Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett will have some tough decisions to make in regards to their roster this season.
As the ink begins to dry on the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement and the two sides can go home after their prolonged battle, NHL teams have a very short period of time to gauge their rosters as the new season approaches at the speed of light.
Luckily for the Phoenix Coyotes, there has not been a ton of turnover from the team that reached the Western Conference Finals last season. This consistency and continuity is reflected at all positions and on the coaching staff.
The loss of Ray Whitney will be problematic at first for the Coyotes, but the addition of Steve Sullivan and David Moss are expected to offset the reduction in points that were eliminated when the veteran winger left for Dallas.
The re-acquisition of Zybnek Michalek solidifies a defense that should be the strong point of head coach Dave Tippett's squad.
The goaltending situation will be the same as it was last season, with Mike Smith at the controls with Jason LaBarbera deputizing when needed.
The coaching staff is also the same, with veteran assistant coaches Jim Playfair and John Anderson returning behind the bench alongside head coach Dave Tippett. Former Coyotes goaltender Sean Burke returns as goaltending coach and Dave King will be the development coach.
This approach reflects the front office's trust in a group that led the franchise to its best ever finish last season. The tone is optimistic and the players are excited to get back to work as the NHL season will begin in mid-January.
This article will examine every aspect of the on ice product that the Coyotes will display this season. It will also provide my predictions for how the Coyotes will finish this season.
Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith keeps his skills sharp as he works out in Scottsdale during the NHL Lockout.
The Coyotes' goaltending position has always been a position of strength for the team. From Ilya Bryzgalov to Sean Burke, from Curtis Joseph to Nikolai Khabibulin, the Coyotes have always had a positive presence between the pipes.
This distinction was a question last season as the Coyotes elected to go with career backup Mike Smith in net. Smith proved all his naysayers wrong as he put together arguably the best season ever for a Coyotes goaltender, leading the team to the Western Conference Finals.
The 6'4", 218-pound goaltender posted a 38-18-10 record during the regular season with a 2.21 GAA and a .930 save percentage. He ranked 4th in the league in wins, 3rd in save percentage and 7th in goals against average.
The team depended on the 30-year-old Smith to be stellar throughout the season, and he delivered.
He was even better in the playoffs. His 9-7-3 record does not reflect the amazing performance that Smith put together during the postseason. His 1.99 GAA and his .944 save percentage were more indicative of how good Smith played during that stretch.
Smith will once again be counted on to perform heroic feats this season. He is in a contract year and has everything to play for, which should ensure that he plays motivated and is at the top of his game throughout the shortened regular season.
Some will question whether Smith's play will dip this season after such a surprisingly successful season last year. But, if Smith can play in a similar fashion to what he did last season, a Vezina Trophy might not be out of the question.
This would help his cause in contract negotiations and propel the Coyotes to the same type of success that they experienced last season.
Smith's backup will once again be veteran goaltender, Jason LaBarbera. In limited action last season, the 32-year-old goaltender amassed a 3-9-3 record with a respectable 2.54 GAA and a .912 save percentage. The 6'3", 234-pound goalie is a serviceable backup, but should not be counted on to replace Smith for a significant amount of time if anything were to happen to the Vezina candidate.
Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle will look to lead the defense this year as the Coyotes look to duplicate last season's success.
The Phoenix Coyotes defense is solid heading into this season. Not only do I think that this sector of the team is their strongest component, I think it is one of the best and most underrated units in the league. There are nine or ten NHL-ready defenseman in the Coyotes system right now.
The Coyotes will look to roll four defensive lines during their brief training camp and the competition for the sixth and final spot will be fierce amongst as many as five people.
The top five defenseman are established NHL names. Keith Yandle, one of the Coyotes' assistant captains, leads the group. The slick passing defenseman has grown into one of the NHL's best offensive defenseman.
The 6'1", 190-pound Boston native put together a solid season last year, amassing 11 goals and 32 assists for 43 points and a plus-5 rating. Yandle's speed and intuition are his two greatest assets, and his ability to score during regular play and on special teams while staying defensively cognizant makes him very unique in today's game.
Young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson truly came into his own last season. The 6'2",190-pound defenseman has it all. He is fast and shifty, he can create with his slick passing ability, he has the ability to score goals from the blue line as well as jump into the play and his defensive play continues to get better and better.
Last season, the 21-year-old Swedish international led all Coyote defensemen in goals scored with 13, and he added 19 assists for 32 points while garnering a zero plus/minus rating. His play in all facets of the game makes him extremely important to the Coyotes defense. Don't be surprised if Ekman-Larsson is mentioned among the game's elite defensemen in the near future.
Veteran Zybnek Michalek was re-acquired from Pittsburgh for prospect Harrison Ruopp, goaltender Marc Cheverie and a 2012 third round draft pick (81st overall) in a trade that flew mostly under the radar during the off-season. The 30-year-old Michalek brings a positionally sound, stay-at-home approach to playing defense and will add to the Coyotes toughness and grit on the blue line.
He scored 2 goals and added 11 assists, finishing the season with a zero plus/minus rating last season with the Penguins. The 6'2", 210-pound defenseman is known for his willingness to sacrifice his body and is always amongst the league leaders in blocked shots.
Rugged Rostislav Klesla will be the fourth defenseman. The 6'3", 223-pound defenseman is one of the unsung heroes of this Coyotes team. His is the most responsible defenseman on the team, posting a plus-12 rating last season. His physical play against some of the league's best offensive players has endeared him to Coyotes fans.
He contributes offensively as well. His three goals and 10 assists for 13 points last season were a benefit to the squad, but Klesla is at his best when a game gets downright mean and physical. The team's play suffered when he went down with an injury last season, as he missed 65 games in the 2012 campaign, and his health is extremely important to the Coyotes success this season.
Veteran Derek Morris will occupy the fifth defensive position. The 34-year-old Morris is in his 17th year in the NHL, and while he is not the offensive threat that he used to be, Morris still provides the Coyotes with some veteran experience on the blue line.
Last season, the 6'0", 216-pound Morris dealt with a number of injuries that prevented him from playing his best. His two goals and 11 assists over 59 games are amongst the worst of his career. His minus-12 plus/minus rating is also worrying, but given his high level of play in his career when he is healthy, he gets the benefit of the doubt.
The sixth defenseman spot is up for grabs. There are as many as five defenseman who could win the job. David Schlemko, Michael Stone, David Rundblad, Chris Summers and Brandon Gormley all have a chance to win the job.
Schlemko might have the inside track on the sixth and final spot. The 6'1",196-pound defenseman put up some impressive numbers at the Junior level with Medicine Hat (WHL), averaging almost 44 points a season from 2004-2007. In the NHL, his game is more of the stay-at-home variety. He is a solid defender who uses his intelligence and positioning to be effective.
The 25-year-old Schlemko is also more confident at moving the puck out of his own zone and starting the Coyotes' transition game. He has some NHL experience, playing in over 100 games with the Coyotes organization over the last three seasons. He is coming off of an injury-plagued season (foot surgery) that limited him to 46 games in which he had one goal and 11 points.
Michael Stone was very impressive when he was called up throughout the season, earning a plus-7 rating over 13 games with the Coyotes. His game translated into more of a stay-at-home variety at the NHL level. He is a skilled puck-mover and plays physical when necessary.
In the minors, the 6'3", 207-pound defenseman has shown a different side to his game, putting up great offensive numbers. From 2008-2010, Stone averaged 63 points a season at the Junior level with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. He has been playing very well in Portland (AHL) during the lockout. Through 30 games, he has scored five goals and amassed 15 assists for 20 points and a plus-2 plus/minus rating.
Rundblad is an extremely talented offensive defenseman that the Coyotes acquired in a trade last year with Ottawa. The 6'2", 190-pound defenseman is quick on his skates, moves the puck well and has a good shot from the point, which could help the Coyotes power play. At 21, he plays with good poise for his age, and he has good size and strength for his position.
Still, Rundblad's youth and inexperience work against him as a defender. While he contributes offensively, he hurts his team on defense by being out of position and being too aggressive. Combining his minor and NHL statistics from the last year, he was a minus-30. His game has developed this season in Portland (AHL). Through 31 games, his offense is solid, scoring 6 times and notching 16 assists, but more impressive is his plus/minus rating of zero. If he becomes more defensively sound, he could have a long future in Phoenix.
Chris Summers has had a couple of slightly disappointing seasons considering the expectations that were placed on him. The former first-round draft pick was a rock on the back line for the University of Michigan from 2006-2010, but his game has not translated to the NHL level as expected. He has struggled to stick at the NHL level and his statistics at the AHL level over the past two seasons (12 points in 103 games) are nothing to get excited about. This season in Portland (AHL), not much has changed, as he has five points and a minus-2 plus/minus rating, making him a long shot to make the NHL this season.
The 20-year-old Brandon Gormley is the most highly-touted of all of these young defensemen. He is ultra-talented and has the potential to excel in all aspects of the game. The 6'1", 205-pound defenseman has great hands, good vision, a strong build and the ability to play physically. He's not afraid to hit and does not shy away from contact.
His offensive potential is what excites many prognosticators, but his ability to be rock-solid in his own end will allow him to become a top-four defenseman in this league someday.
His 41 points in 42 games with Moncton and Shawnigan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League helped convince the Coyotes to draft him in the first round in 2010. In his first professional season, Gormley has been playing in Portland and has acquitted himself well. He has amassed nine points on three goals and six assists through 30 games.
Big expectations are something the Phoenix Coyotes Mikkel Boedker will have to deal with this season after a solid 2012 NHL Playoff campaign.
The most competitive position when it comes to forwards for the Coyotes has to be left wing. The top three left wings are set, with Mikkel Boedker likely to be on the first line, Steve Sullivan on the second line and Lauri Korpikoski on the third line. Raffi Torres, Paul Bissonnette and Rob Klinkhammer will compete for the position on the fourth line.
After a very nice 2012 playoff performance where he had eight points in 16 games, a lot will be expected of the 23-year-old Mikkel Boedker. The Danish winger had a subpar regular season, scoring only 11 goals and collecting 13 assists over 82 games
His durability, speed and puck-handling are his greatest assets, but his production will have to increase as he will most likely get the majority of the minutes at left wing. Now is the time that the 6'0", 205-pound Boedker will have to live up to his potential that led to him being drafted in the first round of the 2008 NHL Draft.
Steve Sullivan was acquired this offseason to try to offset the loss of leading point producer Ray Whitney. While Sullivan will not be able to replace Whitney on his own, the 38-year-old veteran will be expected to produce the way he did last season with Pittsburgh.
The 5'8", 161-pound diminutive winger can produce if given the opportunity. Last season, he scored 17 goals to go along with 31 assists in 79 games. He can be used in many different situations, so expect him to have a prominent role on special teams.
Lauri Korpikoski has shown flashes of brilliance in his years in Phoenix. The 6'1", 200-pound Finnish winger has been relatively durable during his stint in the desert, but has underachieved offensively in the past two years.
He is saddled with potential, as the fast winger uses his body well and attacks the net whenever given the opportunity. Last season, the 26-year-old Korpikoski scored 17 goals and amassed 20 assists over 82 games. He is very good defensively, and he will see time on the penalty kill this season.
The final spot will be most likely be decided between veteran Raffi Torres and slugger Paul Bisonnette.
Torres, most well-known recently for the hit in the 2012 Playoffs on the Blackhawks Marian Hossa, spent the 2012 playoffs suspended for his actions. He is a physical forward who teams hate to play against. The 6'0", 208-pound winger's effort, grit and guile have kept him in the league for 11 years.
He also has some pretty decent offensive skills. The 31-year-old Torres scored 15 goals to go with his 11 assists last season, playing reduced minutes on the third and fourth lines.
Bissonnette is most well-known for his Twitter commentary and his flying fists. The Coyotes' resident tough guy found it difficult last season to crack the lineup, and he has used the offseason to work on his skill set to try to get more playing time this season.
The 6'2", 216 pound winger brings a lot of energy and physicality when he plays and can provide a spark to his team and the crowd. The 27-year-old is a fan favorite due to some of his outrageous takes on Twitter.
Rob Klinkhammer is the dark horse to win the fourth line job, but don't be surprised to see him get some time as the shortened NHL season will produce many back-to-back games that will test Phoenix's depth. Klinkhammer has been known throughout his career as a rugged and durable forward that hasn't been afraid to throw his body around. The 6'3", 214-pound winger loves to use his size to make it a difficult night for the opposition every time he is on the ice.
This season for Portland, Klinkhammer has shown a different, pleasantly surprising facet of his game--his scoring ability. Klinkhammer has never scored more than 46 points in an AHL season, so his point totals early this season have been a welcomed sight. The 26-year-old Canadian has played in all 34 games for Portland so far, and he has amassed eight goals and 19 assists. He is second on the team in scoring and has posted a plus-10 rating, easily giving him the team lead in that category.
Captain Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes will look to lead the team back to the NHL Playoffs this season.
The right wing position seems to be locked in when Phoenix begins this season.
Shane Doan will occupy the right wing on the first line this season. The 36-year-old winger is the heart and soul of the team and will Captain the squad again after signing a new four-year deal this offseason.
The 6'1", 223-pound stalwart brings enthusiasm, grit and toughness to the lineup and still provides a consistent scoring option on the first line. Last season, Doan scored 22 goals to go along with 28 assists for 50 points in 79 games for the Desert Dogs. Doan's value is immeasurable to the team as he is all heart and his effort is unquestioned.
Radim Vrbata will play with the second line and on the power play. The 31-year-old sniper finished with a team-high 35 goals last season to team with his 27 helpers for a team-high 62 points. Rarely do you see the team's leading scorer play on the second line, but in Phoenix the first two lines operate as 1A and 1B more than first and second lines.
The 6'1", 194-pound Vrbata is a skilled puck handler with a quick trigger on his accurate slap and wrist shots. He tends to get himself into good finishing positions, as seen by his nine power play goals and 17 power play points last season. His point production will be absolutely critical to the team's regular season success.
David Moss was acquired from Calgary this offseason, and he seems to be the player that will get the opportunity as the third-line right winger. Moss is another player that has potential, but he has not been able to fully realize it yet due to injuries. The 6'4", 207-pound winger possesses good size and decent speed for a big man.
He is more of a skill player than a physical bruiser. The 31-year-old Moss is coming off an injury plagued season in which he was able to register two goals and nine assists over 32 games. His best season came in 2008-2009, when he scored 20 goals and added 19 assists in 81 games with Calgary. Moss has to hope to stay healthy, as injuries have taken huge chunks of the last three seasons away from him.
Nick Johnson was acquired from Minnesota in the off season to provide depth at right wing. He will have every chance to win the fourth-line right wing job at training camp. The 6'1", 183 pound Johnson is coming off his best NHL season last year with the Wild. He scored eight goals and added 18 assists for 26 points in 77 games on the Wild's third and fourth lines.
While not physically imposing, the 6'1", 183-pound Johnson is not afraid to hit and will get very physical on occasion. He also possesses the skill set to contribute offensively and will be looked at to provide secondary scoring for the Coyotes this season.
Phoenix Coyotes center Martin Hanzal will be counted on for an increase in production this season.
The Coyotes are pretty well set at center for this season as well.
Antoine Vermette will most likely be the first line center. The 6'1", 198-pound Vermette came over last season from Columbus and provided an offensive spark for the Coyotes. The 30-year-old veteran enters his 11th season after producing 11 goals and 26 assists last season. His plus/minus rating was a disappointing minus-13, something he will have to work on as a top-line center.
Vermette has good vision, is not afraid to use his body and is a streaky scorer. After getting acclimated to playing with his teammates in Phoenix, he'll need to provide greater consistency in his point production.
Martin Hanzal is due for a big season. The 6'6", 236-pound center has a ton of potential, and if he can stay healthy he will produce in a big way for the club this season. The 25-year-old center only played in 64 games last season, but he produced eight goals and 26 assists over that span.
For a big guy, Hanzal plays more of a finesse game, using his puck possession skills and vision to set up teammates, namely fellow countryman Radim Vrbata. The synergy that those two have formed helps anchor the second line. Hanzal's ability to win face-offs and play in all facets of the game makes him a very valuable commodity for the team. Hanzal will need to use his physical stature to help impose himself on games this year to fully realize his potential in Phoenix.
Boyd Gordon is an invaluable member of the Coyotes. He is a grinder, an excellent face-off man, a expert penalty killer and a responsible defensive center. The 6'0", 200-pound Gordon exemplifies the Dave Tippett style of hockey: tough in the defensive zone while remaining positionally and fundamentally sound.
Gordon sacrifices himself for the team night after night, using his body and blocking shots with no regard for his own well-being. Last season, the 29-year-old center also contributed offensively, scoring eight times to go along with 15 assists over 75 games. Gordon is a glue guy, one that keeps the team together through tough times, always leading by example.
Kyle Chipchura will get the first crack at leading the fourth line at center. The 6'2", 205-pound center is coming off his best NHL season with Phoenix last year, scoring three goals and adding 13 assists. He is a good fit as a fourth line center, as he likes to work in the corners while adding a tad of frustration to the opponents with his determination and grit.
Chipchura uses his size well and plays his role with a grin on his face. He is good defensively as well and his forechecking ability helps the team in coach Dave Tippett's system.
The center position is one area where the Coyotes have depth. Alexandre Bolduc and Andy Miele are currently playing in Portland and are having solid seasons for the Pirates.
Bolduc is in Portland this season to prove that he can be a solid contributor to an NHL squad. If the beginning of his season is any indication, his point is being noticed. The 6'3", 208-pound Bolduc leads the Pirates with 30 points in 33 games played. He has scored 16 goals to go along with 14 assists, ranking him 18th in the AHL in scoring.
Bolduc plays a very solid two-way game. He can score, he can hit and he can play defense. He is a plus-1 so far, but he also contributes on special teams, playing on both the power play and the penalty kill. If he can continue to play near this level, the Coyotes will have to give the 27-year-old center a real solid look to see if he can contribute on the third or fourth lines this season.
Miele is the prototypical case of a guy who gets overlooked because of his physical size. The 5'9", 180-pound center is a nimble playmaker who needed to work on becoming defensively responsible as he recorded a combined minus-7 rating with Portland and Phoenix last season.
This season, the 24-year-old center is a minus-1 and is beginning to play more of a two-way game. This has also cut down on his penalty minutes and sloppy, needless penalties that have plagued his game in the past. The former Hobey Baker Award winner scored 16 goals and collected 38 assists in 69 games with the Pirates last year, and he has gotten off to a fast start this season as well. In 34 games, Miele has 11 goals and 16 assists for 26 points.
The Phoenix Coyotes Antoine Vermette will be expected to handle a big increase in minutes as the team will trust him to produce bundles of points.
Here is how I think the lines will look coming out of camp.
The Phoenix Coyotes will count on wing Radim Vrbata for 30-plus goals this season to help spearhead the Coyotes' offense.
When the prognosticators finally come out with their predictions for this season now that we all know that the NHL season will happen, look for many to predict a drop in the standings for the Phoenix Coyotes. Some might even have them missing the 2013 NHL Playoffs altogether.
I have a strong feeling that the Coyotes are going to prove that last season's magical run in the desert was no fluke.
For me, it all starts will goaltending and defense. I feel that Mike Smith will play motivated this season to prove last year was not a flash in the pan and that he truly is an elite goalie. There is also the financial incentive for him to do whatever is in his power to replicate last year's heroics, as he is entering a contract year. While he might see a slight dip in numbers, expect more of the same from Smith this season.
The Coyotes defense is vastly underrated. They might have the deepest defense in the NHL. The Kings might be better near the top of their roster, but the Coyotes have depth throughout their defensive lineup.
Ekman-Larsson is a budding superstar, Yandle is a leader and Michalek and Klesla are warriors who bring their lunch pale to work every day, giving them an elite top-two pairs. Schlemko and Morris could easily be second or third defensemen on a lot of other teams in the league. Stone and Rundblad could step in on a moment's notice, and the team might not see that much of a drop off.
The offense will struggle at times and they will have a difficult time replacing the play of Ray Whitney, but this team will expect young players like Mikkel Boedker and Martin Hanzal to pick up their production to help replace that of Whitney.
Antoine Vermette and Lauri Korpikoski have to be more productive at the center and wing positions for the team to thrive this season. Steve Sullivan and David Moss were nice additions as secondary scorers, and the hope is that Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan can duplicate their recent success.
Can the Coyotes repeat as Pacific Division champions? The answer is yes. Will they repeat as Pacific Division champions? My answer is no. The division is extremely competitive and the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks serve as the two greatest threats to the Coyotes this season.
Phoenix cannot sleep on their other two division rivals, as Dallas will be improved and Anaheim cannot possibly put back-to-back seasons together that reek of mediocrity with the talent on their top line.
I see the Coyotes finishing second with 55-58 points in a 48-50 game season in the division behind L.A. and just ahead of San Jose in a race that might be the amongst the most competitive in the NHL. They will make the NHL Playoffs as the six or seven seed this season.