2008-09 Team Preview: Phoenix Coyotes
Glenn James/NHLI/Getty Images
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideThe Coyotes, under the tutelage of Wayne Gretzky, have finally started to show signs of improvement. They jumped 16 points last season and finished 12th in the Western Conference, a considerable achievement given they play in a division with three of the top five or six teams in the NHL (Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas) and were picked by most prognosticators to finish at or near the bottom of the standings.
Gretzky managed to get a much stronger defensive performance out of his team, thanks in large part to the arrival of netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, who was claimed off waivers from the Ducks. To compete with the physically imposing competition in the division, GM Don Maloney got bigger down the middle by acquiring former Florida captain Olli Jokinen and beefing up the wings with Brian McGrattan and Todd Fedoruk, who join the abrasive Daniel Carcillo in making the Coyotes significantly tougher to play against.
The Coyotes haven't made the playoffs since 2002 and haven't won a playoff round since they were the Winnipeg Jets, so there is more than a little anxiousness to show this team is on the right track.
After hanging tough for the first two-thirds of the season, the Coyotes' offense dried up and finished 21st overall in goals per game. That number will have to improve to at least the middle of the NHL pack, one of the reasons Maloney pulled the trigger on the Jokinen deal.
The big center will almost certainly play with captain Shane Doan and both should be looking at 80-90 points. Jokinen, who had 18 power-play goals last season, should help inject some life into a Coyotes power play that ranked 24th in the NHL. The team's second-leading goal scorer, Radim Vrbata, left for Tampa, so that puts more pressure on sophomore Peter Mueller to improve on his impressive 22-goal performance. Rookie Kyle Turris will also be expected to produce, although two other rookies may also be vying for offensive time, Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov, both of whom were drafted in the first round in June's draft.
It's no coincidence the Coyotes also bulked up, adding former Senators tough guy McGrattan and the gritty Fedoruk. If, as expected, the Coyotes are going to play three or four rookie forwards, Maloney said he wants them to have a comfort zone. Early in preseason, a member of the L.A. Kings ran over Turris, and Fedoruk immediately jumped to his defense.
Last season, Maloney said, "we had no push back. If you have the toughness it allows your skill to play. We didn't have that last year."
The biggest steps forward last season were made on defense, as the Coyotes finished a respectable 17th in goals allowed per game. Their penalty kill needs work (24th), but the bigger issue is going to be filling the void left by the departure of Keith Ballard, who went to Florida in the Jokinen deal along with another everyday defenseman Nick Boynton. That's going to put an awful lot of pressure on Ed Jovanovski, who saw his game return to top form after a couple of injury-plagued seasons in Phoenix. Matt Jones, Keith Yandle and Zbynek Michalek, a trio of defensemen all 25 or younger, will all be expected to take a big step forward if the Coyotes are going to stay in the playoff hunt.
The arrival of Bryzgalov on Nov. 17 was like manna from heaven for the goaltending-starved Coyotes. The former Ducks backup, whose career has included some terrific playoff moments, embraced his first starting role and turned in a stellar 2.44 GAA and .920 save percentage. Bryzgalov gave the Coyotes a chance to win every night and he'll have to do more of that this season as his defense will be noticeably younger, if not weaker. Mikael Tellqvist will provide Bryzgalov a breather, but don't expect to see much of the Swedish netminder as long as Bryzgalov stays healthy.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterWhile the biggest improvement in the desert may be the addition of tough guys Todd Fedoruk and Brian McGrattan, the most pressure surely has to be on Olli Jokinen. In order for the Coyotes to stay in the playoff hunt this season, Jokinen must be dominant, not merely good, because the Coyotes gave up two huge blueline assets (Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton) to get him.
The biggest question mark in Phoenix is how the back end will fare without Ballard and Boynton. New additions Kurt Sauer and David Hale are solid pick-ups, but they won't step in and replace the other two. Fortunately for the defense, Ilya Bryzgalov (last season's waiver-wire acquisition) sparkled between the pipes. His stellar play helps cover up a lot of mistakes.
Up front, Phoenix has some super young talent in Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzel. Add 2008 first-round pick Mikkel Boedker to the mix, as well as the gritty play of Daniel Carcillo, and the future looks solid. In order for Phoenix to improve this seasons, the gamble on Jokinen has to pay off, and only Olli can make that happen.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
• Coyotes Home
• 2008-09 Schedule
• Complete Roster
• Search: Coyotes IN REVIEW
• Record: 38-37-7
• Division: Fourth in the Pacific
• Conference: 12th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• If the Coyotes are truly the playoff contender they believe they are, then watch for a stretch between Feb. 21 and March 12 to weigh heavily in their playoff aspirations. The Coyotes are on the road for three against L.A., St. Louis and Nashville, and after a one-game stop at home, head east for five more against Boston, Buffalo, the New York Islanders, Detroit and New Jersey.
Experience: 3 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Those close to the team say Gretzky fully embraced the job of being an NHL coach last season and logged long hours developing and implementing a game plan that fit his team. He's got more tools this season and a young core that's hungry to improve. Perhaps for the first time since he took over, Gretzky's coaching acumen is going to be judged on where the Coyotes finish.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Shane Doan
The classy Coyotes captain has his best linemate in years in Jokinen and the two should be able to match up against the best the ultra-competitive Pacific Division can dish out. Doan, who dates back to the days when the Coyotes were the Jets, remains not just the face of the franchise, but its heart, as well.
F -- Olli Jokinen
Feelings run hot and cold on the former Panthers captain. There are some who think the fact he's entering his 10th NHL season without playing in a single playoff game is no coincidence. There are others who believe the only thing Jokinen needed to catapult him to stardom was to get clear of Jacques Martin and the Panthers. Now, we're about to find out.
F -- Peter Mueller
A natural center, Mueller is also one of the most talented of the Coyotes' young players and coach Wayne Gretzky wants to be able to ice a top-notch No. 1 line, so Mueller will get a chance to make some magic with the two veterans.
D -- Derek Morris
Morris was combined minus-25 the first two seasons after the lockout, but was a solid plus-8 with 25 points in 2007-08. His play was a major contributor to the Coyotes' improvement on defense. Although he has played some with Kurt Sauer during the preseason, it won't be a surprise to see Morris and Jovanovski eating up minutes as the team's top defensive duo.
D -- Ed Jovanovski
Jovanovski won a gold with Canada in 2002 in Salt Lake City and came to Phoenix with high expectations after the lockout. Two injury-shortened seasons, though, had some doubting if Jovanovski would ever return to form before the 32-year-old rebounded with a terrific 2007-08 season. If he can stay healthy, the Coyotes could once again prove doubters wrong.
Answer: Not likely. The Coyotes have to hope that losing Ballard and, to a lesser degree, Boynton can be made up by another superlative year by Jovanovski and Morris, and that the rangy Sauer can keep opponents at bay in front and that the youngsters step forward.
The problem is, their margin for error is pretty small compared to other teams in the West. Would the Coyotes like to add another top-tier defenseman? Sure, but who wouldn't?
Bust: Martin Hanzal, C: Hanzal, 21, had a solid rookie season with eight goals and 27 assists in 72 games, but offseason back surgery creates some doubt for the 6-foot-4, 200-pound forward.
Fantasy outlook: New center Olli Jokinen steps in between gritty captain Shane Doan and Mueller to form a strong top line. After that, the Coyotes need their young stars to step up and have an immediate effect. Phoenix gave up a lot of depth on defense to get Jokinen, so they'll be giving a lot of time to the top four of Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris, Zbynek Michalek and Matt Jones. Ilya Bryzgalov should get at least 30 wins, but his GAA won't improve greatly behind that defense. -- Jim Wilkie