Defenseman Keith Yandle will anchor the blue line for Phoenix.
To the players and staff of the Phoenix Coyotes, this has to come as an insult.
Here’s a team that won the Pacific Division title last season and survived in the playoffs to come within two games of playing for the Stanley Cup. While the core of that success is back on the ice wearing Sedona red and desert beige, the expectations and emotion now feed from the triumph of last spring.
Despite the Coyotes reaching remarkable heights never achieved in the history of the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise last May, a major publication now says the achievements were not quite good enough. In fact, Sports Illustrated predicts in the NHL preview of its Jan. 21, 2013 edition that the Coyotes will not make the playoffs.
Instead, the Pacific Division will be won by the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix will finish ninth in the conference. Vancouver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis and Nashville will finish ahead of Phoenix and gain postseason positions.
Because of two factors, this may be difficult for the Coyotes to accept.
First, general manager Don Maloney tweaked the roster and made slight improvements on the blue line and at center. Plus, the emotion of last spring’s surge and gaining the ability to know how to win seeped into the Coyotes' psyche.
After the Desert Dogs finished the regular season by winning nine of their final 10 games and dispatching Chicago and Nashville in the playoffs, their run was halted by the Kings and a superior defensive effort. The experience remains fresh among the players and staff, and the Coyotes believe they are on target for a repeated performance.
Having acquired fleet centerman Matthew Lombardi from Toronto for a fourth-round pick three days for the start of the season, Maloney told reporters pieces are now in place for Phoenix to make a competitive run. Add additions on defense and up front and Maloney says he’s confident the Coyotes are ready to challenge conference opponents.
“There are only two ways to make the playoffs,” said coach Dave Tippett. “Either you win your division or finish in the top eight in the conference. With the shortened season and how competitive the Western Conference is, every game will fell like a playoff game. We need to be sharp and on top of our game every night.”
The strength of this team, at the start of the season, is defense.
With goalie Mike Smith coming off a stellar season (2.21 GAA, eight shutouts; 1.99 GAA, three shutouts in the playoffs), the blue line was improved through subtraction and a key addition. Gone are Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival, but Zbynek Michalek will be returning to the desert for his second tour with Phoenix.
Two-time All-Star Keith Yandle and his defensive partner, Derek Morris, return as a reliable pair, and the defense will benefit from the experience of veteran Rostislav Klesla and the emerging Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
On the offensive side of things, the Coyotes believe they have three quality centers in Martin Hanzal, Antoine Vermette (who led Phoenix in scoring with 10 points in the playoffs) and Lombardi.
As well, Maloney signed free agents David Moss and Steve Sullivan to add zip to the scoring. Plus, 35-goal scorer Radium Vrbata returns. He tied for eighth among goal scorers a year ago. The emergence of Mikkel Boedker should provide important scoring, and the Coyotes expect Lauri Korpikoski to put more pucks in the net than his 17 a year ago. Appearing in 11 playoffs games last spring, Korpikoski recorded no points.
After opening the season Saturday in Dallas, the Coyotes have five of their next six games on home ice. Given Tippett’s observation as to the challenge Western Conference opponents pose and the limited number of games (48) on the schedule, taking advantage of early home dates remains imperative.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.