Three seasons without an owner, three consecutive trips to the playoffs for the much-beleaguered Phoenix Coyotes. Amid constant speculation of relocation and endless rumors swirling in both Canada and the desert about the pocketbook of potential owner Greg Jamison, the Coyotes blazed through the second half of the season behind the leadership of captain Shane Doan and goalie Mike Smith.
An 11-0-1 February and five-game winning streak closed out the regular season and secured the franchise's first Pacific Division title, but the best was yet to come for Phoenix. A stunning disposal of the Blackhawks in six and the dark-horse Nashville Predators in five had Coyotes faithful dreaming of Stanley Cups and new ownership late into May.
While the Coyotes bowed out to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings and Greg Jamison continues his bid to purchase the team, the Coyotes were left with one major question headed into the 2012-13 season: Would Captain Coyote still don a Phoenix sweater? Ownership uncertainty left Shane Doan in free agent limbo as the veteran repeatedly expressed his desire to remain in the Valley of the Sun should Jamison secure control of the team. Having played every game of his career with the Coyotes franchise, Doan is the glue that keeps it all together in Phoenix.
With the extension of Doan, the Coyotes appear primed for another season of contending in the Pacific Division behind Mike Smith. General manager Don Maloney secured help for the team's woeful power play in Steve Sullivan and David Moss, and the team returns its stable of impressive blue line talent headlined by Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Fan-favorite Zybnek Michalek adds a stay-at-home element to the defense in the wake of the departures of Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival.
Phoenix's offense may not be a well of fantasy talent, but Radim Vrbata should continue to produce despite Ray Whitney signing in Dallas and Martin Hanzal should post another 30-point season. Perhaps the most intriguing fantasy prospect is center Antoine Vermette, who immediately gelled after a mid-season trade from Columbus and became a top performer in the postseason.
But as we saw in Phoenix last season, this is a team that will go as far as their goalie will take them, and with Mike Smith tending twine, anything's possible for the Coyotes.
THE BIG GUNS
Mike Smith (G): What can really be said about Mike Smith's stunning 2011-12 campaign? The goalie, who found himself in the AHL just a season ago, posted a 38-18-10 record, 2.21 GAA and .930 save percentage in the regular season and led one of the most surprising postseason runs in recent memory. While it might be slightly unrealistic to ask Smith to duplicate his numbers from last year, the retention of Phoenix's own goalie whisperer in coach Sean Burke should reassure fantasy owners that Smith might be able to repeat. And the outstanding blue line talent in front of Smith helps make him a top netminding candidate heading into 2012-13.
Keith Yandle (D): Though he's been the rumored target of quite a few trades, Yandle will remain (for now) a key piece of the Phoenix blue line that contributed to the resurgence of goaltender Mike Smith. With 43 points to complement 51 PIMs and 77 blocked shots in 82 games, Yandle's offensive prowess is almost as impressive as his defense. And with added support on the Coyotes' blue line after offseason improvements, there's little reason to temper expectations for Yandle going forward.
Radim Vrbata (RW): Vrbata had a fantastic 2011-12 campaign with 62 points (35 goals), the highest point production of his career. Injuries hampered his performance in the postseason and with the departure of linemate Ray Whitney, there's some concern that Vrbata's offensive output may dip in 2012-13. That said, he has been good for at least 40 points annually since joining the Coyotes prior to 2009 and that should be his floor next season.
ON THE RISE
Steve Sullivan (LW): Sullivan, a 48-point producer in 79 games with the Penguins last year, should bring a much-needed shot of offense to the Coyotes in 2012-13, especially on the team's woeful power play. Sullivan will have a big opportunity to produce in the desert with the departure of Ray Whitney and while he won't be skating with the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, Sullivan should still be one of the team's top sources of points going forward.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson (D): Ekman-Larsson, one of the game's top young blueliners, had a breakout season in 2011-12, notching 32 points, including 13 goals, 140 hits and 92 blocked shots in 82 games. OEL should be owned in all fantasy leagues as the 20-year-old is only going to improve after his first full season in the NHL. He could deliver 40 points this year.
TWO TO WATCH
Antoine Vermette (C): Vermette, a midseason acquisition for the Coyotes, tallied 10 points in 22 games and finished the season with 37 points. The former Blue Jacket came up huge in the postseason for the Coyotes and he's expected to be a big piece of the team's offensive puzzle going forward. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a 40-45 point season from Vermette. After all, he'll be skating as the team's top center.
David Moss (RW): Moss, acquired by Phoenix after a 32-game, nine-point season in Calgary, will likely have an increased role in Phoenix and could be a factor on the power play, something the Coyotes are usually looking to bolster. But even in possible second-line duty, he would be hard-pressed to deliver more than 30 points though there could be some sneaky value here.
Martin Hanzal (C): Hanzal recorded his best offensive output (34 points) since his rookie season (35 in 2007-08), yet he's hovered consistently around 30 points for much of his career. Hanzal is one of the Coyotes' most reliable producers and there's no reason to think his offensive output should drop off much despite the loss of Ray Whitney in free agency.
Zybnek Michalek (D): Acquired by the Coyotes during the 2012 draft, Michalek will return to the desert where he was a longtime fan favorite. Michalek's presence will boost an already-stacked blue line and affords the Coyotes the chance to entertain offers for Keith Yandle. Michalek's not known for his scoring, but he did chip in 19 points during his last stint in Phoenix and will get the Desert Dogs a needed stay-at-home blueliner, especially with the departure of Michal Rozsival.
HOT (OR NOT?) PROSPECTS
Andy Miele (C): Miele, who brought home the Hobey Baker Award while at Miami (Ohio), saw time in seven NHL games last season (six PIMs, minus-3), but did most of his damage with Portland, skating in 69 games with 16 goals, 38 assists, 43 sin bin minutes and a minus-4 rating. Miele will likely spend most of the season in the minors once again, especially if the Coyotes make another move at forward before the start of the season. But he's the kind of guy who can catch general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett's eye at training camp. Miele is most likely to begin the season in Portland with call-ups to the big league as necessary.
Michael Stone (D): Stone played in just 13 regular-season games for the Coyotes last year, but he was coach Dave Tippett's go-to choice during the postseason when the Coyotes found themselves thin on the blue line. Stone notched three points during his 13-game stint, but finished with an impressive plus-7 rating. If he doesn't stick on the roster after training camp this season, he'll almost assuredly be with Phoenix throughout much of the season.
David Rundblad (D): Rundblad skated in 30 NHL games last season, tallying a total of seven points, including three in six games with Phoenix. In 30 AHL games, he added 16 points and 27 PIMs, and he's expected once again to start the season in Portland -- the Yotes are just too deep on the back end for him to grab a spot for 2012-13. He will be among the short list of call-ups if and when injuries hit.