Phoenix Coyotes Season Preview
Executives, Coaches and Management:
General Manager: Mike Barnett- 4th season as both GM and alternate governor
Head Coach: Wayne Gretzky- 1st season as head coach
Associate Coaches: Rick Tocchet- 1st season as associate. Barry Smith- 1st season as associate. Rick Bowness- 1st season as associate, former assistant and interim head coach.
Other Notable Staff: Paul Coffey – Special Teams Consultant Grant Fuhr – Goaltending Coach.
Forgotten Moves: Players added between the trade deadline frenzy and the lockout.
Team Mode: Playoff Run/Division Run
Phoenix has been rebuilding for the past 3-4 seasons, patiently awaiting the maturation of some of the top prospects in the league (Shane Doan, Ladislav Nagy, Mike Johnson, Paul Mara). It seems from last season or two that these players (spare Mara who has yet to peak) are ready to perform at their best (all 3 forwards are capable of a point a game). GM Barnett recognizing this has began to cast a ‘support’ group for these up and comers to the tone of Hull, Ricci, Nedved, O’Donnell and Joseph, as well as sprinkling in a few seeds of future prospects (Saprykin, Rupp, Comrie). Phoenix now has the cast it needs to make deep playoff runs and could even threaten for the Pacific Division title. The new rule changes play right into the Coyotes’ hands as Doan and less notably Cale Hulse and David Tanabe. The speed these three players possess will make them two way threats, especially Hulse and Tanabe as they are defensmen.
To Take Charge! – Inspiring Performers
Here is where I am supposed to name the one player/coach/whatever that is going to lead by example or whose performance is going to inspire the entire team to play better. In the case of the Coyotes I can not pick just one, I had a hard enough time choosing two.
Shane Doan: Doan served as captain of the Coyotes last season and has been a true blue (or should I say white?) member of the organization since the Winnipeg days. Shane got his first All Star invite last season and also had an amazingly productive season (his most productive season in fact, 79 games and 68 points). All the players on the team have a deep respect for the man and he is the perfect fit to lead this club into the playoffs.
Wayne Gretzky: Wayne brings something to this team that is still uncertain. Phoenix has been long plagued with coaching woes, spare one season with Bobby Francis. Phoenix has always failed having sufficient leadership, often the players relied more on their captain than their coach for guidance. What better a man to bring the team together , whose leadership could no hockey player ever question, who could garner more respect than Wayne Gretzky? Wayne is going to lead and inspire this team, regardless how well he can coach them.
On the Rush: Offense- Phoenix’s offense will not be the same as you have seen in the last few seasons. Phoenix has added every night scoring threats Brett Hull and Petr Nedved, as well as consistant 30 point men like Mike Ricci and Derek Morris. On top of this we have Shane Doan, Ladislav Nagy and Mike Johnson who have proven in the last 2 seasons that they are just on the verge of being point a night men. Lastly we have sniper Mike Comrie who had a disappointing season last season, however he had been shuffled around across the country and back again. He is now settled into his role in Phoenix and is ready to go back to the 50 point seasons that brought his name to the attention of mainstream hockey. Phoenix’s offense is outstanding this year, and the rules changes will only help them. How does this all break down? Here are my points/player projections (worst case – best case all numbers are barring injury. Also keep in mind with the rule changes hockey is more a scorer‘s paradise than last season)
Shane Doan: 60 – 90 points
Ladislav Nagy: 70 – 100 points
Brett Hull: 50 – 70 points
Mike Comrie: 45 – 65 points
Mike Johnson: 60 – 80 points
Mike Ricci – 25 – 45 points
Derek Morris – 25 – 40 points
Petr Nedved – 30 – 50 points
Paul Mara – 40 – 60 points
Last season Phoenix’s special teams… well, they could have used improvement. I think the addition of Sean O’donnell on the PK and Curtis Joseph in net will greatly lower the number of goals given up on the PK. Mike Ricci will also be a shoe-in on the PK, he is known as one of the leagues best checkers and everyone who has played against him knows that. Power play has plenty of room for improvement and it will improve. Brett Hull will figure into the power play nicely and will be able to draw the most attention while he is on the ice, perhaps allowing some of the lesser threats to get some power play goals. Cale Hulse will thrive on the power play, especially under the new rules. Using his speed he will be able to not only join the rush and apply further pressure to the opponent’s PK, but also make it back in time to prevent any unwanted shorthanded breaks. Lastly on special teams is the shootout lineup. Here is what I see and why:
Shane Doan: Doan is a gifted puck handler and sniper. He is a great player to head the shootout with and will often put pressure onto the opposing team with an early goal.
Ladislav Nagy: Nagy will be the Coyote’s #1 scoring weapon this season. He is quick, has soft hands and has a knack for finding those little holes just big enough for the puck to slip through. Nagy is a natural for this position.
Brett Hull: Did you think I had forgotten him? Hull is the perfect man to anchor this shootout team. He is fully capable of scoring that last goal to tie or seal the deal. His mere presence will shake even a hardened goaltender. Talk about pressure, the game depends on a penalty shot taken by Brett Hull, what goalie would not start shaking? If Phoenix goes into a shootout with Ottawa, how do you think Hasek will react? Déjà vu buddy.
Krysopher Kolanos: Expecting Mike Ricci or Mike Comrie here? Kolanos is only not on the starting rotation because I am not sure he will be on the roster this year. Kolanos is an amazingly gifted sniper, he just has several other aspects of his game to work on that will keep him off the roster most of the year. That said, I am sure I am not the only one who remembers a penalty shot he took against the greatest goaltender in hockey’s history back in 2001-2002. Ah sweet memories.
Covering the D-zone – Defensive expectations:
Last season Phoenix’s defense was arguably the weakest part of the team. A lack of veteran leadership on defense last season crippled and ultimately doomed playoff their playoff hopes. Several measures have been taken to remedy this problem. The signing of veteran Sean O’Donnell will go a long way to solidifying this defense, and we must not forget the checking presence Mike Ricci brings to the team. The defense is not nearly as strong as the offense, but we should expect to see improvement, especially in the younger defensemen. Look for the +/- rating to go up across the board.
Guarding the Net – Protection Between the Pipes:
If one word could sum up last season’s starter Brian Boucher that word would be ‘inconsistent’. In the world of goaltending, inconsistency is far worse than in any other position. One week he is completely unbeatable, the next he drops 4 games in a row. Early preseason looks at Boucher are promising, exhibition game 1 vs. the Wild was won 3-2 and the second preseason game at Minnesota was a shutout until Boucher had to leave the game with a strained groin. This injury is somewhat serious, do not expect to see Boucher in the net until the second or third week of the regular season.
This leaves the door wide open for newly acquired veteran goaltender Curtis Joseph to assume the starting role. What does this mean for the Coyotes? If his first preseason start is any indication ( an 8-4 loss to LA), we could be in trouble. However, preseason games are not regular season games, so his uninspiring performance is not technically any harbinger of things to come, nor is it anything to be worried about.
Talking About My Generation – Prospects:
It seems that Phoenix has been the Brooklyn Dodgers of hockey since leaving Winnipeg, “Just wait til next year!”. While it appears that this could finally be the year for Phoenix to break out of this role, that does not mean that they are no longer preparing for next year and the next. Here is a look at what they have baking in the oven.
1. David LeNeveu – G
LeNeveu has been with the organization for the past two years and is shaping up to be Phoenix’s next home grown star. LeNeveu has been showing respectable potential and will be the starter for Phoenix’s AHL affiliate this year. LeNeveu came in relief of injured Brian Boucher in the second preseason game against the Wild. LeNeveu gave up all 7 goals in a 7-0 loss which is a clear indicator that LeNeveu needs a couple more seasons in the minors.
2. Fredrik Sjostrom – RW
Freddy Sjostrom is a Phoenix prospect that could enjoy an amazing breakout season this year. Sjostrom played 57 games last season scoring 7 goals and 6 assists. His stats do not, however, reflect his true potential. This kid is right there, he is on the verge of being a 2/3 point a game guy. A little more tutelage under forwards like Doan and Nagy and he will be a clear cut starter.
3. Matthew Spiller
Matt Spiller is a huge body, 6’5” 233lbs, and he knows how to use it. Playing 51 games last season, he put up miserable numbers (0 points, – 11), but this is just a testament to Phoenix’s lack of depth on defense last season. Do not expect to see much of Spiller in Phoenix this year, but given another year or 3 and he will be a staple on the Coyote blue line.
Nagy – Nedved – Hull
Rupp – Comrie – Doan
Chimera – Ricci – Johnson
Saprykin – Devereaux – Sjostrom
O’Donnell – Mara
Tanabe – Morris
Hulse – Ference
Expectations – Where do the Pros Put Them?:
At the end of last season Phoenix was ‘ranked’ 27th. That was a different team at a different time, under different rules. Phoenix is not expected to win the Stanley Cup this year. They are not expected to make the conference finals this year. However, there is one thing that almost all of the statisticians can agree on this preseason. Phoenix will not be finishing 27th again this season. Many pros pick Phoenix to make the playoffs, but not to make an impact. The number being used the most is 7. 7th in the west, respectable, but not great. They do not expect Phoenix to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, and if they do, not past the second round. The pros also agree that the determining factor in how well Phoenix will do this year is in goal. If Boucher/Joseph have a good year, Phoenix will be a threat, if not, 27 is not totally unreasonable.
Projected – What Phoenix Will do This Season:
This has really been the season that Phoenix fans have been waiting for. We finally have names that the entire league can recognize, and not just those who have been imported from other teams. Who two years ago knew anything about Shane Doan, Ladislav Nagy or Paul Mara? No one. Adding veteran support like Hull, Ricci, O’Donnell and Joseph into the mix and you do have a winning combination. It would be unreasonable for me to say that Phoenix will win the cup this year. Phoenix has done nothing to prove that they have what it takes to win the cup. What they do have, however, is the best looking team in the Pacific division on paper. 7th is not the number that comes to my mind. 3rd is a better number, 2nd is a bit optimistic, but I am completely confident that Phoenix will be considered the threat from the Pacific division. Expect a bitter dogfight between Phoenix and San Jose for the Pacific crown, and do not be surprised if Phoenix makes a reasonable splash in the playoffs. Will Phoenix win the cup? Probably not. Is it plausible? Yes.