Monday, November 9, 2009

The Coyotes at 10 & 7

After 17 games, the Coyotes are 10-7 and rank seventh in the Western Conference. If they could maintain that pace, it would project out to 96 points and based on history, that would be enough to make the playoffs.

It won't however be that easy.

It's been a better than expected start for the Coyotes that includes impressive wins over a number of power teams. And comes at the same time as two other Western Conference teams have kicked off the year with vastly improved fortunes. Los Angeles and Colorado are much improved. The uptick in Los Angeles was expected. The improvement in Colorado was not. If those two teams continue their improved play, the horse race for Western Conference playoff spots will be intense.

The Coyotes may well be in the best 5 team division in the NHL. San Jose once again looks to be the terror of the regular season. The Stars are solid and the Kings are vastly improved. Anaheim is off to a slow start but they may have the most talented roster outside of San Jose in the West.

Looking at the bigger Western Conference picture, no one expects Detroit to be on the outside looking in, even though they are not the same team they were in the past. An educated case is that the Coyotes will be competing with Dallas, Columbus & St. Louis for the last couple of playoff spots in the West. It will make every game interesting and important. No other professional sports league has such a compelling regular season.

To make the playoffs, it's essential for the Coyotes to win games they are capable of winning. Missed opportunities could well be the difference in making or missing the playoffs. The upcoming stretch of games against the Canadiens, Stars, Lightning, Wild, Blues represent 5 winnable games for the home team. Anything less than 7 points over this stretch would be a disappointment.

The Coyotes come to play every night. The work hard, play a disciplined 1-4 checking system (that's a trap for those of you who don't worship at the house of Jacques Lemaire) and they have generally gotten very good goaltending. And they still suffer from a lack of firepower that is a serious long term concern for the franchise.

So what should we expect?

More of the same. Lots of low scoring tight checking games. A continued emphasis on defensive play. And something novel and interesting -- a trade deadline where the Coyotes will likely be buyers rather than sellers.

As we've discussed here many times, the most crucial element for the team will be the goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryz has been awfully good for the first five weeks of the season. The Coyotes are 3rd in the league in goals allowed average. Bryzgalov has been steady almost every night and sensational on several. If you have followed his career, you know that he tends to run hot and cold. So far, mostly hot. That's a good thing.

He's getting a lot of help from a mobile and deep defense. Ed Jovanoski, currently "day to day" with a lower body injury has been the team's best skater. His absence for any length of time could be devastating. The motivation of playing for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team and the Coyotes new management have rejuvenated the 33-year-old defenseman. He's playing like the player that Phoenix expected when former GM Mike Barnett gave him a $32.5MM contract 4 summers ago.

Jovo has had plenty of help. Keith Yandle is having a breakout season. Sami Lepisto has been a nice rookie surprise. Veterans Adrian Aucioin and Jim Vandermeer have come as advertised and Zbynek Michalek has been his usually sturdy self.

In fact the biggest problem the defense has had is staying on the ice. In addition to Jovanoski, Kurt Sauer has been out since the opener with concussion symptoms, Michalek is currently week to week with that dreaded lower body injury. In fact there's enough injury concern that GMDM is kicking the tires on 47 year old Chris Chelios who is currently playing in the American League.

With the back end playing well, the issue for the team was and will continue to be the lack of reliable scoring.

The Coyotes are 21st in the league in goals per game. Considering the roster on hand, that's not bad. Only Shane Doan and Robert Lang have ever had as much a s two 20 goal seasons and several regular forwards have never broken 20.

The Coyotes knew going in that goals would be at a premium this year. They are. Scott Upshall and Matt Lombardi have helped the offense and there's hope that one or more of the young guns sent to San Antonio might show enough promise to be back by the second half of the season.

But don't rule out the possibility of a trade for a goalscorer, should the right one become available. With players like Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker in the American League, the Coyotes are less than $300K above the salary cap floor. Unless Don Maloney is working under a burn the furniture budget (and he swears he is not) there is money to add a goalscorer. And there are future assets to deal including several young players who have not yet turned pro and future draft choices including the first acquired from Calgary for Olli Jokinen.

Depending what teams are and are not in playoff consideration will dictate what players are available but you may want to look east where the haves and have nots are quickly being sorted out and some veteran scorers (i.e. Ray Whitney & Jason Blake) may become available. In the past few years, now for later trades were unthinkable for the Coyotes. If the current scenario holds, they will be essential.

And as we complete the first quarter of the season, it's good to keep in mind that teams often over and under achieve in the first few weeks of the season. Part of that can be a carryover (both good and bad) from prior years, new coaching or the relative health of a team. History is littered with teams that don't finish the season the way that they start the year.

For the sake of the future of the Coyotes, let's hope they don't get caught up in that pattern this year.

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