Commentary

Gretzky and Co. can't deny it -- youngsters making difference in Phoenix

Updated: January 4, 2008, 10:32 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Often, when a struggling franchise trumpets its "kids" in trying to build a case for better days ahead, it's a combination of excuse-making and self-delusion.

If most of the "kids" are, at best, just journeymen waiting to happen, that's not much to brag about. Or even if most of the "kids" are better than that, a franchise's patience can become a casualty of ownership panic over such things as lagging attendance.

So here are the Phoenix Coyotes, sitting 12th in the Western Conference, albeit with a not-at-all-embarrassing 20-18-1 record heading into this weekend's action.

[+] EnlargePeter Mueller
Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty ImagesPeter Mueller is one of the young players putting the Coyotes within striking distance of a playoff spot in the West.

The Coyotes are likely to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season, including the third in a row since Wayne Gretzky moved behind the bench.

On many nights, the crowd at the Jobing.com Arena in suburban Glendale is sparse enough to make you wonder if they moved the game time up two hours after the tickets were printed -- and the word didn't get out.

All of that is foreboding.

Yet the longer you look, the more it seems the Coyotes, in their first season of Don Maloney's tenure as general manager, are on the right track. This all got started with Gretzky's former agent, Mike Barnett, carrying the GM's title, and the Coyotes are picking up steam.

When Gretzky and others bring up the "kids," and talk of the intriguing mix of veteran leadership and youth on this roster, the most reasonable reaction is not a heard-that-before chuckle of derision, but a nod of the head. In the compacted West standings, the Coyotes were four points out of the final playoff spot heading into this weekend. It might even be tempting to make a rental move or two at the deadline if the postseason field is within reach, but if that lessens the embrace of the long-range plan, it would be counterproductive.

If the Coyotes stay the course, the future looks bright.

"It's been a real pleasure to coach the young kids because their eyes are wide open and they want to get better, they love competing and they love winning, and it's a nice atmosphere to be around," Gretzky said Wednesday in Denver.

At 19, rookie center Peter Mueller, the Minnesota-raised product of both the National Team Development Program and two seasons of major junior, is both heady and flashy. Czech Martin Hanzal, 20, also comes in from the Western Hockey League, and at 6-foot-5 and 208 pounds, he is a towering presence still feeling his way, but he screams potential. Those are the big names, but the Coyotes have a total of nine on the active roster who are 25 or younger, plus a 10th, winger Daniel Carcillo, on the injured list.

And then there's young Kyle Turris -- the third overall pick in the 2007 draft -- turning heads in his freshman season at Wisconsin and with Canada at the World Junior Championship. The Badgers will be fortunate to keep him through his sophomore season, but the collegiate experience will undoubtedly, in the long run, aid his development.

This season, it certainly hasn't hurt the Coyotes that Ilya Bryzgalov fell off the waiver wire and into the Coyotes' laps, transforming the goaltending situation from shaky to solid.

"I'm so excited to be here," Bryzgalov said. "It's fun to watch these guys play and grow up. You know, this team definitely is better than last year. When we played against this team when I was with the Ducks, I was surprised how this team was working so hard every shift and stayed positive and tried to win the game. That surprised me. And when I came here, I see it every day, every practice, every night we play. It's fun to be a part of this."

But it's more than landing Bryzgalov.

This is a bit of what's happening in Chicago, but with the prospects spread out over a few years and with a core group of veterans -- in this case, including captain Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris, Steven Reinprecht and Mike York -- buying into the program. The Coyotes' leading goal-scorer, Radim Vrbata, still is only 26 and showing signs of finally living up to the teasing potential he showed in flashes at Colorado, Carolina and Chicago.

"It was a tough sell during the summer to some of the older guys on the team that these guys were going to be good enough to help us," Doan said. "We weren't overly confident about that. We'd heard it before. Everybody has, that the young guys are going to be good. But these guys are. We're excited. It's encouraging."

Doan smiled.

"And they outnumber us, so we have to be nice to them," he added. "At the same time, they're a group that's not only good hockey players, but they all listen. They're more than willing to listen to what you have to say. They want to hear it, and they try and put it into practice. Whether that's playing physical or blocking shots, or getting the puck out, they listen. And they've got pretty good skills, too."

Jovanovski said, "As a team, you have to put your foot down and say we're going to go in this direction. And our young kids have been good. It's an exciting group, enthusiastic, and it's fun coming to the rink. It's nice hovering around [a playoff spot], too. … We're still a ways away, but we have to approach each game as an individual game. For the older guys, it's been fun being around this."

It has been six years with the franchise for Gretzky, who remains a managing partner as well. But he actually seems to be enjoying himself now, after two seasons when it sometimes looked as if he wasn't having much fun having his office behind the bench.

"We really like what we've done to this point in time," he said. "We've got a long way to go and we're the first team to realize that. But the other side of it is we knew we were going to play a lot of our [young] guys, from Mueller to [Daniel] Winnik, to Hanzal, to Matty Jones and [Keith] Yandle and Carcillo.

"We didn't anticipate or expect this season for them to be playing the minutes they're playing, and that they would have progressed at the level and pace they've progressed at … Mueller and Hanzal have come a long way and played a lot of minutes and played important minutes for us. They've been key parts to the success of this team."

Given the circumstances, Gretzky said he was "pretty happy" with the Coyotes' first-half record. "We also realize we'd like to be better than that," he said. "We're liking what we have in the team, and in San Antonio, and we like some of the draft kids we have playing college hockey and junior hockey throughout North America and Europe. We're in much better shape today than we were three years ago."

The best piece of evidence to support that might be the Coyotes' 13-8 road record after their 5-2 rout of slumping Colorado on Wednesday night. The flip side is their 7-10-1 home record, especially troublesome in the context of the Coyotes' average home attendance of 14,057, better than only the Islanders and Washington.

The honeymoon period for the NHL in the Valley of the Sun ended long ago, or about when the blind spots in what then was the America West Arena in downtown ceased to be quirky and became abominations. There are plenty of folks in the area who first watched the old Western League's Roadrunners, or older franchises in native (and cold) environs, or even the Coyotes themselves following the move from Winnipeg.

They need to be won over or won back.

The new arena, in the midst of a vibrant new development and across the street from the University of Phoenix Stadium, would be a league showcase … if the Coyotes can only get it filled on a consistent basis.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."