Before the 2009-10 season even began, the Phoenix Coyotes were all but extinct. The team was in bankruptcy, and essentially written off to the northern plains of Canada, until the NHL took over day-to-day operations with the intent of salvaging a season and a franchise. Media pundits placed the team in the cellar to rot, but Coyotes’ general manager Don Maloney had different ideas. After Wayne Gretzy stepped down as head coach, he hired Dave Tippett, who was recently fired by the Dallas Stars, to lead a hockey club that had nowhere to go but up.
Somehow, Tippett kept the off-ice distractions to a minimum. In doing so, the Coyotes, a team made up of a core-group of veterans, a mixture of second tier talent and young stars who came of age outperformed their expectations. The Coyotes rewarded its small, but loyal fan base with a trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs, for the first time in eight years, and Tippett earned the coveted Jack Adams award for his effort.
When the first round opponent for the Coyotes turned out to be the Detroit Red Wings, they were written off yet again. The Red Wings had to play a rough seven games to oust the team that everyone thought had died the in the desert and Tippett raised expectations for a franchise accustomed to losing.
The new 2010-11 campaign will still be a challenge for the Desert Dogs as they are still without the following key ingredients: an ownership group, the solid play of defenseman Zbynek Michalek, one member of the scoring committee Matthew Lombardi, and a top-tier scoring threat. However, they did add free-agent Ray Whitney for his experience and scoring ability, and found Wojtek Wolski a place on the top line. Derek Morris returns in his familiar place along the blue line with Ed Jovanovski, and Shane Doan returns from his shoulder injury he suffered in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals. In addition, Scottie Upshall, who was on pace for a career year last season, will make a comeback from his knee injury in time for training camp.
THE BIG GUNS
Shane Doan (C): The face of the Coyotes has always been on Shane Doan. After a lackluster year in the goal-scoring department – only 18 goals (his lowest since the 1998-99 season) – Doan’s pride will force him to avenge that statistic with a higher mark. The scoring pressure, though, is no longer squarely on his shoulders as the Coyotes have brought in reinforcements to help him. Because he had a small taste of the playoffs in 2009-10, Doan will be hungry for a return trip in 2010-11.
Ray Whitney (LW): The “Wizard” Ray Whitney has a knack for lighting the lamp. While in Carolina, Whitney was always in the top five amongst the team in points scored, and in the top three with points scored on the power play. During the last four years, he had 20-plus goal seasons, with his best year in 2006-07. He should fill the void left by the departure of Matt Lombardi.
Ilya Bryzgalov (G): There is no doubt that without Bryzgalov between the pipes, the Coyotes would not have been in contention for a first round playoff bid. Bryzgalov was second in the league in shutouts with eight, only behind Martin Broduer of the New Jersey Devils. Bryzgalov faced less than 30 shots per night and posted a .920 save percentage and a 2.29 goals against average. Unfortunately, he will have to be just as stellar for the Coyotes to repeat their performance from last season – Goalie coach Sean Burke will definitely help see him it through.
ON THE RISE
Keith Yandle (D): Yandle had a spectacular year in 2009-10 as the young defensemen truly came of age. He no longer thought about what he had to do, letting his training take over, and creating plays for his forwards from the blue line. Shane Doan categorized him as a “riverboat gambler,” but his risks typically paid off. He was among the team leaders in points scored with 41 (12 G 29 A) while keeping a solid plus-16 rating. Yandle can be even better for 2010-11, and he will be one of the x-factors keeping the Coyotes in the hunt.
Wojtek Wolski (LW): The young forward always had the “potential” tag stuck on him during his tenure with Colorado, but he never realized it. Due to the change of scenery, he found a home with the Coyotes and he was good for a point a night on average, in 18 games. He scored four goals in the first round of the playoffs and the intention is to put him on the top line with Shane Doan and Ray Whitney. He will be in the best place to produce and it will be up to him to claim it.
TWO TO AVOID
Robert Lang (C): Lang had a disappointing season as the young skaters ran circles around him. He did contribute the occasional point, but the aging centerman has his best years now behind him. Even if he does find the form that eluded him a season ago, his best shot now is primarily a utility player seeing ice time only on the third and fourth lines.
Petr Prucha (RW): Throughout his career, Prucha also has been tagged with the word “potential,” but unlike Wolski, Prucha still has not found a way to shake it off. Prucha has the ability to make plays but has a tendency to skate with his head down, which raises the probability for injury. With upstarts like Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov and Kyle Turris trying to make the roster for 2010-11, Prucha might find himself sitting on the bench, or worse, without a job.
Mikkel Boedker (RW): Each time Boedker saw time with the NHL club, head coach Dave Tippett saw improvements in his game. He put up respectable numbers while with San Antonio to the tune of 11 goals and 27 assists, but in order to make the Coyotes, he will have to work harder than ever.
Kyle Turris (C): As the Coyotes stockpiled picks during their lean years, they picked up Turris who turned heads on his Burnaby team and averaged a point a game with Wisconsin. He used his time in San Antonio last season to really fine tune his game and racked up 63 points (24 G 39A). 2010-11 might be the time that Turris seizes the moment and cracks the NHL roster for good.
Viktor Tikhonov (RW): Tikhonov might be the dark horse among the Coyotes’ hopeful in 2010-11. Last season, the Coyotes loaned him to the KHL where he wanted to re-energize his game against a different caliber of skaters. In 25 games, he scored 14 goals which tied him second amongst his team and had a plus-11 rating. When he re-joined the Coyotes for a depth spot during the playoff run, assistant coach Doug Sulliman noticed that his speed returned and he became a sponge at practice learning from players like Wojtek Wolski. Like Kyle Turris, if he makes the roster, he could have a breakout year.