Phoenix Coyotes season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:35 PM ET
ESPN.com

Phoenix Coyotes

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

In the second year of the Wayne Gretzky coaching era, the Coyotes hope to be significantly more difficult to play against, especially at home, where they were 13th in the conference last season. They beefed up an already talented, deep blue line by signing Ed Jovanovski and trading for Nick Boynton. Up front, the offensively challenged Coyotes hope to have gifted Ladislav Nagy healthy for a whole season and are also banking on at least one of either Jeremy Roenick or Owen Nolan to bounce back and contribute 30 goals or more. The additions should improve special teams that were both below the middle of the pack. If Curtis Joseph, reborn in the desert last season, can get a little more help (and he should), there's no reason to suggest the Coyotes won't be a surprise playoff team in the West. It would certainly be a nice way for the franchise to put behind the odor of last year's Rick Tocchet gambling fiasco that undoubtedly made for an unpleasant distraction.

Offense: The Coyotes were in the thick of the playoff race until Nagy went down with a knee injury that limited him to 51 games. The fact he still finished third in team scoring tells you that he's a talent and that the team didn't have much depth up front. Watch for Nagy to start the season playing with Steven Reinprecht, who had 23 points in 28 games after coming over from Calgary. Nolan likely will find his way onto the Coyotes' second unit with those two, while Roenick will start the season on the team's top line with captain Shane Doan and Mike Comrie, who both had 30 goals last season and will be expected to at least match those numbers this season. Their motivation might be that they are in the final years of their contracts. In fact, with Roenick on a one-year ticket, they might just call that trio the UFA line.

Other contributions might come from Fredrik Sjostrom, although he'll miss the first two-to-three weeks of the regular season recovering from a separated shoulder, and Dave Scatchard, who appears to have recovered from illness that limited his effectiveness last season. Looking for a dark horse? Gretzky was so impressed with veteran Swiss sniper Patrick Fischer at the Olympics last year that he lured him to the desert. Fischer is on a two-way deal, but might have enough to stay with the big club.

Defense: This is where it gets interesting for the Coyotes. By adding Jovanovski, one of the two best defensemen available on the free-agent market (some would argue Jovanovski is more valuable than Zdeno Chara), the Coyotes bring in one of the premier blue liners who, if he's healthy, is made for the new NHL with a nice blend of puck-moving smarts and grit. Unhappy with their team's play at home last season and especially how easily they were pushed around by more physical conference opponents, Gretzky and GM Mike Barnett shipped Paul Mara off to Boston for Nick Boynton, who will bring plenty of sand to the back end. Add those two to veteran Derek Morris, who missed a quarter of the season to injury, and rookie sensations Keith Ballard and Zybnek Michalek, and the Coyotes will be much tougher to play against no matter where the puck is dropped.

Goaltending: Curtis Joseph won 32 of the Coyotes' 38 games, which is all you need to know about the rejuvenating powers of the desert. At one point, Joseph was so impressive that he was a serious consideration for the third goaltending spot on the Canadian Olympic team. Joseph's numbers did tail off later in the season when the team became unraveled, mostly due to injuries to top players but also due to the distractions of the Tocchet gambling probe. But with a much stronger defense in front of him this season, there should be less wear and tear on the 39-year-old's body.

The dilemma for the Coyotes is which backup they can rely on to give them 25 or so quality starts. Enthusiasm for David LeNeveu, last season's backup, waned and the Coyotes brought in former Oiler (and briefly Senator) Mike Morrison and Phil Sauve, who was sent to the AHL midway through camp. Whichever way you cut it, depth will be an issue.

Coaching: Last season was definitely one Gretzky will want to forget for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which was the deaths of his mother and grandmother. But after speculation he might just walk away from the game after the Tocchet mess and Canada's failure at the Olympics, Gretzky signed a long-term deal. Now, all you need to do is spend about two minutes around the Coyotes to understand this is Gretzky's team. Watch for him to be much better in his second season behind the bench.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
8th The Coyotes will make strides in the NHL's toughest division and finish third in the Pacific and qualify for the playoffs with the eighth slot in the Western Conference.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. A change in ownership gave the team more wiggle room financially and it made summer headlines with Gretzky's return and major acquisitions. Development is well under way around the rink and season tickets are up.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
The Coyotes loaded up on defensemen this offseason, grabbing Nick Boynton and Ed Jovanovski. That will only help Curtis Joseph, but keep an eye on rookie David LeNeveu, a real sleeper if anything should happen to Joseph. Ladislav Nagy could be a top-25 player, Jovanovski has top-10 defenseman potential, we all know about Jeremy Roenick's history. Mike Comrie and Shane Doan might actually be the safest picks on the team. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Coyotes:
1. Blake Wheeler, 20, RW, Minnesota (WCHA)
Statline: 39 GP, 9 G, 14 A, 41 PIM
2. Martin Hanzal, 19, C, Omaha (USHL)
Statline: 19 GP, 4 G, 15 A, 30 PIM
3. Enver Lisin, 20, RW, Kazan
Statline: 43 GP, 7 G, 5 A, 26 PIM
4. Matt Jones, 23, D, San Antonio (AHL)
Statline: 59 GP, 2 G, 11 A, 46 PIM
5. Matthew Spiller, 23, D, San Antonio (AHL)
Statline: 69 GP, 2 G, 7 A, 167 PIM
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Phoenix Coyotes
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record38-39-5 (81 points)
DivisionFinished fifth in Pacific
ConferenceFinished 12th in West
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Jeremy Roenick
Is this it for the old warrior, or is he a more verbose Teemu Selanne?
Winger: Owen Nolan
Ditto. Except for the verbose part.
Defense: Keith Ballard
Poised, tough, talented. He is the Coyotes' captain-in-waiting.
Goalie: Curtis Joseph
In the new NHL, Joseph's intuitive style and athleticism make him a star once again.

Key Moves
Where to start? Jovanovski and Boynton make the Dogs' blue line formidable. Roenick and Nolan make the Coyotes' forward unit, well, interesting if uncertain. Laraque will see some ice time and will up the physical ante.

SportsNation
Rating the Coyotes
The Phoenix Coyotes finished 12th in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Coyotes in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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