Coyotes could be the next hockey miracle

Updated: October 4, 2006, 11:06 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- It's mid-May, 2007. The Western Conference finals are about to begin. Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky is surrounded by a sea of reporters.

"How did this happen?" Gretzky is asked.

A TEAM CAN DREAM
Last season, not many could have predicted that Carolina and Edmonton would have faced off in the Stanley Cup finals. So, it got us to thinking -- who is this season's surprise story? ESPN.com is picking the Phoenix Coyotes and Scott Burnside will chronicle the team's travels throughout the season. In Part I, we begin with the predictions.

• Coyotes could be hockey's next miracle

• Nolan, Roenick look for fresh start in desert

• This season's other potential successes, failures

"How did a team many believed wasn't capable of even qualifying for the postseason end up in the conference finals for the first time in franchise history?"

Gretzky shrugs his shoulders.

"Anything is possible," the greatest player of all time says. "Anything."

What kind of odds would you have given if someone had suggested the final four NHL teams standing last spring would be Anaheim, Edmonton, Buffalo and Carolina? Four teams that had failed even to make the playoffs in the pre-lockout 2003-04 season. Think Power Ball odds and go from there.

And so we begin this season by asking ourselves, where does the next hockey miracle take place? Who is this season's Cinderella story?

Of the 14 teams that didn't make the playoffs last season, you could make a case for half of them, maybe more.

But we believe the one team that will have a glass slipper hidden somewhere in its dressing room is the Phoenix Coyotes ... or as we now like to call them, the Cinder-dogs.

Don't believe us? Well, bear with us.

Every NHL success story is told in reverse, after the fact.

A year ago, Bret Hedican told new Carolina teammate Matt Cullen that there was something special in the Hurricanes' dressing room. He was right.

But we only knew Carolina was riding that rainbow arc to destiny when it efficiently erased a 2-0 series deficit against Montreal in the first round en route to the first Stanley Cup in the franchise's history.

Will we say the same thing about the Coyotes at the end of the season? One thing is for certain: This team has a cohesiveness from the top down that is unique, a cohesiveness reflected in the long hours logged by the coaching staff and the impromptu after-work gatherings and barbecues, elements that suggest a team that is pulling on the same rope.

So, we'll tell this story, the story of the Cinder-dogs from Phoenix, ahead of time.

It is the story every team imagines itself writing.

Ladislav Nagy
Rick Scuteri-US Presswire Wayne Gretzky and the Coyotes are banking that Ladislav Nagy will be a major offensive threat in 2006-07.

It's a story that starts with the greatest player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, and his good friend and general manager Mike Barnett, sitting back after last season's disappointing 38-39-5 record that left the Coyotes 12th in the Western Conference and finding many things wanting.

They didn't sit around for long.

They got up and went to the western edge of Toronto, and on the first day of free agency knocked on Ed Jovanovski's agent's door and told Don Meehan a similar story that we're telling now, about a team that was ready to make a difference.

Jovanovski believed that story and signed a five-year, $32.5 million deal. Jovanovski represents the perfect blend of snarl and savvy for a team that lacked both, a player who can dish it out at both ends of the ice.

"There were nights where I felt that maybe we got physically outmatched, and not because guys weren't trying to be as physical as possible," Gretzky said during training camp. "But we weren't quite as strong as some of the other teams. And there were liberties taken at times that I wasn't very pleased with as a team. So we went out and we addressed that. We're a much stronger, much more physical hockey club and we're going to play that way."

Gretzky and Barnett weren't done.

The offensively starved Coyotes liked defenseman Paul Mara and his 47 points, but they still wanted more sand, so they dealt Mara to Boston for Nick Boynton.

Suddenly, Jovanovski and Boynton had helped elevate a defensive unit that was already emerging as one of the league's most underrated. Zbynek Michalek and future captain Keith Ballard were dynamic as rookie defenders and, along with Derek Morris and Dennis Seidenberg, the Coyotes now boast as good a blue-line corps as any team in the league.

"I think we've weeded out some players that weren't the right fit," said assistant coach Barry Smith, who won three Stanley Cups in Detroit as an assistant to Scotty Bowman and was also part of two Cup wins in Pittsburgh.

The team also hired promising minor league assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson to coach the Coyotes blue-line crew.

"We've got to be ready from Day One. And we've got to be way better at home than we were last year. We've got to show people that you can't come to Phoenix and you can't enjoy playing in this building. You might be able to enjoy the weather, but you're going to hate playing in this building."
-- Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky

It gets better.

Under the direction of Barnett and director of player personnel Tom Kurvers, a team that had been notorious for drafting poorly has collected a handful of blue-chip defensive prospects, including Keith Yandle, who recently delighted fans and scouts at a rookie tournament in Los Angeles. The Boston native was drafted in the fourth round in 2005 and last year was named the best defenseman in his first year in the Canadian Hockey League.

Matt Jones is a keeper, as is 6-foot-5 Matt Spiller.

Most of these prospects will play in the American Hockey League under Pat Conacher, who, thanks to more financial support from new ownership, will have the best talent he's enjoyed in San Antonio.

All pieces to the Coyotes puzzle.

And as the Sabres proved again and again last year, you never know when the small pieces become part of the big picture.

"I just really, really think they have the capabilities to be that kind of a team," said Craig Button, former NHL GM and now a top scout with the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I think they have the makings of a team that could take a significant, significant step ahead."

For Button, though, the first piece of the Coyotes' puzzle is the netminder who a year ago was an afterthought for most hockey folks. "It all starts in goal with Curtis Joseph," Button said.

Critics suggest that Joseph, who was stellar last season in his desert debut, cannot duplicate his 32-win performance, that he will break down. But those who watched Joseph play say he worked harder for those victories than almost any netminder in the league because the Coyotes' team defense was so poor.

"The Coyotes relied way to much on him," said former NHL netminder Darren Pang, who is the color analyst on Coyotes broadcasts. "Honestly, I think he can be better this year." Pang added that the team's new defense might allow Joseph to approach the 40-win plateau.

Depth behind Joseph is another issue entirely. Mike Morrison appears to have the inside track on the backup role, with David LeNeveu and Philippe Sauve manning the fort in the AHL to start. Whoever fills in must be able to deliver 10 to 15 wins.

If the defense is the team's formidable strength, then the Coyotes' offense provides a considerable question mark.

There are two main areas on which the Coyotes' season will likely turn. The ability of Ladislav Nagy, the team's most talented player, to stay healthy, and the ability of reclamation projects Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick to make positive contributions throughout the season.

"Let's face it, [Nagy is] a tremendously talented player. Maybe the most talented player we have in the organization. And what we really liked about him last year was the grit he brought each and every day in practice and in games," Gretzky said. "And we're thrilled with him."

Button thinks Nolan could be this year's Teemu Selanne, capable of defying skeptics and having a dominating season. And Gretzky said it's not out of line to expect 30 goals or more from Roenick, who has remade himself after a disastrous turn in Los Angeles last season.

"Everybody's going to be held accountable," promised Roenick. He lists the guys who've been leaders in their own dressing rooms: Nolan (who was captain of a young San Jose team), Jovanovski (an Olympian and leader in Vancouver) and Boynton (likewise a strong presence in the Boston dressing room). "And me, who's been around the block a few times."

Some will perceive this as a slap at captain Shane Doan, but the players take pains to insist it's not.

"When you're a young captain, it's hard for a guy like Shane with his personality and demeanor, it's hard to be the guy that's yelling or someone who makes guys accountable," Roenick said.

It's not about putting other people down, added newcomer Boynton: "But sometimes you need a kick in the ass. And there are a lot of guys in that room that aren't afraid to do that."

Everyone points to the Coyotes' home-ice record as a focal point, a kind of barometer of the team's chances this season. It will be so in the standings, where they will have to win at least five more games at home than last season, when they were 13th in the conference. But the team's performance at Glendale Arena will also be a pretty good barometer of what's happening in the dressing room and whether this story plays out the way we imagine.

"You look at some of the teams in the division and in the conference, and we can't afford to lose games that we should win. We've got to be ready from Day One," Gretzky said. "And we've got to be way better at home than we were last year. We've got to show people that you can't come to Phoenix and you can't enjoy playing in this building. You might be able to enjoy the weather, but you're going to hate playing in this building. You've got to have a physical presence and you've got to have speed and that's what we've tried to address."

Roenick said it's the job of the incoming veterans like Nolan, Jovanovski and himself, players who have all played in warm-weather markets, to impose an attitude in the dressing room that runs contrary to the lifestyle outside the rink that is so attractive to many, including hockey players.

"It's very easy to get caught up in wearing the flip-flops and the laid-back lifestyle," Roenick said.

"At the end of the day it's up to the players," added Jovanovski, who will be looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued season in Vancouver. "The expectations are high. We have to see the big picture."

Is it all enough to write the story we imagine? To paraphrase a future quote from Mr. Gretzky, anything is possible.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.