Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Phoenix Coyotes

The Red Wings begin their official pre-season schedule this evening against the Bettman Penguins, and the Pens are going to be rocking a pretty decent lineup considering this is their first game in the new arena. Here's hoping that the Wings can get in there, mix it up, and beat the Pens down, ultimately not allowing them to ever say they were undefeated in their home barn. I love that preseason has started, because one of the things I love most about hockey is the rivalries and bad blood that exists between the teams and the fans. I get amped when I argue with other fans about the Wings or their teams, and take great pride when they stop arguing with me, because that signifies that I won. Being the competitive person that I am, it pleases me to win, and I'll admit to sometimes not being the greatest "winner". But, I am what I am, and if that bothers other people, they are free not to interact with me.

The Red-White game was yesterday, and for those fortunate to be able to either attend the game live or stream it, they were treated to a show. The two best write ups that I have seen about the game were from Hollis over at TPL where he talked about Ericsson's struggles and of course, George Malik's recap was on par with the rest of his work from training camp, as he provided an in-person account of the game. I'll be honest in saying that in past years, I had not paid much attention to training camp or pre-season; George's awesome coverage has turned me into someone who is interested in the small battles for positions and where the cut players end up. Kudos to him for an amazing job, and here's hoping he gets home so he can sleep for the next 2 days.

We turn our attention today to the ultimate surprise team of last year, and the Wings' first round opponent. Not much was expected of them last year, but what a difference a year makes.

Phoenix Coyotes

Ray Whitney, Andrew Ebbett
Departures: Matthew Lombardi; Zbynek Michalak; James VanderMeer; Mathieu Schneider

The Coyotes were supposed to be an afterthought last year, and heading into the season, there was little room for optimism. The team was bankrupt and being run by the NHL; Wayne Gretzky had abruptly resigned as head coach; and the team was made up of a number of also-rans and cast-offs. However, Dave Tippett came in and implemented a system based on smart positional play and discipline, and the Coyotes ripped off a 107 point season, good for 4th in the Western Conference. They were "upset" in the first round by the Wings, but I use the word upset in the sense that the Coyotes had home ice for Game 7. While the Coyotes lost some key players this summer, expectations are considerably higher headed into this year.

Offense: If there was a weak link to the Coyotes last season, it was their offense. As a team, they scored only 211 goals, 24th in the NHL. One of their key contributors, Matthew Lombardi, bolted the team for Nashville, and that left a pretty big hole to fill. Their captain and last original Coyote is Shane Doan, and despite allegations of racial slurs and a penchant for making ridiculous faces, he's also their offensive catalyst. Now that he's got some talent around him, Doan should be able to put up 60-70 points. The Yotes brought in Ray Whitney to see if he's got any "pop" left in him, but the rest of the team is made up of a lot of question marks and unknowns. The team is heavily banking on Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak picking up where they left off at the end of last season when the scorched the desert with their scoring pace. The return of Scottie Upshall should also bolster the offense, as he had 32 points in only 49 games before going down with a season-ending injury. Beyond that, there's not a ton of offensive talent on the team. Petr Prucha was able to score 30 goals for the Rangers a few years ago, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata are another year older and will look to continue their development, and they are hoping that Mikkel Boedker can finally live up to the potential he displayed as a rookie. And who can forget The Enigma, Robert Lang, who could either put up 100 points or disappear entirely. The Coyotes do well in getting offense from their blueline, but the loss of Michalak will hurt them a little. While he did not put up a lot of points, he was adept at handling the puck and is a smooth-skater who makes smart decisions. Keith Yandle and Ed Jovanovski are both guys who can put up 20-40 points and play on the PP, although if you watched any of the Wings-Yotes series, you know that their PP isn't exactly the most potent. In fact, the Coyotes had the worst PP in the Western Conference, converting less than 15% of the man advantages they received last year. Ultimately, their inability to score on the PP really hindered their chances of beating the Wings in the playoffs. While Whitney was a nice pick up, there's no one else that really stands out as a superstar, so the Coyotes could once again find themselves having trouble scoring.

Defense: This was an area of strength for the Coyotes last year, which was a bit surprising considering that at the beginning of the season, the players comprising the blueline for the Yotes were re-treads (Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin) or fairly unknowns (Michalak, Keith Yandle). The only true "superstar" the Coyotes had was Ed Jovanovski, and I think a strong argument could be made that his best days are behind him. However, Tippett did a fantastic job of maximizing the talent of each of his defensemen, to the point that only Jovo was a minus player among the regular defensemen. The Yotes were able to rotate in Sami Lepisto and Mathieu Schneider, and Lepisto is back to take on an increased role. Overall, the defense is solid if unspectacular, and if Aucoin can continue his resurgence and Yandle continues to develop into a good two-way defenseman, the Coyotes look to be in good shape. However, one thing to consider is that many of the blueliners are getting up there, with Morris, Jovo and Aucoin all on the wrong side of 30. Injuries can be a concern, especially for Morris and Jovanovski, two guys who play a physical game. The Coyotes finished 3rd overall in team defense last year, giving up less than 200 goals over the course of the season. They were a tough team to score against last year, and this year should prove no different.

Goaltending: One area that was not a concern for the Yotes was in net. The Coyotes boast Vezina-candidate Ilya Bryzgalov, and he provides a stability between the pipes not seen in the desert since Khabibulin drunk-drove his ass out of town. After being stuck behind Giguere in Anaheim for years, Breezy got his chance to prove he's a number 1 goalie in Phoenix, and he has not disappointed. Despite a perceived lack of talent in front of him, he's been able to put good-to-great numbers, but last year his 2.29 GAA and .920 SV% were enough to get him nominated for the Vezina at the end of the year, and some people had him as their winner. He's a very good goalie who has the ability to get white-hot, and the fact that he struggled during the series against the Wings left a lot of Yotes' fans scratching their heads, as they thought that in net was one of the real advantages they had going into that series. Regardless of his play against an offensive dynamo team like the Wings, Bryzgalov is the type of goalie that will give the Coyotes a shot at points in every single game he plays in. Another Vezina nomination is not out of the question.

Coaching: I'll be honest in saying I was never impressed with Dave Tippett when he was coaching the Stars. I thought he was handed a fairly talented team and didn't get a whole lot out of them. Yes, he took them to the Conference Finals in 2008, but other than that, his teams were not very successful. I found him to be a similar coach as he was a player: non-descript and boring. However, there's no denying that he did a hell of a job with the Coyotes last year, getting them through all of the off-season distractions and off-ice issues and leading them to their best season ever in Phoenix. He brought in his system (essentially the trap, if you ever watch a Coyotes game) and implemented it to perfection. It helped that he had the players to succeed (i.e., grinders and role players who had more work ethic than talent), but there's no question that without his leadership and teaching, the Coyotes don't sniff the playoffs. He was the well-deserved winner of the Jack Adams Award for Coach of the Year, and I'm very interested to see what he can do with the team now that expectations have been significantly raised.

Player to Watch: It's hard to pick one guy on the team that I will really be paying attention to this year on the Coyotes. I thought it could be Doan or Yandle, but I keep coming back to Bryzgalov. Last year behind a good defense, he put up some great numbers. I think the important part of last year for him was that he had finally gotten himself used to playing an entire season as the starter. Now that the talent in front of him is another year older and more experienced, he should thrive and could put up some absolutely ridiculous numbers. I firmly believe that he is going to be the main reason why the Coyotes either build on what they did last year or not. If he falters, I don't see the talent there to keep up with the other teams in the West.

Player With Something to Prove: Wojtek Wolski was traded to the Coyotes late in the year last year, and he responded to the change in scenery by putting up 18 points in 18 games. To reward him for his efforts, the Yotes signed him to a 2 year, $7.6M contract that makes him a pretty rich guy (except for that pesky 18%.....nevermind). Anyway, Wolski was re-signed because the Coyotes believe that he is the player that can be their offensive leader, a role that he never fulfilled in Colorado due to pressure, lack of talent, etc. He never quite lived up to his potential with the Avs, and I'm interested to see whether his late season surge was indicative of what he can actually do or was just a guy getting a fresh start and playing for a contract.

Why They Can Win the Division: This is a team that finished just a few points off of the Sharks in the Pacific and 4th overall in the NHL. At the beginning of the season they were a cute story; by the end, they were a force to be reckoned with. They have got a legitimate shot at the division if Bryzgalov plays the way he did last year and the younger guys up front continue their development. However, they are going to have to get more scoring to keep up with the Sharks and Kings. It's a competitive division, but the Coyotes have the defense and goaltending to match anyone.

Why They Won't Win the Division: An injury to any of their key players will really hurt their chances of duplicating what they did last year. I think they lost one of their better offensive players from last year in Matthew Lombardi, and I don't see a suitable replacement right now. Aucoin enjoyed a resurgence last year, but will that be the norm? Plus, the Kings got better and the Sharks didn't regress that much, and the Pacific is one of the best divisions in the NHL. It will be tough sledding.

My Prediction: I can't shake the feeling that last year was a giant fluke for the Coyotes, and that this year their talent level will shine through and bring them back to Earth. The one thing the Coyotes do not have going for them is the element of surprise: they're not going to sneak up on anyone early in the year, and a lot is expected of them. I see them like the Blues of last year: following up a really good year with a stinker, but one that will be good for the team overall. I like their goaltending, but there's little scoring there, and any team that signs Ray Whitney to be an offensive spark at this stage in his career is grasping at straws. I'll go out on a limb and say that they will miss the playoffs by a slim margin. Keep in mind that I have not even mentioned the off-ice stuff with Ice Edge and all of that, which I think is going to present another season of distractions.

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