Sure, we’re only two games into 2011-12, but two elements of play may wend their way into coach Dave Tippett’s crystal ball.
In a 6-2 opening night loss to San Jose, the porous Coyotes defense allowed 52 shots on goaltender Mike Smith.
Not that a change would have been any different. Ilya Bryzgalov, who tended the nets in the desert for the past three years, defeated the Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Boston and then shut out the Devils on the road in his opening two starts for the Flyers.
Smith had little help in staving off the lethal Sharks offense, but the shot total was short of the team mark of 57 set against Vancouver on Nov. 18, 1980. Still, the absence of defensive-oriented defenseman Ed Jovanovski along with defensive-minded forwards Vernon Fiddler, Eric Belanger, and two-way player Lee Stempniak made the Phoenix defense susceptible.
The team tightened up in its second game, and while losing in a shootout to the Dallas Stars, still had a lead late in the encounter.
Now, all eyes will be on Smith, who faces a work load of 50 or more games, and the long shadow left by Bryzgalov.
Smith arrives in the desert with a previous connection. Originally drafted by Dallas, Tippett was his first NHL coach, and when free agency arrived this past offseason, Smith was lured back to his old coach. Last season with the Lightning, the 29-year-old native of Kingston, Ontario was 13-6-1 with a 2.90 goal against average.
Still, he comes to a new team and, in terms of players, he previously played with only one member of the Coyotes, forward Radim Vrbata, when both played for Tampa Bay.
“We had a good camp and we can certainly build on the last two years when we made the playoffs,” said defenseman Keith Yandle. “I thought this team came together toward the end of camp, and we’re ready.”
Clearly, it’s a long and winding road to the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring, but the Coyotes continue to be plagued by maladies as in the past.
To the point, this team desperately needs a sniper in attack. Lacking a pure scorer, the offense is clearly compromised, and puts even more pressure on a defense which is already challenged to the max each game. Last season, captain Shane Doan topped all scorers with 20, and Yandle emerged as one of the most offensive defenseman in the league.
The Coyotes seem to walk on a fine offensive tightrope and even in shootouts, defenseman Adrian Aucoin scores as much as forwards.
Given the high competitive level of Pacific Division teams, the Coyotes have a formidable challenge ahead. Not only must they over early defensive worries and address the scoring issue, the Desert Dogs need to be mindful of the improved Kings, Canucks, Stars and Ducks in the division.
In the off-season, Tippett reached into the free agent market and plucked, in addition to Smith, forwards Boyd Gordon, Rafi Torres and Patrick O’Sullivan.
With Gordon and Torres as known commodities, O’Sullivan surprised Tippett and could generate needed offense.
“(O'Sullivan) has a strong attitude and with a strong mind set,” Tippett said. “He is the kind of player who can come in here and change the previous work ethic.”
Given the uncertainty of this franchise beyond this season, and the improved nature of Pacific Division teams, the road ahead for Phoenix will likely be littered with land mines and a plethora of challenging road blocks.
EDITOR’S NOTE .. The quotes were obtained by the author after the Coyotes final pre--season game Oct. 1.
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