Fresh off their best season in franchise history, the Coyotes reached within two games of playing for the Stanley Cup. That’s quite an achievement for a franchise which advanced from the opening round of the playoffs only twice since its inception as the Winnipeg Jets in 1979.
Now, the Coyotes are on the precipice of gaining a reputation as one of the more difficult opponents. In the process, players hope the momentum, energy and power accumulated in last spring’s playoff surge will carry over to the upcoming regular season and beyond.
Yet, the lockout created a significant time gap of several months from which the energy could fade and the emotion of last May remain a mere footnote in franchise history.
Not so, say the participants, and the success of nearly reaching the Stanley Cup finals last spring still burns bright.
“We would like to use the energy in a positive way, but look at our experience last spring as a growing process,” said coach Dave Tippett after the team’s first “official” practice Sunday afternoon at Jobing.com Arena. “We know we will not get that emotion back, but we’re working toward that point. As a team, we have to earn the right to be in a playoff position, and you can only get in the playoffs by winning your division or finishing in the top eight in the conference.”
For the Coyotes to reach an equal height, Tippett added, there must be consistent play. Because of the condensed schedule and all regular season games are against conference opponents, each contest will be emotionally charged and take on a playoff-like environment.
“That’s been the topic of conversation around the league,” said goalkeeper Mike Smith. “Every game is that much more important. The league is so competitive that for us to get back to we were, we need to play as a team and as a group. That’s how we won last year.”
Sure, the Coyotes wanted to get back on the ice last September and have a narrow gap of three months to bridge from the emotion of last spring. Now, that time window widened by nearly four months, but players are confident that, as a team, they retain a collective long memory.
“The opportunity is there to repeat what we did,” said captain Shane Doan. “It’s up to us to create the momentum again and keep it going.”
For the most part, the core of the team returns and figures to be defensively orientated. With its strength on the blue line and Smith between the pipes, the Coyotes should be one of the better defensive clubs.
Yet to remain competitive, some argue scoring needs to increase.
“To be successful, I don’t think you need that one big scorer or sniper,” Tippett added. “Scoring by committee can be just as effective.”
Right winger Radim Vrbata lead the Coyotes in goals last season with 35 and second in points with 62. Ray Whitney, now with Dallas, topped Phoenix with 77 points (24-53).
Doan chipped in with 22 goals, but the Coyotes had only three 20-goal scorers. The next highest was Lauri Korpikoski (17). Yet, Tippett talks of creating lines where the wingers can feed off one another, and the committee concept would supersede the need for one, big goal scorer.
At the advent of training camp and heading into the regular season, Tippett identified his top three lines. Depending on injury and production, this could change but for now, he has Mikkel Boedker, Antoine Vermette and Doan as the top line, and that’s followed by Martin Hanzal, Vrbata and Steve Sullivan (17-31, 48 points with Pittsburgh). The third line features Kyle Chipchura, Boyd Gordon and David Moss (2-7, 9 with Calgary).
Tippett must also deal with the continued suspension of winger Raffi Torres. Banned for 25 games as a result of his hit on the Blackhawks’ Marion Hossa in the playoffs, Torres must sit out the first eight games and, by league rules, holds a roster spot. That’s among the 23 the Coyotes can carry, but only 18 may dress for each game, plus two goaltenders.
The Schedule Ahead
While the Coyotes lost attractive opponents like Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals along with the Rangers, Bruins and Flyers, the condensed schedule features only Western Conference teams.
In the process, the Coyotes have consecutive games against several opponents, including three games in a row against Anaheim (March 2, March 4 and March 6). There are also back-to-back games with the defending Stanley Cup champions Los Angeles Kings in the Staples Center March 18 and March 19.
After opening in Dallas this Saturday night, the Coyotes are then home for five of their next six games. At the same time, they have a difficult stretch in mid-April in which they have six of seven games away from Jobing.com Arena.
Overall, they retained 12 dates with opponents listed on the original 2012-13 schedule.
Playing all Western Conference teams, Phoenix general manager Don Maloney said the schedule has a feel of the old six-team league. That’s when teams played the other five opponents 14 times during the regular season.
This time, it’s a 48-game slate, but as Tippett told reporters Sunday, “every game will have a playoff feel.”
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.