Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Road Ahead Part 1

As the Coyotes are battling the Kings tonight in LA, it’s a good time for us to take a look at the season to date and peek ahead at the balance of the year.

The Coyotes are exceeding expectations. The team just completed a three game home stand with three wins, extending their current winning streak to 5 games. At 18-11-1 after 30 games, the Yotes are on pace for 101 points. History would say that's more than enough to make the playoffs and in fact it would be the best season of the 13 the team has had in Arizona.

And the team has demonstrated tremendous resilience this year. Just when you think the team is going to go upside down, they pull off a gutty win over the Philadelphia Flyers and steal a road game at Anaheim.

While improvement was expected (and crucial) this year, a more realistic expectation was that the team would scrap for a playoff spot. Vastly improved coaching and goaltending have been the keys for the rapid improvement of the team.

One cannot underestimate the body of work done by Dave Tippett and his assistant coaches during the first two months of the season. For most of the past four years, the Coyotes looked disorganized and were easily panicked when things weren’t going well. Not anymore. Tippett is everything you would want in a coach. Firm, organized, intelligent and confident. He’s in any conversation about the best bench coaches in the NHL and the unquestioned half-season NHL coach of the year.

And credit is also due to assistant coaches Ulf Samuelsson and Dave King. The teams tight defensive play is the product of great checking, sound defensive play and attention to detail. That takes a lot of work from all of the coaches. It’s paying off this year.

All summer, we mused that the team would rise and fall largely on the play of Ilya Bryzgalov. Well no one could have seen this season coming. The historically inconsistent Bryzgalov has been money all year with a league leading 4 shutouts, a 1.99 goals allowed average and a sparkling .925 save percentage. The Coyotes are third in the NHL in team defense and contenders for both the Vezina (outstanding goaltender) and Jennings (team defense) Trophies.

And the play on defense has been very good. The Coyotes have had a strong defensive core over the last few years and team veterans Ed Jovanoski, Zbynek Michalek and Keith Yandle have all been excellent. Jovanoski is having his best season in years and Yandle has blossomed into one of the best young defensemen in the NHL.

General Manager Don Maloney has made his best acquisitions in supplementing this group. Veteran Adrian Aucoin has added offense as well as a steadying influence on the backline. Jim Vandermeer is slow but brings a nice physical presence. Rookie Sami Lepisto has been a pleasant surprise, and lately, Dave Schlemko has given the team good minutes in relief of injured players. With Kurt Sauer due back soon from concussion symptoms, the Coyotes have a surplus on the backline that could figure into a trade for scoring help.

And there is a definite need for scoring help. The Coyotes are 28th in the NHL with 2.43 goals per game. Somehow, the team needs to find more scoring. When you look at the current roster there is little reason to believe that improvement will come from within and the development of young players in San Antonio doesn’t give much hope that a Kyle Turris or Mikkel Boedker will return to fortify the offense.

There is room for GM Don Maloney to find a scorer. The Coyotes are barely above the NHL salary cap floor and we’re pretty sure they have available budget dollars to make an acquisition. The team also has assets – Calgary’s 1st this year, Philadelphia’s 2nd next year plus their own draft choices and several top end defensemen who are not playing in the NHL. A deal to add scoring is imminent. The only question is where it will come from and what will be the price.

Now for the Coyotes comes the big question – can this success last?

It all starts in Glendale. The Coyotes need to defend home ice and pile up points in December and January. The Coyotes are in the middle of having 9 of 15 games at home in December (6 of 12 remaining) and then 9 of 14 at Jobing.com arena. Overall, of the team's next 25 games, 15 are at home. While that kind of schedule skew is very curious (why only 6 home games in tourist rich March?) it's created a mid season opportunity for the team. With the swagger that comes from winning and a very favorable home schedule, the Coyotes should be around 70 points at the end of January.

And it continues on the ice. Bryzgalov needs to stay on top of his game. A big concern comes after the February Olympics where he will likely start in goal for the Russian Olympic team. A heavy workload in Phoenix and the same in Vancouver could raise fatigue concerns. With wildly inconsistent backup Jason LaBarbera, every game is an adventure. The ability of Bryz to shoulder a heavy workload as well as excel along the way will determine the fate of the team.

No one is looking at Phoenix like they’re a Stanley Cup contender, but this team desperately needs to make the playoffs and show the desert that there is hockey life after April 1st. For the first time, Maloney will be a buyer and not a seller at the trade deadline. It could be an advantageous spot because Phoenix not only has assets to trade but is one of the few teams that has salary cap room available.

And it will be fun because for the first time, Jobing.com Arena can look forward to hosting a playoff game.

Hopefully several.

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