As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-11 regular season.
Out West, we're with the Phoenix Coyotes.
LW Ray Whitney, LW Andrew Ebbett, C Eric Belanger.
D Zbynek Michalek, D Jim Vandermeer, C Matthew Lombardi, C Joel Perrault, C Petteri Nokelainen, C Daniel Winnik, RW Jared Staal.
Amidst a whirlwind of uncertainty and fear, last season saw the biggest surprise in the NHL come from the Phoenix Coyotes. The Yotes set franchise records in head-to-head competition and, had it not been for an unfavorable first-round matchup against the Detroit Red Wings, they likely would have made a bigger splash in their first playoff appearance in seemingly forever.
But as the winds of change stir, the Coyotes were faced with several difficult decisions on how to sustain their incredible success and hopefully turn a profit in the Valley of the Sun for the 2010-11 season. Gone are several role players and a star defenseman who made it all happen; in their place are a new hope and promise that the team hasn’t lost a step in the interim.
Playing hockey for head coach Dave Tippett takes a discipline that several young, breakout stars of the NHL simply wouldn’t have the patience for. But Tippett’s style seems to fit the Coyotes offense perfectly.
At the top, the Coyotes don’t appear to be a menacing offensive franchise. But don’t be fooled by appearance, for captain Shane Doan still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Despite the great success for Phoenix last year, Doan fell off the trail, posting only 18 goals, his lowest total since 1998-99. But, of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story for Doan, who was still as tactful on the ice as he was in years previous, aiding the team’s other top playmakers.
The Coyotes boast a great depth along the wing, retaining newcomers like Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak for the upcoming year. Wolski had his best NHL season last year split between teams. He seems to have finally broken free of chronic, midseason scoring droughts in a Phoenix uniform. Stempniak, meanwhile, was a disaster in the Eastern Conference, but caught fire when he was dealt to the Coyotes.
The Coyotes also signed Ray Whitney, who despite age, is still a top line threat who consistently produces when he’s on the ice. He may see some ice time with Radim Vrbata opposite him on the wing. Vrbata’s best hockey is unquestionably played in Phoenix, where he’s scored over 50 goals in two seasons with the team.
Then there are players like Scottie Upshall and Petr Prucha, each of whom are working to recapture past seasons of glory where they looked, at some point, like NHL stars.
The one place Phoenix is not well-built is down the middle, with a veritable “who’s that?” of centers floating around. Though Martin Hanzal is improving and Eric Belanger will help to replace Matthew Lombardi, neither is top tier at this point in their careers.
The Coyotes are placing a great deal of hope, and pressure, on Kyle Turris to finally step up and show his merit this year. After a misguided rookie year, Turris sat out all of last season to tear up the AHL. Now he’ll be back to show what he’s learned.
On defense, the Coyotes don’t look too terrible despite losing both Zbynek Michalek and Jim Vandermeer. Phoenix still has both Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris to anchor the veteran portion of the show. Jovanovski has fallen off in recent years but is still a decent power-play producer, and Morris has always been solid, if not underwhelming.
Once again, Phoenix will place great hope and faith in their younger defensemen to step it up a notch this year. Keith Yandle and Sami Lepisto will need to show that their smooth season last year can translate into more impressive one this year. Yandle is on the verge of being the next big offensive defenseman in the league, and Lepisto is more than capable of doubling his numbers with more ice time this year.
Goaltending for the Coyotes seems to be the one thing they never had in working order until the arrival of Ilya Bryzgalov. All totaled, Bryzgalov has won 94 games in a Coyotes jersey over the last three seasons, good for 31 per year. He’s become as well-rounded as any other goalie to come out of the Anaheim Ducks system, perhaps even better than his competitors J-S Giguere and Jonas Hiller.
Last season, Bryzgalov won an amazing 42 games, a feat that will be quite difficult to replicate with an offseason of game-planning and strategizing in the books. More than a dozen times this year, however, expect Bryzgalov to be the kind of goalie that seems nigh impossible to crack.
The Coyotes are in transition defensively, giving Oliver Ekman-Larsson the perfect opportunity to step onto the grand stage and perform to the best of his abilities. The punishing Swede played in both the World Junior Championships and the World Championships for his country and, though he has a bit of a scoring touch, he could develop into a really solid shutdown player.
The Coyotes are still a solid team that doesn’t make too many mistakes and plays very close to the vest. Whether or not they are as active at the trade deadline (as a buyer or a seller) this year could prove to be incredibly entertaining. As they are now, the Yotes are good enough for the playoffs again. Third in the Pacific, sixth in the Western Conference.