In a word, finally.
The Coyotes enter this season finally under new ownership without the concern of relocation, thanks to a 15-year lease signed with the city of Glendale. Ever since previous owner Jerry Moyes filed for bankruptcy in 2009, the uncertain future of hockey in Phoenix was a turbulent four-year ride for the organization's fan base. During that period, the franchise was run by the National Hockey League, which paired with the possibility of a significant move elsewhere, made it very difficult for the Coyotes to make and receive long-term commitments to top end talent, especially in free agency.
Despite those constant obstacles, the on-ice product was remarkably successful, while the lockout shortened campaign last season marked the first time that the club missed the playoffs under head coach Dave Tippett. With Tippett behind the bench, the Coyotes have enjoyed the most prolonged stretch of success in franchise history, dating back to the organization's roots in Winnipeg.
Perhaps the first sign of increased stability was the long-term agreement that the team reached with young blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson in March. Just 22 years old, Ekman-Larsson is now under contract through the 2018-19 campaign, and is one of the pillars of a franchise that is now positioned to acquire more veteran talent in the coming seasons. In an effort to secure other valuable assets for the long haul, the Coyotes made a splash in free agency during the summer, inking Mike Ribeiro to a four-year, $22 million deal to center the team's first line. Despite the backslide from his outstanding 2011-12 season, goaltender Mike Smith was also signed to a six-year extension prior to the finalization of the team's new ownership and subsequent agreement to stay in the desert.
Offensively, the Coyotes struggled to produce consistently last season, ranking 21st in the league in scoring (2.52 goals per game). The lack of goals was due in large part to a punchless power play, which finished the regular season tied for 25th with Boston (14.8%). Defensively, the primary issue was the penalty-killing unit, which ranked 22nd (79.9%) and makes the overall numbers a bit more impressive as the Coyotes finished in the middle of the pack (15th) with a 2.60 goals-against average.
In goal the Coyotes' netminders saw plenty of rubber (30.6 shots per game, 21st), while the aforementioned Smith reverted back to numbers more in line with his career norms. For depth, the Coyotes signed Thomas Greiss to serve as Smith's primary backup this season, but Smith will almost certainly shoulder 60-plus starts as long as he's healthy enough to do so.
A return to the postseason seems like a reasonable expectation, while the top line and first power-play unit should receive a nice boost with the presence of a true top-end pivot. If Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle manage to deliver their abbreviated season lines over a full 82-game slate, and the young secondary scoring options up front mature as expected, Phoenix could prove to be more than merely a tough out in the Western Conference come playoff time.
The Big Guns
Mike Ribeiro (C): Ribeiro is the Coyotes' first big free agent splash in some time, thanks largely to the arrival of the new ownership group. Ribeiro comes to the Coyotes from the Caps, where he posted 49 points in 48 games. He says he played some of his best hockey under Coyotes' head coach Dave Tippett when the two were together in Dallas. Expectations are sky-high for the former Cap, but he will be hard-pressed to deliver a point-per-game in the desert.
Radim Vrbata (RW): Vrbata battled a nagging foot injury and streakiness in 34 games last season, posting 28 points but just 12 goals. And three of those goals came in a four-point outburst on the last game of the season. It's highly likely that he missed the offensive talents of the departed Ray Whitney, but will benefit this season with the arrival of Mike Ribeiro. It's not unreasonable to expect Vrbata to return to the 60-point mark in 2012-13 as long as he can stay healthy.
Keith Yandle (D): Yandle is often the subject of trade rumors involving the Coyotes, but the blueliner remains strong offensively for the desert club. He tallied 30 points, including 10 goals, in 2012-13 and remains one of the most recognizable fantasy names in Phoenix. Nothing about that should change going forward. His production was about on par with where he's been throughout his career, so another 40-to-50 point season - at minimum - should be on tap for the defenseman.
On The Rise
Oliver Ekman-Larsson (D): Ekman-Larsson signed a six-year extension with the Coyotes during last season, so the team has its outstanding young blue liner locked up long-term. OEL chipped in 24 points (three goals) in 48 games in 2012-13 and the importance of his offensive contributions can't be overlooked on a team that has often struggled to light the lamp. He didn't come close to matching the goal-scoring pace he set in 2011-12 (13 goals in 82 games), but Ekman-Larsson is perhaps one of the safer defensive selections on the fantasy board. He also finished with a plus-5 rating and 73 hits, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to think he could come close to 40 points in a full season.
Mikkel Boedker (LW): Boedker fell short of expectations in 2012-13 despite tallying two more points (26) in half as many games as he had the year before. Expectations were high and Coyotes' general manager Don Maloney noted Boedker was the team's first half MVP. But he fell off the map in the second half, mustering just one goal and eight points in his last 22 games and leaving the Coyotes uncertain what path his career will take. The addition of center Mike Ribeiro should help and 40 points in an 82-game season shouldn't be out of the question for Boedker.
Two To Watch
Martin Hanzal (C): Hanzal got off to a hot start (10 points in his first 11 games) in 2012-13, but slowed significantly from that point on. He also struggled in the face-off circle, winning just 46.8 percent of his draws. Still, his final scoring pace (23 points in 39 games) was not too far from his 2011-12 mark of 34 points in 64 games. He plays an important role on the ice for the Coyotes and there's no reason to think he can't reach 15 goals and 40 points in 2013-14.
Rob Klinkhammer (LW): Klinkhammer quickly became a fan favorite in the desert last season, not only for having one of the best names in hockey, but also for the spark he gave the Coyotes whenever he hit the ice. Klink notched his first NHL goal in his first NHL game en route to a contract and an 11-point season. He averaged half-a-point per game last season, but it's hard to know if he can maintain that pace over a full season. Still, he should see a considerable amount of ice time as his team looks for a boost at left wing.
Mike Smith (G): Smith may be the Coyotes' biggest fantasy question mark heading into this season. Was his stunning playoff season two years ago a fluke or was he affected by nagging injuries during his less-than-impressive (15-12-5, .910 save percentage and 2.58 GAA) lockout-shortened season? It's easy to dismiss Smitty as a one-year wonder, but we can't help but think he and super goalie coach Sean Burke will figure things out. We still wouldn't take him with an early pick, but he's undeniably worth rostering, especially as the Coyotes look to add some firepower to their beleaguered offense.
Shane Doan (RW): Doan proved to be as reliable as always after his leap-of-faith re-signing just before the lockout. Captain Coyote notched 13 goals and totaled 27 points in 48 games, a pace which was similar to the 50 points he put up in 79 games in 2011-12. Doan is not going to blow anyone away with his numbers going forward, but he should hit the half-century mark once again.
Brandon Gormley (D): Gormley is one of the better blue line prospects in the league and is likely to be one of the first callups from the AHL in the event of injuries on the big club. He had 29 points in 68 games in the AHL last season and he'll be valuable in the desert if he can bring that same offensive spark to the Coyotes.
Henrik Samuelsson (C): Samuelsson is one of several young Coyotes who will have a shot to make an impact with the team this year. General manager Don Maloney wants to create an offensive buzz around the team and the Arizona-born son of the great Ulf scored 80 points in 69 games in the WHL last season. Watch him in camp -- he might surprise.