Rife with financial challenges, the Phoenix Coyotes are trying to compete and, even with a salary cap, it's clear that they are not on the same kind of financial footing as most of the other teams in the NHL.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Coyotes have coming back next season and whether or not there is reason to be hopeful for hockey in the desert.
It's easy to look at a young Coyotes team and realize that they simply weren't ready to compete for a playoff spot, but it's another matter altogether of figuring out how to make dramatic changes while still allowing the young players to develop all the while trying to make those changes under tight financial constraints.
"I think if we've learned anything this year...too many young players," GM Don Maloney told the Arizona Republic at season's end. "We didn't have enough experience to muscle us through the middle of the year when we needed just a little more support, so we're not going to make that mistake."
That sure sounds like a team that is going to bring in experienced help, yet it's not like Phoenix is a priority destination for free agents and the Coyotes wouldn't seem to be in position to overpay anyone, so that leaves trades as the most likely option if Phoenix is going to make dramatic changes before next season.
While team captain Shane Doan wasn't necessarily pushing for change, you could sense frustration at the end of the season when he told the Arizona Republic, "This year was a tough year for them," said Doan about the team's second-year forwards. "All would probably be the first to admit it, and we need them to be good next year, and our first-year players somehow are going to have to be better next year. We could be fine; we could be really good, actually...and they have to really improve."
While Doan sounds like he's trying to convince himself that the Coyotes will be competitive next season, it is going to take significant development from the young players -- or a stunning blockbuster trade -- to make that happen.
Don Maloney/Wayne Gretzky
Top Prospects: Kevin Porter (13-22-35, plus-7 in 42 GP; San Antonio-AHL), Brett MacLean (21-19-40, plus-5 in 74 GP; San Antonio-AHL), Chad Kolarik (20-30-50, minus-10 in 76 GP)
As the proven performer for this franchise, Shane Doan has to do a lot of heavy lifting. The load was supposed to be lighter last season, with Olli Jokinen brought in to add scoring punch, but that experiment didn't even last a full season, so it falls back to Doan and a lot of young and relatively unproven players to lead the Coyotes offence.
Coming off a season in which he tallied a career-high 31 goals and finished a plus-5, Doan is a fine leader; he just needs some help.
Matthew Lombardi was thrust into a major role upon his acquisition from Calgary, playing nearly 21 minutes a game after the trade, but he earned his keep with 16 points in 19 games to finish the season. Lombardi has exceptional speed and may have an opportunity here to plug into his untapped offensive potential (he scored 130 points in his final year of junior).
Big pivot Martin Hanzal is showing potential as a two-way centre, but when he scored just two goals in the final 40 games of the season, well, he looked more like a defence-only option. He is just 22, though, and it generally takes time for rangier players to have their game grow into their frame. At the very least, he's a solid third-line centre.
The sophomore jinx got hold of Peter Mueller after an ill-fated shift to wing, particularly after the All-Star break, when he finished with just one goal in the last 25 games. Mueller has too much skill for that to be the norm, so the Coyotes have every right to expect the 21-year-old to have a bounceback season, presumably with a return to centre.
19-year-old Mikkel Boedker made a seamless jump from junior hockey to the NHL, showing a game far more mature than his years. As responsible as the young Dane plays, Boedker also slumped in the second half of the season, perhaps hitting the rookie wall, as one season with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL wouldn't necessarily be adequate preparation for the nightly grind of the pro game. He does have the skills and the hockey sense to play a more prominent role moving forward.
Viktor Tikhonov isn't a flashy player, but the rookie played a solid game, using his speed to his advantage, particularly in a defensive capacity. While his lack of scoring prowess limits his upside, Tikhonov should have a steady career as a checker.
It appears that the Coyotes rushed Kyle Turris out of the University of Wisconsin, where he scored 35 points in 36 games as a freshman, and he just wasn't ready to produce as a scoring centre in the NHL. With last season, including a short-term demotion to the AHL, serving as a learning experience, Turris will be expected to make good on the potential that saw him drafted third overall in 2007.
Though he wasn't as active with his fists as he's been in years past, Todd Fedoruk still provides much-needed muscle. However, his acumen as an every-shift player is questionable at best so, with so many forwards available, his role should be reduced.
Brandon Prust is no heavyweight, but he's a willing scrapper, fighting 16 times in 36 games according to www.hockeyfights.com. Though Prust hasn't developed his all-around game enough to be a regular in the lineup, he has enough skills to possibly earn a spot on the fourth line if he can stay healthy.
If nothing else, the move to Phoenix provided Scottie Upshall with opportunity. Instead of getting lost in the shuffle of Flyers wingers, Upshall got quality ice time with the Coyotes and responded with eight goals and 13 points in 18 games. If the 25-year-old winger could emerge as a 20-goal scorer (he scored a career-high 15 last season), that would be a huge boost.
Similarly, Petr Prucha was a frequent healthy scratch in New York, yet put up 10 points in 19 games after arriving in Phoenix. For a team watching the bottom line, however, it's debatable whether it's even worth re-signing Prucha in the hopes of recapturing the 30-goal form he flashed in 2005-2006.
Joakim Lindstrom has bounced around a little early in his career, but may have shown enough in 44 games with the Coyotes to warrant another chance (at a reasonable cost) next season.
He didn't break through as hoped with the New York Rangers, then did little after arriving in Phoenix, but Nigel Dawes has enough speed and finishing ability to go for 20 goals over a full season in the right situation.
Speed racer Enver Lisin has tantalizing potential as a goal-scorer, but is a complete disaster without the puck and the 23-year-old can't be trusted in a prominent role until that situation improves.
Daniel Winnik saw fewer opportunities in his second season, but is safe and reliable in a depth role when he does play and he sure doesn't cheat the team with his effort.
There is no shortage of potential, as the Coyotes could have anywhere from one to half a dozen or more forwards capable of scoring at least 20 goals.
Going into a season with that level of uncertainty makes it hard to be optimistic about what the actual production will be when the 2009-2010 season finishes, but it's exactly why Maloney wants to bring in some veterans to provide some steadiness that was lacking with such a young lineup last season.
While the Coyotes' financial situation makes it tough to go after a big-name free agent, they do have a lot of younger players and prospects (to say nothing of the sixth overall pick in the draft which will only enhance that stockpile) should they decide to get their veteran help via the trade market.
Top Prospects: Jonas Ahnelov (1-6-7, plus-1 in 43 GP; San Antonio-AHL), Chris Summers (4-13-17, plus-21 in 41 GP; Michigan-CCHA), Maxim Goncharov, (7-7-14, plus-5 in 47 GP; CSKA Moscow-KHL); Nick Ross (11-32-43, plus-19 in 74 GP; Kamloops, Vancouver-WHL), Michael Stone (19-42-61, plus-43 in 69 GP; Calgary-WHL).
While Ed Jovanovski has at least been durable the last couple of seasons, he is paid to be the Coyotes' franchise defenceman and his performance has been underwhelming in that regard, registering a career-low minus-15 rating in 2008-2009.
Jovo does have a no-trade clause and two years remaining on his contract, but he might bring some quality in return if he consented to a trade.
Leading all Coyotes defencemen in ice time, Zbynek Michalek is rugged, readily sacrifices his body to block shots and is smart enough with the puck to warrant more offensive opportunities, yet he struggled at times (going minus-20 in a 35-game span from January through the end of March). Nevertheless, he's still inexpensive and will be a fixture on the blueline to start 2009-2010.
Underrated Kurt Sauer was a sharp free agent addition last summer. He's a big-bodied, reliable defender who can play as part of a shutdown pairing and he won't ever get caught up ice, scoring a career-high seven points in 2008-2009.
David Hale is a battler, but hasn't done enough in five NHL seasons to establish himself as anything more than a seventh defenceman.
His work in the defensive zone is improving and 22-year-old Keith Yandle already handles the puck well enough to earn time on the power play; he has offensive potential to be nurtured and his role should continue to evolve next season.
That leaves a few holes on what is already a questionable unit.
Even if a prospect like Jonas Ahnelov or smooth-skating Chris Summers, or both, could make the jump to the big club -- and they are but two of the quality prospects in the system -- the Coyotes should be looking for a veteran defenceman to provide stability. Since the uncertainty of the Coyotes' future (and payroll) makes a premier free agent addition unlikely, it could be more like finding another Ken Klee, if not re-signing the original, which wouldn't be the worst move.
Some free agents who may be helpful, as players that can handle the puck, play in their own end and possibly come at a reasonable cost, could include Philippe Boucher, Ville Koistinen, Christian Backman or Steve Montador, among others.
Top Prospects: Al Montoya (7-17-2, 3.23 GAA, .885 SVPCT in 29 GP; San Antonio-AHL), Josh Tordjman (25-22-2, 2.61 GAA, .909 SVPCT in 51 GP)
While Ilya Bryzgalov remains a competent number one goaltender, he wasn't as effective last season as he was when he first arrived on waivers from Anaheim the year before. Admittedly, his defence wasn't overly helpful and allowed more shots, but Bryzgalov's save percentage also dropped from .920 in 2007-2008 to a still-respectable .906 in 2008-2009.
After dealing Mikael Tellqvist at the deadline, there is an opening for either a free agent or for one of the prospects to make the jump. While Al Montoya was terrible for much of the season in the AHL, he finished strong and played well in his late-season stint with Phoenix. Maloney brought him over from the New York Rangers, so that could give Montoya a leg up.
Josh Tordjman has made tremendous progress as an undrafted free agent and clearly outplayed Montoya in San Antonio, but he struggled in his brief NHL audition.
6th - Evander Kane, Brayden Schenn, Magnus Paajaarvi-Svensson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jared Cowen.
The Coyotes have approximately $28.2-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Experienced forwards, one top four defenceman, another defencemen
What I said the Coyotes needed last year: Three top six forwards
Who did they add? Olli Jokinen, Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Turris, Kurt Sauer.
Ed Jovanovski, Nigel Dawes, Petr Prucha.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca