To remain competitive, the Coyotes need Mike Smith to play at an elite level.
For the Phoenix Coyotes to repeat as Pacific Division champions, a few things need to fall into place.
As teams prepare to grind out practices and cram video sessions, the puck should drop for real by the third weekend in January. Players admit getting quickly out of the gate is mandatory and teams cannot afford an off-night.
“A good start will be a key factor to our success,” Phoenix forward Raffi Torres told the NHL Network online after the Coyotes' first team practice Monday morning. “There are so many good teams out there and any team can win on any given night. We need to get off to that great start.”
For Phoenix to generate a successful beginning and maintain its energy and production, there are five critical areas to address. If these are finalized in a way Coach Tippett would like, the Coyotes could compete again for the divisional title.
The Coyotes have not had a sniper nor a consistent goal scorer. Not in Winnipeg and not in Phoenix. The closest is winger Radim Vrbata, who registered a career-high 35 goals last season, including nine on the power play. Captain Shane Doan, a perennial points leader for Phoenix, has scored 30 goals in a season only twice in his 16-year NHL career and reached a career high in scoring points (78) during the 2007-08 season.
Ray Whitney, who enjoyed one of his more productive seasons (24-53, 77), signed with Dallas in the offseason. The Coyotes need to get production from Lauri Korpikoski, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, Antonie Vermette and Torres, who will start the season suspended as a result of a hit he leveled on Chicago’s Marion Hossa in the playoffs last spring.
2. CONSISTENCY ON DEFENSE
Though goalie Mike Smith turned in a stellar season (38-28-20, 2.21 GAA, 8 SO), the defense around him needs to play near air-tight hockey. To make up for a lack of scoring punch, the defensemen need to be aware of opposing forwards in the crease, beat wingers to the puck in the corners and gain better movement out of their end.
Lapses in defense came from time to time, and upon occasion, Keith Yandle was guilty of giving up the puck in front of his own net. The addition of Zbynek Michalek, the emergence of Oliver Ekman-Larrson and Chris Summers and Michael Stone pushing for jobs on the blue line should drive veterans Derek Morris, David Schlemko and Rostislav Kiesla toward better defensive seasons.
3. IN THEIR END
The Philadelphia Flyers proved the value to beating opponents to the puck in the defensive end nearly 40 years ago when the Broad Street Bullies terrorized the NHL. The Coyotes should pick up a page from the Bullies’ book and physically beat people to the corners.
With greater puck movement and speed back on the blue line, the Coyotes' defensemen could be in a position to be among the strongest in the league. For those on the blue line to reach any kind of elite status, players like Yandle, Ekman-Larsson, Michalek and Kiesla must play more physical and smart games.
4. BETWEEN THE PIPES
For the Coyotes to come close to repeating their success last season, Smith must continue to play at a high level. As the surprise of the league a year ago, Smith proved he could carry a team, and his numbers point this out. He finished the regular season with a five-game winning streak, recorded three straight shutouts and established an NHL record by stopping 54 shots in a shutout against Columbus April 3.
Smith has one year left on his current Phoenix contract, and to earn elite dollars in the years ahead, he needs to maintain his effectiveness in the crease.
In recent years, there’s no question the franchise was occupied with gross distractions off the ice. Now that the lockout is over, Craig Jamison and his group can go ahead and buy the Coyotes from the NHL, their current owners. By all accounts, this should be finalized by the end of January and then Jamison can start to sell luxury boxes, gain greater corporate sponsorship, create marketing tools, venture into the community and attempt to put fans in the stands.
All of his magic alone will not increase attendance. That comes through winning, and the Coyotes must continue doing that to attract fans in a marginal hockey market. The challenge ahead is to win on a consistent basis and give bandwagon fans reasons to attend future games.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.