Youth plus grit equals ...

Originally Published: August 19, 2004
By Tom Wheatley | Special to ESPN.com

Mike Barnett
Barnett

The new-look Phoenix Coyotes moved into a new building in midseason and seemed to justify the youth program of managing partner Wayne Gretzky and his front office team.

Phoenix seemed to be doing nicely without yesteryear stalwarts such as Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick and Teppo Numminen.

When the team's depth was finally tested, though, the winning margin was stretched too thin. Along the way, coach Bobby Francis was replaced by Rick Bowness, who has since had the "interim" tag removed, and fan-favorite goalie Sean Burke was dealt to Philadelphia for offensive center Mike Comrie.

The Coyotes wound up 22-36-18-6 for 68 points and finished in 13th place in the Western Conference and out of a playoff spot for the third time in four years.

General manager Mike Barnett's summer activities included sending defenseman Radoslav Suchy to Columbus. As for the rest of the hubbub in the desert, "Barney" had a detailed briefing for ESPN.com's Tom Wheatley.


ESPN.com: What's your assessment of last season?
"It amounted to two seasons in one. We had a lot of optimism going into the year. The previous year we'd suffered 480 man-games lost to injury, and we felt that was a factor in our non-playoff appearance.

"Last year, those players were healthy and we acquired other players like David Tanabe and Tyson Nash and Cale Hulse in the offseason. That gave us some optimism.

"And in the middle of January, we were three points behind San Jose for the the division lead and we had a game in hand. Then within a week, we lost Tanabe and Ladislav Nagy to injury. We'd already lost Mike Johnson after the 10th game of the year. He'd been our MVP the year before with 65 points.

"In the absence of those three offensive players, and without the depth that you'd like to have, we added extra minutes on the back of Shane Doan and Daymond Langkow and Hulse. That took its toll, and we began to slide.

"In late February, management made the decisions that it would be difficult to be a playoff team and we began to make additional moves. And in some cases, they were unpopular here because they involved household names like Sean Burke, who had been very generous with their time in the community.

"But we decided it was time to reduce our payroll and bring in younger players. For those reasons, Mike Sillinger and Chris Gratton were traded. We also traded Jan Hrdina to get Michael Rupp, who was 6-foot-5 and 21 years old. That meant we could trade Gratton because we had another big center who was good on faceoffs. So we parlayed Gratton into getting Derek Morris from Colorado.

"Sillinger became Brent Johnson, another young goalie to go with Brian Boucher. Sean Burke became Mike Comrie. And we both freed up money to be active this summer, and we reduced our payroll and the average age of our hockey club.

"We finally felt that we were making hockey trades that were going to be part of our future, instead of transactions that were just intended to reduce payroll."

Ladislav Nagy
Before he got hurt, Ladislav Nagy was on a point-per-game pace.
ESPN.com: Which of your players had the biggest impact last year?
"Nagy, before he got hurt, was on schedule to be a point-per-game player. He had 24 goals and 52 points in 55 games before he hurt his wrist.

"And obviously, Shane Doan took it to another level. He started the season six pounds lighter, and the quickness was very evident when he took the puck to the net.

"Tanabe was another breakout player. One night in New Jersey, he basically went end to end twice to take control of the hockey game. He set up one goal one time and scored the other time. It was like he said, 'This is my puck. Go get your own.' And that was against the defending Stanley Cup champs. He's just a big horse who played 23 minutes a game. He has the explosive power in two or three strides to take the puck and take control."

ESPN.com: Which player needs to take the next big step?
"Comrie obviously showed the ill effects of missing half a year of timing and game condition. He scored some highlight goals when he got here, but he didn't have the overall endurance to control the play as he did in Edmonton."

(Note: Comrie held out in Edmonton until his midseason trade to Philadelphia, which then eventually flipped him to Phoenix for Burke).

"And I think we taxed Langkow too much with minutes. The bite he was known for around the league was missing. He's 5-11 and he usually plays like 6-5, but his tank was empty last year. I think that if we cut back his minutes by three or four per night, his physicality will return."

ESPN.com: Who in your system might be ready for the NHL?
"Keith Ballard, who came with Morris from Colorado, will challenge for a job on defense. He's an offensive defenseman, a power-play quarterback who won two national championships in three years at Minnesota.

"And Jeff Taffe, who came from St. Louis in the Tkachuk trade three years ago, showed moments of playing well. He needs to get stronger. He played 59 games as a rookie and averaged 11 minutes a game.

"Fredrik Sjostrom played 57 games for us and averaged 11:35 per game. He'll push someone for a job up front with the combination of his grit and speed. He's a real speedster, probably in the Top 10 percent of skaters in the league.

"Then Matthew Spiller played 39 games for us at 19 years old. He's a 6-5, a defensive defenseman who's a big banger. When he hits guys, he hurts them. He's got some real meanness to him. We think he can be a Derian Hatcher type, but he's a better skater than Hatcher.

"Then there's Erik Westrum who played the final 15 games for us and averaged 16 minutes a game. He played for Team USA at the World Championships and was probably their top forward over there.

"So we look for Taffe, Sjostrom, Spiller and Westrum to push people from behind. If they don't win a spot from the outset, we think all four will eventually play in the league for many years.

"With kids like them, we know we have the depth we didn't have last year. And there's one other kid I should mention: David Leveneu, who broke all of Ken Dryden's goalie records at Cornell. He was at our Springfield team, which was not a strong team. One night Marty McSorley, the coach there, called after the game and said, 'The score was 5-1 and we gave up 57 shots.' I said, 'Who got our goal?' And he laughed and said, 'No, we have the five. Our kid was unbelievable in goal.' "

ESPN.com: What was your top priority to improve the organization this summer?
"We felt we had 13 players who were the core of our plan moving forward. We ended the year with the youngest team in the league, 25.4 years, even younger than Florida, the next youngest team. And we felt we had gotten faster with the moves we made during the season.

"But we needed to supplement that core with a certain style of player -- we wanted to get more gritty -- and solidify positions as well. The first offseason move we made was to obtain Jason Chimera from the Edmonton organization. He has elite-level speed at age 25, and he was a prolific scorer at the minor-league level.

"The same held true for signing Boyd Devereaux from Detroit. He was a fourth-line player on a Stanley Cup champion, but he's a young player with top-end speed with the potential to play in our top nine.

"We already had Nagy and Mike Johnson up front, and we had good speed on the back end with Morris and Tanabe and (Paul) Mara. That gives us seven to eight players that you'd consider quick by anyone's standard.

"Then we signed Sean O'Donnell, who gives us a solid defensive style of play on the back end, like Cale Hulse does. We tried to create a blend there to go with Mara, Tanabe and Morris, all offensive defensemen.

"And we signed Mike Ricci from San Jose to give us the leadership and the grit we wanted in our front line. He has a great work ethic and he can play in every situation. We think he'll be as popular as Tyson Nash has become. His qualifying number was $1.45 million, but we re-signed him for $800,000 for three years.

"We also signed Doan, our best player, to a three-year deal that averages $3.45 million. I don't know that there's a better power forward out there, and his salary's a long way from the eight or 10 million that (Jarome) Iginla will probably get in Calgary.

"We still have Nagy going to arbitration. Even if he winds up with $2 million or $2.2 million, we like how our payroll is structured.

"With Nagy, Doan, Johnson, Langkow and Comrie, we have five forwards capable of 20 to 25 goals each. With Nash and Ricci and Chimera, we have some forwards who are difficult to play against. Our penalty killing is improved with Ricci, Devereaux and Chimera, which will help Langkow. Because with all the injuries, he was on our first penalty killing unit night after night.

"We've got two goaltenders 26, 27 years of age that have had success in the league at a high level. Johnson had those three straight shutouts in the playoffs a couple years ago with St. Louis. They have not played with the consistency they need to be at a championship level. But we think our goaltending will be better just by the addition of the guys we can put out there now.

"We have a solid blue line in front of them. And we have a group of 20 skaters that pay far more attention to team defense than we have in the past. We can make it where they don't have to face the 50-shot nights if we can cut down on the scoring opportunities and rebounds that were problematic to us.

"We've gotten more experienced but we're still young, 26.2 years compared to 25.4 at the end of the season."

ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment last season?
"It would have to be watching the team, backstopped by Brian Boucher, break a record that had been held for over 50 years for consecutive shutouts. We had five in a row. We were goal-free for 332 minutes. To accomplish that, you obviously need a goaltender playing out of this world.

"But you also need an entire hockey club thinking and playing team hockey. That's what we had at the end as the record got closer. We saw people diving in front of shots with their faces to keep the streak alive. It was a tremendous team accomplishment."

ESPN.com: The least favorite?
"When we learned that Nagy had suffered a season-ending broken wrist, within days after learning that Tanabe would be out for the year with a torn knee, right when we were in a dogfight for the division lead."

ESPN.com: What will take you furthest away from hockey this summer?
"I'll be heading over to Colorado in August to spend four or five days with my old buddy Larry Mahan at his ranch in Colorado. I met him at the Calgary Stampede, and we've been friends for 25 years. He's the Gretzky of rodeo."

Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the co-author of Bob Plager's "Tales from the Blues Bench" and "The Memoirs of Bing Devine," both available from Sports Publishing LLC.

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