Even though the Phoenix Coyotes finished out of the playoffs again in 2007-2008, the franchise is undoubtedly headed in the right direction.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what comes next in the Phoenix youth movement.
The primary reason for the Desert Dogs' emergence was the acquisition of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers from the Anaheim Ducks in mid-November.
The Coyotes had a 7-10 record when they added Bryzgalov and then went 31-27-7 the rest of the way, though that record includes a 6-11-2 finish after the NHL trade deadline, a point at which the Coyotes understandably didn't add any pieces to make a playoff push in the challenging Western Conference.
While the end result was missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season, there is finally a sense of optimism.
"When you miss the playoffs, changes are made, and obviously some moves would make us better next season," Wayne Gretzky told the Arizona Republic. "The difference now is that we have a core group of guys who we know are going to be part of this franchise for years to come."
Last season, the Coyotes inserted forwards Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Daniel Carcillo, Daniel Winnik, Craig Weller and Joel Perrault along with defenceman Keith Yandle into the lineup and watched as their young players continued to get better and, surprisingly, stayed in the playoff race up until the final weeks of the season.
With that group of young players being followed by an impressive list of prospects, the Coyotes will improve simply by staying the course and letting all this young talent mature.
With positive vibes, though, come expectations and that's where general manager Don Maloney comes in. "If we just continue to stick with what we believe in and can play with a lot of discipline, we'll be in the playoffs and more next year," Maloney told the East Valley Tribune.
Playoff talk? Phoenix is definitely rising.
Don Maloney/Wayne Gretzky
Top Prospects: Kyle Turris, Kevin Porter, Enver Lisin, Brett MacLean, Chad Kolarik, Blake Wheeler
While the Coyotes' future is centered around their deep crop of talented forward prospects, team captain Shane Doan just completed a season in which he scored a career-high 78 points and the hard-driving winger's leadership is crucial to the development of his younger teammates.
One of those younger teammates in 20-year-old Peter Mueller, who improved as the season went on, scoring 36 points in the last 45 games. A big playmaking centre, Mueller should only get better as he gets stronger and more accustomed to the pace required in the NHL.
Steve Reinprecht had a solid enough season and he could still have value as a complementary scorer, but he's going to be 32 next season so you know what you get with him -- about 45-50 points per 80 games.
Lanky Martin Hanzal was a bit of a surprise as a rookie, making a smooth transition straight from junior hockey. Hanzal has a long reach, at 6-foot-5, and he's a talented playmaker. It may take some time for him to mature physically and reach his peak performance, but Hanzal is already an effective NHLer.
Daniel Winnik was another Coyotes rookie forward to enjoy some success. Winnik doesn't have high-end offensive skills, but he's an honest two-way player who can be counted on in a third-line role.
Penalty minute leader Daniel Carcillo had problems keeping his emotions in check, and was sent down at one point to learn that lesson, but his strong finish to the season showed just the right mix of toughness and talent. If his energy can be steered in the right direction, Carcillo can be an integral part of the Coyotes lineup.
Joel Perrault worked his way into more NHL games than AHL contests for the first time in his career, displaying decent offensive instincts early before fading into the background and scoring just one point in the final 15 games of the season. Slotting him in on the fourth line next season seems reasonable.
While Marcel Hossa was a complete bust after getting picked up from the Rangers (zero points, minus-6 in 14 games with the Coyotes), one might wonder if his presence in Phoenix could be an asset if the team decides to take a run at his brother, Marian, should he make it to July 1 as an unrestricted free agent. Otherwise, Marcel hasn't produced enough to stick as an NHL regular.
The Coyotes have an exceptional group of prospects on the way, none more touted than Kyle Turris, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. After a fine freshman season at the University of Wisconsin, Turris joined the Coyotes for a three-game trial at the end of the season and, even though he needs to muscle up to handle the rigors of the NHL, Turris should take a spot on a scoring line immediately and be one of the top contenders for Rookie of the Year.
Hobey Baker winner Kevin Porter, his linemate at Michigan Chad Kolarik and OHL goalscoring champ Brett MacLean are among the other prospects who could make a difference quickly, though some time on the farm may do them good.
2004 first-rounder Blake Wheeler, a promising power forward, may get lured from the University of Minnesota before his senior season, while 2004 second-rounder Enver Lisin improved a lot after returning to North America, and the Russian speedster could win a job with the Coyotes next season.
Veteran checker Mike Zigomanis is under contract, but fell out of favour last year so, barring a trade, he may be ticketed for another season in the AHL.
While the roster will likely benefit from another injection of young talent, the Coyotes may want to dip into the free agent market to provide better support for those young guns, particularly if Radim Vrbata isn't re-signed. In that case, look for Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Kristian Huselius and Brian Rolston as wingers capable of elevating the Coyotes' offensive output.
Free Agent Defencemen
Top Prospects: Chris Summers, Logan Stephenson
There's a lot to like about the Coyotes' group on defence, but it's not as though the group couldn't get better.
Ed Jovanovski was astonishingly healthy, playing 80 games for the third time in his 12-year career and first time since 2001-2002. The result was a career-high 51 points and career-worst minus-13 rating. Jovocop was a boon to the power play, but he could tighten up some in his own end.
Though Keith Ballard's offensive production has declined steadily since his 39-point rookie season, he's also improved his plus-minus in each of his three campaigns and there is a lot to like about his relentless, in-your-face style of play.
Derek Morris improved quite a bit last season, cutting down on the defensive gaffes that marked his game pretty much since arriving in Phoenix in 2004. When he's focused, Morris can be a quality puck-moving blueliner who also provides a dose of toughness.
Steady, stay-at-home blueliner Zbynek Michalek is a tough guy who readily sacrifices for the team. Michalek also has good mobility, which makes him a difficult matchup for opposing forwards.
Earlier in his career, Nick Boynton appeared to have some offensive upside (scoring 30 points with Boston in 2003-2004), but those days are in the past and now Boynton is a third-pair defenceman who adds some toughness to the group.
Prospect Keith Yandle seemed to earn his keep as an NHLer after a midseason promotion. While he can get better in his own end, Yandle also has fine puck skills that could factor in on the power play at some point in the near future.
Seventh defenceman Matt Jones tends to be overmatched and is minus-27 in 106 career games and he'll have to improve his all-around game if he's going to hold down a regular job.
Phoenix could seek help through free agency in an effort to upgrade this group and might be able to get someone like Mark Eaton or Kurt Sauer at a relatively inexpensive price to tidy up the work in the defensive zone, but it's quite possible that they will enter next season with the same core of six on the blueline.
Top Prospect: Al Montoya
Ilya Bryzgalov was virtually a gift on the waiver wire and he stabilized the entire team with his play. Now that he's firmly established as a number one goaltender, with a history of playing big games in Anaheim, Bryzgalov is a firm backbone for the Phoenix defence.
After three-plus mostly forgettable pro seasons, Mikael Tellqvist played his best hockey in 2007-2008, giving the Coyotes a reliable backup option behind Bryzgalov.
Tellqvist will be pushed by Al Montoya, the former Rangers prospect who was the sixth overall pick in 2004, who has yet to play an NHL game. If Montoya is ready, Tellqvist should have some value for trade.
8th - Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, Cody Hodgson, Mikkel Boedker
The Coyotes have approximately $33-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Three top six forwards
What I said the Coyotes needed last year: Four top six forwards, starting goaltender
Who did they add? Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Daniel Winnik, Daniel Carcillo
Zigomanis, Tellqvist, Boynton, Morris, prospects
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com