Topping the NHL's Endangered Species list (Hah...like that one wasn't disgustingly overused last year...or ever), the Coyotes put together a great season based around the play of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
You could say that a 100-point season is an accomplishment (and it is), but for any team to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, it's a necessity—one that the Coyotes will have to repeat this year if they want to be playing into spring.
Phoenix suffered a glaring loss in top centre Matthew Lombardi making his way to Nashville. While Ray Whitney will offset the loss in production, missing that key piece on the top line is no way to go through a season.
A season that should certainly be interesting in the desert...
1) Eric Belanger Holds Down the Top Centre's Job
Is he ideal? No, but Belanger brings grit and two-way ability to the role, which augments the tough-as-nails Shane Done and the rebounding Wojtek Wolski perfectly. He finds a way to stay on the top line this year through hard work and moxie (I always wanted to use that word in an article).
2) Kyle Turris Plays 60 NHL Games, Has 40 points and Is Only a Minus-Five
Since he was drafted third overall in 2007 out of the BCHL, Turris has faced adversity, along with the critical attitudes of others wondering when he'll take to the NHL. After a full season in the AHL, this is the year. Turris begins to show he belongs, and while the minus-five doesn't look impressive, it's certainly better than 2008-09's minus-15.
3) Wolski Has Another 65-point Season
Pushed into duty alongside Doan and Belanger, Wolski has an opportunity to put last season's late success to the test. Although his season in Colorado was good (47 points in 62 games), once he came to Phoenix he was on fire, netting a point per game (18 in 18 games). He slumped a little bit in his second and third years, but Wolski seems to be over that and should be a 20-to-25 goal threat.
4) Radim Vrbata Finishes with 25 Goals
Nothing special or surprising here, but Vrbata seems to have found a home where he can consistently contribute in the NHL. He had bounced around the NHL before thriving in Phoenix with 27 goals in 2007-08. Following a disastrous 2008-09 season, where personal concerns understandably redirected Vrbata's time and efforts, he bounced back with 23 last year. He hits 20 once again this year.
5) Both Ray Whitney and Shane Doan End Up with 65 points
A friend of mine changed his fantasy hockey team name to "The Ray Whitneys" last year because every year he drafted Whitney almost as an afterthought, and every year Whitney gave him solid, sneaky production. Usually an up-and-down player, Whitney seems due for an "up" year (65 to 70 points) and I'd rather be wrong about that than doubt him.
As far as Doan goes, he should be able to bounce back with another good season (at least 65 points) after a year of just 55 last year. Expect a return to 20 goals as well.
6) Oliver Ekman-Larsson Is Playing Top Minutes by the End of the Year
I'm predicting an Erik Karlsson-type season for the Swede. A slow start to the year, but he'll pick it up towards the end. Ekman-Larsson has plenty of talent that's going to rise to the top in Phoenix, and the veterans he's surrounded with will only help accelerate that process.
7) The Coyotes Have Four 30-point Defensemen This Year
That being said, those veterans still have some talent, as do the younger guys. First of all, the defenseman who you'll kick yourself for not drafting in your fantasy leagues: Keith Yandle should be able to replicate his 40-point season. Along with him, two among Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucoin, and Derek Morris could crack 30, while the aforementioned Swedish super rookie should be able to crack the barrier, too. Keep in mind we're not talking monumental passes of 30 (32s and 31s mainly...maybe a 33), but it's still a benchmark.
And if you're wondering: The Chicago Blackhawks were the only team in the NHL with four 30-point defensemen last year.
8) Paul Bissonnette Tops 150 Penalty Minutes...
Big deal. So long as he gets enough games, I have faith in him. The reason I bring this up, though, is because you should probably check him out on Twitter, if you haven't already.
9) Lee Stempniak Slides In With 18-21 Goals
His production following his trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs last season was otherwordly. The only other near goal-per-game production I can remember (during a meaningful period of time) is Johan Franzen's performances during the playoffs (I'm also willing to count Ovechkin's 65-goal season). While there's no Rocket Richard Trophy in his future, Stempniak will probably be the most productive $1.9 million player you've ever seen (minus rookie-capped contracts).
10) Ilya Bryzgalov Wins 35 or Fewer
Bryzgalov has been able to prove over his last three years in Phoenix that he's able to play a full 65-plus game season, he can put up quality numbers with, or without, a good team in front of him, and he has the ability to flat-out steal games. In a tough Western Conference, though, any game can be up for grabs: Everyone has a shot at pulling out a victory on any night and most teams are good enough to take a stab at the playoffs. Fewer than 35 wins might have them in tough for a playoff spot, so Bryzgalov is going to have to make sure he's on each and every night.
The Stretch (remember, you're supposed to laugh): The Phoenix Coyotes begin to hear the Hamilton rumors again. Sick and tired of them, the City buys the Hamilton Bulldogs, moves them to Phoenix, and calls them the Arizona Tumbleweeds. They then buy a full-page ad in a local paper that says, "Take That Canada!" Soon after, they're moved to Saskatchewan.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer and a columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.