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Off-Season Game Plan: Phoenix Coyotes

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Scott Cullen
6/17/2012 11:37:35 PM
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The Phoenix Coyotes' long-term status in the desert is still up in the air, but they are coming off an appearance in the Western Conference Final, their third straight season reaching the playoffs under head coach Dave Tippett.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at an overacheiving Coyotes team that, because of their uncertain future, constantly has to put together what appears to be a patchwork lineup.

That the Coyotes have accumulated 303 points in the last three seasons is stunning, given the patchwork nature of their lineup.

This past season, they were led by goaltender Mike Smith, a bargain free agent signing who had been the backup in Tampa Bay. Their big trade acquisition was Antoine Vermette, a useful player to be sure, but hardly considered an impact player for a team that reached the Western Conference Final -- at least until he became their leading playoff scorer. Their leading scorer (and leader in plus-minus) during the regular season was Ray Whitney, who turned 40 during the playoffs.

Going into the summer, the Coyotes have two of their top three scorers (Whitney and team captain Shane Doan) on the way to unrestricted free agency, which would leave Radim Vrbata, Lauri Korpikoski and Martin Hanzal as the only forwards that scored at least 30 points last season.

That doesn't come as a shock, since the Coyotes aren't a high-flying offensive club, but they can hardly afford to lose significant offence from a team that didn't have much scoring in the first place, ranking 18th in the league with 2.56 goals per game.

It's easy enough to look at the Phoenix roster and dimiss their chances, but after they've reached the playoffs for three straight seasons, it's starting to get foolish to bet against them.

Now, it's just a matter of seeing what tricks GM Don Maloney and Dave Tippett have up their sleeves in order to keep the Coyotes competitive. Somehow, someway, they've been able to stay in town this long, so why can't they stay on this playoff run?

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
Don Maloney/Dave Tippett

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Radim Vrbata 76.01 77 35 27 62 +24 $3.0M
Martin Hanzal 68.67 64 8 26 34 +12 $3.1M
Antoine Vermette 65.34 82 11 26 37 -13 $3.75M
Lauri Korpikoski 64.43 82 17 20 37 +3 $1.8M
Raffi Torres 62.47 79 15 11 26 +2 $1.75M
Mikkel Boedker 62.33 82 11 13 24 -2 $1.1M
Boyd Gordon 61.81 75 8 15 23 +9 $1.325M
Paul Bissonnette 51.41 31 1 0 1 -4 $737.5K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Ray Whitney 74.77 82 24/td> 53 77 +26 UFA $3.0M
Shane Doan 71.80 79 22 28 50 -8 UFA $4.55M
Gilbert Brule 63.72 33 5 9 14 +7 RFA $1.85M
Daymond Langkow 62.16 73 11 19 30 -4 UFA $4.5M
Taylor Pyatt 61.26 73 9 10 19 -4 UFA $1.0M
Kyle Chipchura 58.72 53 3 13 16 +2 RFA $550K

All should be wonderful with 31-year-old winger Radim Vrbata, coming off a season in which he scored a career-high 35 goals and 62 points, but a playoff that included just two goals and five points in 16 games raises some concerns. The pending free agent status of Ray Whitney could also affect Vrbata's production going forward.

25-year-old Martin Hanzal is an effective two-way centre, taking on difficult assigments every night and using his 6-foot-5 frame well on the defensive end. Hanzal has scored between 31 and 35 points in four of his five NHL seasons, which isn't a lot of production for the kind of ice time he receives, but last season's 34 points in 64 games ranked as the best points-per-game of his career.

Acquired from Columbus last season, Antoine Vermette had a modest 10 points in 22 games for the Coyotes after the trade, but picked it up in the postseason, leading the club with 10 points in 16 games. Vermette is versatile and should be a good fit with the Coyotes because he is defensively responsible while also capable of contributing offensively.

Indsutrious winger Lauri Korpikoski has been s solid complementary piece, scoring 77 points over the last two seaons, but he didn't register a single point in 11 playoff games last season, leaving the 26-year-old room for improvement.

Ever-notorious winger Raffi Torres crossed the line one too many times, apparently, as he was dealt a 25-game suspension for his head hit on Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa in the first round of the playoffs. Torres has scored 60 goals over the last four seasons, so he can contribute without venturing into suspendable territory so often, but he's going to have some time to contemplate his style of play, if he chooses to take a slightly introspective approach.

Mikkel Boedker was rushed to the NHL after he was drafted eighth overall in 2008, but it has taken time for him to re-establish himself in a regular role. In the playoffs, Boedker's ice time went up (16:56 per game, compared to 12:52 per game in the regular season after the All-Star break). The 22-year-old has the speed and skill to be more of a factor offensively and he should see an increased opportunity as a result.

After his role had declined in Washington, Boyd Gordon benefitted from a fresh start in Phoenix, playing nearly 16 minutes per game, primarily in a defensive role. Gordon's an ace in the face-off circle, winning at least 55% of his draws in each of the last five seasons. /p>

He may be the most popular hockey player on Twitter, but Paul Bissonnette has scored two goals (with no assists) in 79 games over the last two seasons. He does have 39 fights over the last three seasons, and he mixes it up with the big boys, so his role is well-defined.

Gilbert Brule continues to bounce around, trying to make it as an NHL regular even if he's not going to live up to his draft status (sixth overall in 2005). He didn't play much (11:34 per game), but was able to contribute some offensively. Strangely enough, there were nine games in which Brule played more than 13 minutes and he failed to register a point in any of them.

26-year-old Kyle Chipchura scored a career-high 16 points last season. He, too, was a first-round pick in 2004, but has been clinging to an NHL job as a fourth-line checker. He has the intangibles -- heart, toughness, character -- and good size, but at his level of production, it's going to be a constant battle for playing time.

Uncertainty has been the order of the day for the Coyotes in recent years, particularly when it comes to dealing with free agents, because there has long been the sense that the Coyotes could be leaving Phoenix at any time, which makes it difficult to lure prospective free agents, especially those that require long-term financial commitments.

When it comes to their own free agents, the Coyotes have two of their best forwards heading towards free agency. It's virtually impossible to picture Shane Doan in another uniform, so figure that something will get worked out on that front, but Ray Whitney is more interesting. The 40-year-old led the Coyotes with 77 points and while Phoenix would obviously love to have him back, there will be other clubs interested and if Whitney gets lured away, that leaves a gaping hole in the lineup.

If the Coyotes are seeking offensive forwards in free agency, PA Parenteau, Andrei Kostitsyn and Jiri Hudler could each hold some appeal or a veteran like Brian Rolston on a one-year deal could be worth a try. It might not be the right stylistic fit to go for Alexander Semin, but perhaps the Coyotes could find a way to integrate him into the lineup to upgrade their skill.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Keith Yandle 73.39 82 11 32 43 +5 $5.25M
Oliver Ekman-Larsson 70.76 82 13 19 32 0 $1.75M
Rostislav Klesla 70.62 65 3 10 13 +13 $2.975M
Derek Morris 67.88 59 2 9 11 -12 $2.75M
David Schlemko 66.60 46 1 10 11 +7 $550K

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Michal Rozsival 66.02 54 1 12 13 +8 UFA $5.0M
Adrian Aucoin 65.55 64 2 7 9 +14 UFA $2.0M
Kurt Sauer N/A           UFA $1.75M

A quiet superstar on the Coyotes blueline, Keith Yandle hasn't missed a game in the last three seasons and ranks fifth among defencemen with 143 points in that time frame. Yandle's minutes were down by a couple per game last season (to 22:20), so he could likely handle a heavier workload next season.

Part of the reason that Yandle wasn't needed on the ice so much was due to the emergence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who played more than 22 minutes per game for the season, but 23:46 per game after the All-Star break. The 20-year-old is a savvy puck-mover who can handle tough defensive matchups and it's a pleasant problem for the Coyotes to have when they get to debate whether Yandle or Ekman-Larsson is the better player.

Veteran blueliner Rostislav Klesla is oft-injured -- his 65 games played last season was his most since 2007-2008 -- but when he's in the lineup, he gets charged with tough minutes. He finished with a career-best plus-13 last season and, after 13 points in the regular season, exploded for eight in 15 playoff games.

For the first time in his career, 33-year-old Derek Morris played fewer than 20 minutes per game and he played relatively protected minutes too (per www.behindthenet.ca), yet his minus-13 rating was his third-worst in a 14-season NHL career. Morris can play on the third pair at this point, but expecting him to handle a top-four role would be asking for trouble.

Though he's still a part-timer, coming off a season in which he played a career-high 46 games, David Schlemko got significant playing time when he was in the lineup (18:28 per game) and played some challenging opposition before a pair of injuries pretty much wiped out his second half of the season. With turnover expected on the Phoenix blueline, Schlemko should have the inside track on one of the top six spots.

Facing the prospect of veterans Michal Rozsival and Adrian Aucoin moving on, there may be more room for prospects to crack the lineup. Michael Stone and Chris Summers filled in last season and Brandon Gormley may be able to challenge for a spot fresh out of junior. If not, the Coyotes could dip into the free agent market for veterans like Pavel Kubina, Sheldon Souray, Bryan Allen or Carlo Colaiacovo.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Mike Smith 86.59 67 38 18 10 2.21 .930 $2.0M
Jason LaBarbera 70.51 19 3 9 3 2.54 .912 $1.25M

30-year-old Mike Smith emerged from essentially being a marginal backup, with a .900 save percentage over the previous two seasons, to suddenly become a Vezina contender. Given his track record, it's reasonable to wonder whether Smith is a fluke, but he played at an extremely high level for 83 games, including playoffs, so even if he never posts a .930 save percentage again, it's also possible that Smith has improved and can be a viable starter for several more years.

Jason LaBarbera hasn't played a lot since coming to Phoenix, 53 games in three seasons, but a .916 save percentage in that time is more than respectable. With this tandem, goaltending is not a major concern for the Coyotes unless, of course, Smith comes crashing to earth and stops 90% of the shots he faces instead of 93%.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Brandon Gormley D Shawinigan (QMJHL) 10-22-32, +3, 35 GP
Connor Murphy D Sarnia (OHL) 8-18-26, -3, 35 GP
David Rundblad D Portland (AHL) 7-9-16, -18, 30 GP
Michael Stone D Portland (AHL) 9-13-22, +2, 51 GP
Mark Visentin G Niagara (OHL) 30-9-2, 1.99 GAA, .926 SV%, 42 GP
Lucas Lessio LW Oshawa (OHL) 34-25-59, -6, 66 GP
Chris Summers D Portland (AHL) 0-2-2, +3, 28 GP
Viktor Tikhonov LW St. Petersburg (KHL) 17-13-30, +11, 42 GP
Andy Miele LW Portland (AHL) 16-38-54, -4, 69 GP
Brett MacLean LW Portland (AHL) 25-23-48, -3, 63 GP

The 13th pick in the 2010 draft, Brandon Gormley has had some trouble staying healthy, but he's a smart puck-mover who has 80 points in 82 QMJHL games over the last two seasons. Maybe he'll need some grooming in the AHL, but it may not take long.

A first-round pick last summer, Connor Murphy is a lanky defenceman who has his own share of injury troubles, but he played well enough in his first taste of OHL action that he should generate high expectations for what he might do if he can stay in the lineup.

Highly-touted after scoring 50 points in 55 Swedish Elite League games in 2010-2011, David Rundblad had trouble getting into the Ottawa Senators' lineup then was traded to Phoenix for Kyle Turris. Rundblad was productive enough in the AHL, but his minus-18 in 30 games does suggest that his game isn't necessarily as well-rounded as it needs to be in order to handle a significant role in the NHL.

Michael Stone is an offensive defenceman who earned a 13-game trial with the Coyotes last season. While his advanced numbers indicate room for improvement, Stone had three points and was plus-7 with the Coyotes.

A first-round pick in 2010, Mark Visentin has improved throughout his junior career and was dominant in his fourth OHL season for Niagara last season. There's no need to rush the 19-year-old goaltender, but he appears to be the Coyotes' goalie of the future.

Taken in the second round last summer, Lucas Lessio didn't improve much offensively, but he's a big winger who has 61 goals in his first two OHL seasons.

Though Chris Summers was a first-round pick in 2006, the 24-year-old has been bypassed on the prospect list by younger, newer models. At the same time, Summers stepped into the Phoenix lineup for 21 games, with limited ice time, last season.

24-year-old Viktor Tikhonov played 61 games with the Coyotesi n 2008-2009, but has spent a couple of years in the AHL and one in the KHL since. He has enough speed to be a factor in a checking role and could have a shot to return to the NHL next season.

A smallish forward who had 54 points in 69 AHL games, but was scoreless in seven NHL games last season, Andy Miele is a 24-year-old that may have to battle questions about his size and whether he's going to be able to score consistently in the NHL.

Size hasn't been an issue, but skating is one of the questions regarding Brett MacLean, a 23-year-old winger who has 99 goals in four AHL seasons. MacLean had five points in 18 NHL games last season, but remains on the fringe of the NHL lineup.

Michigan winger Chris Brown, Tri-City playmaker Brendan Shinnimin and minor-league scorer Brock Trotter add depth to the Coyotes' list of forward prospects; same for Michael Lee, a goaltender signed out of St. Cloud State. Defenceman Max Goncharov will also garner consideration because of his combination of size and skill. 

DRAFT
27th - Henrik Samuelsson, Stefan Matteau, Pontus Aberg, Martin Frk

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Coyotes have approximately $33.1M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 15 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Coyotes roster on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, depth defencemen.

What I said the Coyotes needed last year: Three top nine forwards, starting goaltender.

They added: Daymond Langkow, Raffi Torres, Boyd Gordon, Mike Smith.

TRADE MARKET Prospects, picks.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Phoenix Coyotes celebrate and acknowledge the fans (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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