Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Team, The Team -- A 2009-10 Coyotes Preview

While much of the news surrounding the Coyotes has been about off-ice happenings this year, there is still a roster to assemble and a season to play.

GMDM has worked under extraordinary circumstances this summer. Give Maloney much credit for getting ANYONE to agree to come to Phoenix with all the uncertainty surrounding the team. In fact, he's managed to bring in some nice pieces.

And the Coyotes need all the nice pieces they can get. A playoff contending team is a necessity to get the town thinking about hockey again. It's tough to be a win-now team with a (close to) minimum budget.

The Coyotes success this season will start (and hopefully not stop) with their goaltending. Specifically Ilya Bryzgalov, the team's top goaltender must, must have a good season for the Coyotes to compete for a playoff spot. It's an imperative -- there's really no viable fallback position.

Last year, Ilya's play was wildly inconsistent. Catch him on a good night and the team had a chance to win. But on what turned out to be way too many bad nights, he was just awful. So awful that hockey's nicest man, Wayne Gretzky, publicly called out his goaltender. The Coyotes simply can't afford awful this year; their margin for error is too small.

I've never been sold on Bryz and in fact suggested last spring that the Coyotes might consider moving him and looking for a replacement. So far, his career has been built on two very good hot streaks -- through the end of the regular season and the playoffs for the 2006 Almighty Ducks (why did they ever drop that great name?) and a great run when he first joined the Coyotes in 2007. One of those streaks would be nice right now. What would be even nicer is a consistent season that delivers very good play over the long haul.

The alternatives in goal are not compelling. Jason LaBarbera was a curious free agent signing who has had a checkered career. Al Montoya's regular season in San Antonio was spotty last year but he was impressive in a late-season call up and training camp. His reward was a trip to San Antonio but if he plays well and others falter, he could be back in Phoenix quickly.

What will help is a more mobile and talented defense. Arguably, the team's two best off season acquisitions were backliners Adrian Aucoin and Jim Vandermeer. Aucoin is a minutes eater who will give the team excellent puck movement and an offensive threat to go with Ed Jovanoski. Vandemeer is oh, so slow but he plays with an edge and makes the backliner tougher. Sami Lepisto, a draft day acquisition from Washington, is another mobile player. Combined with returnees Jovanoski, Zbynek Michalek, Keith Yandle and Kurt Sauer, it's a deep and talented group.

It will need to be because the Coyotes will having trouble scoring goals. Shane Doan, who has scored 20+ goals 9 straight years, will continue to be the linchpin of the offense. But other than Doaner, no player has sever scored 20 or more twice in their carrer and only 4 (Vrbata, Lombardi, Mueller, Prucha) have even done it once.

Much of the hope for improved scoring will come from a return to rookie season form by Mueller and rapid improvement from last years first draft pick, Mikkel Boedker. The Coyotes also hope that late season acquisitions Matthew Lombardi and Scottie Upshall continue to benefit from increased ice time and raise their offensive production. They are also hoping that Radim Vrbata can repeat his lighting in a bottle season from 2007-08. About the only thing that is certain is that there's a lot of hope going on here.

Update 11:45 AM -- The Coyotes have helped their offense today. Pending a physical, the Coyotes have signed veteran NHL center (and 7 time 20 goal scorer) Robert Lang. Details forthcoming. Interesting move. Lang, 38, was 18-21-39 in 50 games for Montreal last year before suffering a torn Achilles tendon. Assuming he's healthy, it will be interesting to see what he has left in the tank. Could be an excellent signing.

Dave Tippett has a good group of accomplished checkers and defensive players available to form quality checking and penalty killing units. Newcomers Vernon Fiddler and Lauri Korpikoski are accomplished penalty killers and both have some offensive upside. They will join Marty Hanzal to give the team good defensive options. Tippett's work is cut out for him, the Coyotes were 29th in the league in penalty killing last year. Improvement here and on the power play are absolutely necessary for the team to be more competitive this year.

Perhaps what's as important are players who are no longer here. Derek Morris was listless and disinterested in his last Phoenix season. Olli Jokinen was disappointing on the ice and an apparent problem in the locker room. And David Hale and Todd Fedoruk were little more than bottom of the roster players. None will be missed.

The Coyotes should be sturdier on defense, better on special teams and faster than last years edition. They also have a well stocked farm team in San Antonio with numerous players motivated to get back to Phoenix. It should help keep roster players motivated knowing that reinforcements are only a phone call away.

For the 2009-10 Coyotes, it's all going to come down to goaltending and the ability to score goals. There are going to be a lot of tight games this year. There's not a lot of margin for error.

Oh, and some off ice clarity wouldn't hurt. It would allow the team to keep their focus where it most definitely needs to be -- on the ice.

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