Last season, the Phoenix Coyotes finished near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Their 10th place finish among 16 Western Conference teams did not quality for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it left a bitter feeling throughout the organization.
One factor was scoring.
Then again, a quick look at some numbers indicate the Coyotes may not have been quite anemic. For the 48 game season, they pumped in 125 goals and only San Jose (124), Colorado (116), Nashville (111), Columbus (120) and Detroit (124) scored fewer goals among Western Conference teams.
Still, the Coyotes had five players reach double figure in goals scored, and captain Shane Doan along with center Antoine Vermette topped the team with 13 goals each.
Coming into the season, the strengths of the team are the play of goalie Mike Smith and the deep talent on the blue line. Putting the puck in the net remains a important priority but, curiously enough, not a truly significant priority.
“We have guys who can score, but I think you need to look at our team overall,” said Vermette during training camp. “There’s a structure to our team and it’s based on defense and goaltending. Sure, we’ll score but that’s not our main focus.”
If the Coyotes are to generate more offense, one player may hold the keys to this kingdom.
Right wing Radim Vrbata has the potential to be a 40 goal scorer, but he can also disappear for the long periods of time. On a line with his long-time center and fellow Czech countryman Martin Hanzal, Vrbata scored 12 goals a year ago in 34 games.
Two years ago when the Coyotes made it to the Western Conference finals, Vrbata pumped in 35 goals in a 62-point season. Yet in the playoffs, he manage only two goals in 16 postseason games.
Throughout his NHL career, Vrbata has demonstrated goal-scoring capability. In the 2007-08 season with Phoenix, he scored 27 goals and lit the red light 24 times for the Coyotes during the 2009-10 season.
Somehow, coach Dave Tippett needs to work some magic and have Vrbata score on a consistent basis. If that happens, Vrbata alone could solve whatever scoring dilemma the Coyotes might face.
The Vrbata-Hanzal line should feature Lauri Korpikoski on the left wing. With great speed and knack for going in the corners, Korpikoski could have a break-out year. Last season, the native of Turku, Finland only scored six goals in 36 games, but Tippett likes the combination.
“Korpikoski and Hanzal have a history together,” Tippett said. “We used those guys as penalty killers in the past and they were successful. I think their defensive abilities and Vrbata as a scorer will be a line to watch.”
Tippett expects a solid offensive season from right wing David Moss. With marginal scoring last season, Moss contributed five goals in 45 games, but he is penciled in on the third line.
That would include Vermette at center and Rob Klinkhammer (5-6, 11 points in 22 games) on the left wing.
A potential fourth line could have Kyle Chipchura at center with unknown qualities, at this point, as wingers. That’s because the Tippett and general manager Don Maloney have not made final roster cuts.
Those remaining will clearly influence line mates for the fourth line and perhaps other line configurations. Still in camp is Max Domi, the first round pick in the 2013 draft, along with forwards Chris Brown, Lucas Lessio, Andy Miele and veteran Gilbert Brule.
The first line appears set with Mike Ribeiro at center between Shane Doan on the right side and Mikkel Boedker on the left wing.
“The offense will benefit with a guy like Ribeiro,” Tippett said. “I think he can have the same effect as Whits had on Vrbata. He clearly makes players around him better.”
The “Whits” reference is to center Ray Whitney. During the Coyotes strong playoff run of two years, Whitney enjoyed one of his most productive seasons. He scored 25 goals, assisted on 53 others for 77 points. That was just behind his best year of 2006-07 with Carolina (83 scoring points).
If the Coyotes hoped for another free agent to address a potential scoring issue, that evaporated as quickly as an ice cream cone under the desert sun. Brenden Morrow, the last free agent available, recently signed with the St. Louis Blues and now brings Tippett’s creativity to the fore.
If the Coyotes defense and goal tending is as strong as the team believes, the scoring issue can be de-emphasized. Then again, if Smith is the not the same goaltender he was two years leading the Coyotes to the Pacific Division title and deep in the playoffs, then players like Vrbata, Doan, Moss, Ribeiro, Vermette, Boedker and Korpikoski must step forward.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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