2010-11 Phoenix Coyotes Preview: Stability the Key
The team was a major surprise last season, picked to finish at the bottom of the division, especially considering the bankruptcy mess Phoenix was dealing with and the lack of postseason appearances the previous six seasons.
With more minuses facing them than most underdogs, the Coyotes were among the best in the conference most of the season, and that's despite the constant threat of a franchise move, plus the loss of coach Wayne Gretzky before the season's start. New coach Dave Tippett wasn't in place until late September, with exhibition games already underway.
So the team had some extra edge and used it to defy expectations. What does a semblance of stability do to the Coyotes' mindset now? Will it take away some of their backs-against-the-wall fighting instinct, or will Phoenix be able to sustain the momentum gained from a fine season?
"I hope it's the latter," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney told FanHouse with a laugh. "Listen, would I like to change place with where we were last year? Absolutely not. We like having some stability. On the hockey side, it's exciting for me having everyone back on board and Dave as coach, unlike last year when we could only guess what was going to happen. We did use that to our advantage last season, and there is still a little uncertainty -- I hope we can channel that into a playoff spot."
Another major difference: No one will expect the club to be a pushover.
"I don't think we'll sneak up on teams," Maloney said. "We know this team will have to play well. Our goal is to pick up where we left off."
Change was in the air in Phoenix throughout last season; Maloney was extremely active at the trading deadline, making seven transactions at the start of March. The potential plus going into this fall is that Tippett will have had a full season with (most of) his players, and the newest Coyotes will be starting the season with the club.
That includes defenseman Derek Morris, who signed a new four-year deal with Phoenix and who will anchor a unit that must contend with the departure of Zybnek Michalek, the Coyotes' most significant offseason loss. Wojtek Wolski, also picked up at the deadline, moves to center with the signing of Ray Whitney this summer. Another of those March additions, forward Lee Stempniak, re-signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent at the end of August after having scored 14 goals in 18 games for Phoenix.
The real key for the Coyotes, though, remains two mainstays: longtime captain Shane Doan and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who put together a sensational 2009-2010 season and at times carried the Coyotes. Doan is remarkably durable, and while his goal-scoring was down last season at the age of 33, with a final tally of 18 in 82 games, he remained the team's most prominent leader. His goal totals might go up, too, if a potential Doan-Wolksi-Whitney materializes.
Not surprisingly, the Coyotes have set to working on an extension for Bryzgalov, who was third in the league in wins last year, with 42, and sixth in goals-against average, at 2.29.
Maloney pointed to the return of defenseman Adrian Aucoin as significant; Aucoin signed a two-year seal, and Maloney said, "Bringing him back is very important. He's the voice of reason and calm." Plus the guy can end lengthy shootouts. Who knew? Ed Jovanovski is a solid figure on the blue line, too, and the defense again should be an area of strength for Phoenix, even without Michalek, who skated off to Pittsburgh.
It's the offense that Maloney would like to beef up. "We're trying to score a few more goals," the NHL Executive of the Year said.
To that end, Whitney obviously was the biggest summer get. He's got a Cup to his credit, something the Coyotes like to see on the resume, and he adds more veteran presence along with still-strong offensive skills at the age of 38.
Scottie Upshall also will help -- he was the team's leading goal scorer when knee surgery ended his season in January. Like just about everyone else with the team, it seems, he signed a new deal in the offseason.
Kyle Wellwood, late of the Canucks, got an invite to camp this week; Maloney cited his creativity and his ability on the power play as the reasons Wellwood might earn a spot with the team.
The Coyotes' rise in the West last season -- or maybe the fact that the league is currently controlling the team as buyers are vetted -- led to a high-profile opening series: Phoenix is beginning the regular season in Prague.
The Coyotes play the Bruins on back-to-back nights, Oct. 9 and 10, the first time Phoenix has played a regular-season game overseas.
"It sounded great in February, but as it's getting closer ... it's significant travel," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney told FanHouse.
There are some positives, though, Maloney noted. Prague is a gorgeous city, for one, and the trip also will provide some good bonding time for a team that added a lot of new faces in the latter part of last season.
Phoenix then gets six days off before coming home to face conference foe Detroit.
"It's a light schedule when we return, and I think the team will enjoy the trip," Maloney said. "Hopefully, it will kick off the season the right way."
Don Maloney, the Coyotes' GM, believes that there is one group of players that will have a major say in the team's season: the youngsters.
Maloney told FanHouse that Phoenix's performance will be tied to getting "meaningful contributions" from defensemen such as Maxim Goncharov, 21, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 20, who are both expected to be given chances to win jobs in camp, especially considering that the team's most major offseason loss was a blue-liner, Zybnek Michalek.
Forwards such as Mikkel Boedker, 20; Kyle Turris, 21, and Viktor Tikhonov, 22, also could be factors. Turris played in 63 games with Phoenix the year before last but a back injury slowed him last year and he spent all season in San Antonio. Boedker, a Dane, was the eighth overall pick in 2008, and like Turris, he saw plenty of time with the Coyotes in 2008-2009; but the majority of last season, he was at San Antonio. And Tikhonov, grandson of the legendary Russian coach of the same name, returns from the KHL.