It is finally time to start talking about the on ice issues regarding the Coyotes. Time to pack away the baseball gear and break out the skates. Here is a preview on the 2011-12 Phoenix Coyotes.
This is the group that will carry the Coyotes to the level they want to be at. The forwards have a great mix of grit, skill, and responsibility. It is a part of the team that does not get enough credit because they lack the flashy highlight reels, and explosive stats. If anything can be learned from the Phoenix Coyotes play in the last two years, it’s that this team truly relies on smart team play. The one thing that GM Don Maloney and Dave Tippett do well is bringing in players that fit the system and the locker room. This off-season was no different with the addition of Daymond Langkow, Boyd Gordon, and Raffi Torres. All three will contribute heavily to the team, especially on special teams. These veteran players, combined with the promising youth, make the forwards deep and dangerous. The depth at the AHL level will make it easier to deal with minor injuries throughout the long season.
You can’t begin talking about the wings without mentioning Shane Doan. This man is a true warrior, and is not showing signs of slowing down. The power play has grown since Doan’s arrival at the point last season. Ray Whitney has brought the offensive creativity that this team has been missing the last few years. He truly proves why he is nick named the wizard. Whitney is able to keep the power play out of prolonged slumps, while contributing with several line mates. Whitney brings a unique style to the wing, similar to Ales Hemsky on the Edmonton Oilers. The playmaking ability is much needed due to the lack of offensive production at the center position.
Lauri Korpikoski had a break out season, and was one of the most reliable forwards down the stretch. He provides speed, grit and skill. This year he will be asked to continue taking steps offensively while maintaining his solid penalty killing. He should find himself playing big minutes on the top two lines this season. Radim Vrbata truly showed a sign of good faith and stayed with the organization that has given him a chance to be so successful. Vrbata is a consistent 20 goal man, and is the type of player that has broken the Coyotes out of scoring droughts. Vrbata has excelled in his defensive game and has become a duel threat pairing with Martin Hanzal. Vrbata is extremely consistent, and the coaching staff expects nothing but the same scoring ability as shown the years before.
Taylor Pyatt also brings a consistent style to the forward core. Pyatt is a big, physical player that has a talent for scoring big timely goals. He is a great teammate, and will continue to provide help along the boards. Expect the usual 15-18 goals from Pyatt, while contributing a great amount to the fore-check. Raffi Torres is rapidly becoming one of the most hated men in the NHL. Usually those players are the most popular player when they are on your team. I am thinking that Jobing.com arena will have plenty of Torres apparel sold come December. Torres can hit, and that will keep the other team off their games. But he scored some big goals last year in Vancouver and is a guy that can easily score 20 this year with more minutes. He came to the Coyotes to have a chance to contribute offensively, and that is what he will have every opportunity to do.
The remaining wingers will be fighting tooth and nail for playing time, and Tippett always rewards his best players. Paul Bissonnette will be the one player that is required to fill in for specific games. This is one tough man, and the definition of a spark plug. Players like Brett Maclean and Andy Miele will provide much needed offensive punch in place of Biznasty. Miele has a great opportunity to prove people wrong about his size, and produce at the NHL level. Mikkel Boedker will need to once again prove himself for playing time. He had a solid season at the NHL level, and will be able to move up the depth chart with continued success. He brings speed and elusiveness in the offensive zone, and has started to show signs of defensive awareness.
The centers will be the weakest offensive part of the forward group. But the center core provide two excellent defensive players. Martin Hanzal has become one of the best, young shut down centers in the Western Conference. Hanzal matches up against the top lines night in and night out. He will continue to have this responsibility and succeed. He is no slouch offensively, but his best minutes are in the defensive zone. Occasionally he will help provide a big body in front of the net on the power play. Boyd Gordon is a very simple player. He is going to provide great face-off ability, and defensive skill. The offensive numbers will not be impressive, but he can contribute in the defensive zone similar to Vernon Fiddler, except younger.
Kyle Turris and Daymond Langkow will provide the offense from center ice. Kyle Turris took some great strides last year, and proved that his wrist shot can be incredibly deadly. With bigger minutes, Turris will continue to grow offensively. Langkow, if healthy, will be able to provide consistent offensive and defensive ability. He does everything well, and plays with heart. This will give flexibility to the center ice position. Langkow will have a chance to mesh with several linemates including his old buddy Shane Doan.
The defense will have a big responsibility this year with the absence of Ilya Bryzgalov in net. The real battle will be for the veterans to stay healthy. This year the defense also needs to contribute offensively to regain the success from two seasons ago.
Keith Yandle is the cream of the crop this season on defense. He is not only the best Coyotes defenseman, but he is arguably a top 5 defenseman in the NHL. Yandle has tremendous offensive skill, and is only getting better. He will be anchoring the power play, while playing big defensive minutes. Yandle took on more defensive minutes last year, and was a star. His partner, Derek Morris had a problem staying healthy late in the season, but Morris brings some stability to the pairing and allows Yandle to be himself. Morris is a true team player, and will do the dirty deeds to get wins. When healthy, Morris can provide some offensive contribution.
Rusty Klesla had a difficult time getting settled with the Coyotes after being traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is a great match up defender, but also has trouble staying healthy. I expect him to rebound this year by playing less minutes, and conserving his skills. Klesla will ultimately replace Ed Jovanovski’s physical role, while playing against the other teams bigger scoring threats. Michal Rozsival is able to handle a heavy load of minutes, and will be relied on to do so this season. He gives the Coyotes a good first pass out of the defensive zone, while chipping in all zones. The occasional bad pass in the defensive zone is what will frustrate the fans and coaching staff.
Adrian Aucoin was able to complete the season with an impressive plus minus of plus 18. Aucoin is not as mobile as he was in the past, but he is a solid stay at home defenseman. Aucoin has a great shot, and will be able to contribute on the power play if Yandle needs some rest. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the wild card of the bunch. He has the potential to be a great offensive defenseman. This season will be a chance to break out, but he’s had some mishaps in his own zone in the past. Ekman-Larsson will get bigger minutes this year and most certainly improve on his offensive stats. The power play will be an opportunity for him to show off his true skills. David Schlemko played well enough last year to earn a spot in the top 6, and will have every chance to regain that spot in camp. Ultimately Schlemko will be a phenomenal depth player to fill in for the injuries to the defense.
The outcome of this season is being put on two individuals in the crease. Mike Smith will be out to prove that he is an NHL starting goalie. He shares the same quality as Bryzgalov, size. Sean Burke, the goaltending coach, worked wonders with Bryzgalov and I expect to see improvements in Smith’s performance. There is no way that Smith can replace Bryzgalov, but he has every chance to display his talent as a legitimate starting goalie. The system and players in front of him will have to support him responsibly for this to play out positively. Jason LaBarbera is a solid back up goalie, and has been for the last two seasons. He has handled the limited role very well, but this year will be asked to carry a bigger load of games. The real challenge will be keeping his stats similar, while playing more games.
This team is being predicted to be a bottom feeder once again. Most of the critics can only point out the obvious goaltending issues. This is a playoff team with much depth, and much to prove. The goaltending will not be perfect, but good enough to win every night. This group of players know what it takes to win in Dave Tippett’s system. The challenge will be to keep it up through a full 82 game season and beyond. My prediction is that this Coyotes team will fight and get into the playoffs as the 8th seed.
Topics: Adrian Aucoin, Ales Hemsky, Andy Miele, BizNasty, Boyd Gordon, Brett Maclean, Dave Tippett, Daymond Langkow, Derek Morris, Don Maloney, Edmonton Oilers, Jason LaBarbera, Jobing.com, Kyle Turris, Lauri Korpikoski, Martin Hanzal, Michal Rozsival, Mike Smith, Mikkel Boedker, NHL, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Paul Bissonnette, Phoenix Coyotes, Radim Vrbata, Raffi Torres, Ray Whitney, Rusty Klesla, Sean Burke, Shane Doan, Taylor Pyatt, Vernon Fiddler