward to a better year in 2009.
Teams are approaching the halfway point of their seasons this upcoming week and mid-season grades will be out from almost every media outlet that covers hockey. Let's take a look at the Phoenix Coyotes.
At the beginning of the season, anyone looking at the Coyotes roster would never have believed they would be in the position they are today, myself included.
They boasted a very young core up front with rookies such as Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov, and Kevin Porter who were all expected to be sources of offense for the Coyotes along with another young forward, Enver Lisin, who is in his first full season.
Sophomores Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal were expected to improve on the offensive outputs of their rookie seasons. Throw in veterans Shane Doan, Steven Reinprecht, and new comer Olli Jokinen and this was a team relying on young players contributing early.
The defense was seen as a weakness as Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard had departed to Florida. Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris led a group of defensemen who had no big names with Kurt Sauer, Zbynek Michalek, Keith Yandle, and David Hale.
Ilya Bryzgalov was starting his first full year as a starter with veteran Mikael Tellqvist behind him.
However, this team finds itself tied with the Anaheim Ducks for sixth in the conference with 43 points. How has this happened? A couple of things have gone right.
Captain Shane Doan is improving on his career year last year and is looking to be a point per game player this year. He has 38 points in 39 games so far this year and is on pace for 79 points. Probably the most underrated captain in the NHL, he is leading the Coyotes to a playoff birth and leading by example with hard play every night.
Zbynek Michalek has come out and is the most underrated defenseman in the NHL. He leads the league in blocked shots and has quietly become a reliable part of the shutdown pairing for the Coyotes along with Kurt Sauer. Having him step up this season is a huge asset to an organization starved for young defensemen.
Also on the defensive side of things, Martin Hanzal has shown he has more than offensive abilities. He has scored this year, but it is the big man's defensive play that has earned him respect from head coach Wayne Gretzky.
Being in a division with powerful centers like Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar, and others, the Coyotes had brought in Olli Jokinen to deal with them. However, Hanzal has shown he can hang with them and shut them down. His 20 points isn't exactly what the Coyotes wanted from him at this point offensively, but he is making up for it with his great two way play.
One more player on the offensive side of the puck has been Enver Lisin. The kid's speed is unbelievable, but he can also make plays. Speed is an asset, but it is only useful when it can be combined with skill and Lisin has certainly done that this year. His 12 points have come at critical times for the Coyotes and he will be relied on to score more. Being on a line with Olli Jokinen and Mikkel Boedker will play to his speedy game.
A couple of surprise acquisitions, such as Ken Klee and Joakim Lindstrom, have given the Coyotes more experience and depth to get through the long grueling NHL season.
Have all things gone right? Of course not.
Ilya Bryzgalov had a rough start to the year, Peter Mueller has been snake bitten lately, and financial troubles cloud the team's future in Glendale. Ed Jovanovski, called the most overpaid player in the NHL by The Hockey News, has not been the offensive defenseman the Coyotes need him to be...not to mention the fact he has been abysmal on the defensive side as well.
But it is a new year and these players will be looking to get things going. Jovanovski has gone back to the physical game that got him his nickname "Jovocop." Kyle Turris was predicted by some to be in the running for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. I am sure he would love to get in that race. Bryzgalov has started to find his form as well.
The Coyotes schedule is a tough one. Starting with their division, quite possibly the best in the NHL, they still have a tough time ahead. The Sharks and Ducks are always tough teams. Despite a bad start, the Stars have come alive and never make it easy for opponents while the LA Kings are always looking to make an upset happen. Throw in the Red Wings, Blackhawks, Canucks, Flames, and more and you have a very tough schedule. Oh yea, the Bruins are in there too.
What do the Coyotes need to do? They can't worry about what the score is. If they want to make the playoffs, either the young players are going to have to explode offensively or the team will have to out work their opponents and be physical. I am of the belief that they will need to do the second option because as much as I would love for players like Turris, Boedker, and Lisin to explode offensively, Gretzky and the Coyotes cannot rely on that.
They need veterans like Doan, Jokinen, Reinprecht, Jovanovski, and Morris to step it up along with Peter Mueller. Role players such as Lindstrom, Klee, Fedoruk, and Winnik will not necessarily be offensive dynamos, but need to have solid two way games and create energy for the team. Mikael Tellqvist has been solid thus far and will need to continue that in his spot starts throughout the year.
Will the Coyotes make the playoffs? It is still too early to tell, but they are on the right path. This is the most promising team that the Coyotes have had in a very long time. Stanley Cup to the desert this year? Probably not, but a playoff birth is certainly not out of the question.