Seemingly against all odds, the Phoenix Coyotes have reached the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and, for at least one more season, they will be calling Phoenix home.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the roster and the challenges facing GM Don Maloney as he tries to keep a competitive team despite an uncertain future.
When Glendale City Council agreed to cover $25-million in losses for the 2011-2012 season, the Coyotes' relocation was put on hold, but the dance that dragged on and on this past season figures to heat up again next season because, if the Coyotes are losing money, they can't reasonably count on government assistance to pay the bills year after year.
Even if Winnipeg is no longer the destination, rest assured that another location will pop up as a potential landing spot for the Coyotes and it's against that backdrop of the franchise's undecided future that Maloney has to go to work.
It's not easy, at the best of times, for a team on a budget to lure free agents, but the job is made all the more difficult when that team can't even say with certainty that they will be in the same city the following year.
But, to the credit of Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett, they've done a masterful job putting together a roster that can play Tippett's preferred defensive brand of hockey and remain competitive.
The backbone of that defensive style, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who was going to be an unrestricted free agent, has already been traded to Philadelphia, so finding a new number one goaltender will be one of the tasks to be taken care of this summer.
With a mix of youth and veterans, the Coyotes have a chance to be a playoff team but, given the team's financial limitations, it's a fine line that the Coyotes are walking; a couple of injuries, an ill-fated free agent or two and that may be all it takes for the Coyotes not to make the playoffs.
It seems daunting, but it seems every offseason, yet the Coyotes have been able to put together a team that can compete, even while playing in one of the league's most difficult divisions.
For their sake, a little organizational stability would be refreshing.
Don Maloney/Dave Tippett
|Player||Rating||Class||'10-'11 Cap Hit|
Shane Doan isn't the finisher he was even a few years ago, but the 34-year-old did tally 11 of his 20 goals on the power play and scored at least 60 points for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.
Doan's consistency makes him a fine leader for this franchise, but a power forward who is hitting his mid-thirties is likely due to slow down at some point. He missed ten games last season for the first time 1997-1998, so it could be getting close to the time that the next generation takes the baton and, at the very least, eases the pressure on Doan to be an offensive leader.
Mind you, if Doan looks over at Ray Whitney and sees him continuing to produce, at 39, then who knows how long he'll be an offensive force on this team.
Whitney is a power play freak, tying for the team lead with 26 power play points last season -- the seventh time in the last nine seasons that he's recorded at least 25 power play points -- so, for that reason alone, he's a valuable contributor.
When asked which forward led the Coyotes in ice time per game, it would be natural to guess that Doan is the workhorse, but he ranked second last season, behind towering centre Martin Hanzal.
Despite playing only 61 games last season, Hanzal set a career mark with 16 goals but, for as effective as he is as a two-way player (he led the Coyotes in shot differential, 5-on-5, per 60 minutes, despite taking on tough assignments, according to www.behindthenet.ca), Hanzal's lack of natural offensive skills limits how much he can impact the game.
Hanzal may be as important as any forward in the league who has played four seasons and never scored more than 35 points, but there's an element of damnation in that kind of praise.
When he arrived in Phoenix at the trade deadline in 2010, Lee Stempniak went on a scoring spree, tallying 14 times in 18 games, giving him a career-high 28 goals. Last season, with perhaps higher expectations, Stempniak regressed, managing 19 goals and 38 points while playing all 82 games.
That may be the reasonable benchmark for Stempniak, a forward who can play a role on the second or third line and if he happens to get hot, the team gets to benefit for as long as the surge lasts; it's better to keep the bar lower with a good chance that Stempniak can make it over, rather than holding out hope that he's going to be a 30-goal scorer.
Though Taylor Pyatt may never live up to his draft billing, when he was taken eighth overall in 1999, the monstrous winger has carved out a nice role the last couple years in Phoenix, scoring 30 goals and registering a plus-24 rating.
If those totals seem modest, only 36 players in the league have scored 30 goals and put up at least a plus-20 rating over the last two seasons and 30 of them played more (some much more) than Pyatt.
The hockey world's most notorious Twitter personality, Paul Bissonnette (AKA BizNasty2.0) doesn't play a lot, but isn't afraid to wreak havoc when he does, fighting 32 times in 89 games over the last two seasons.
After a year in year back in Finland, Petteri Nokelainen has re-signed with the Coyotes. With 189 NHL games under his belt, he's provided precious little offence (34), but plenty of hustle that fits on the fourth line.
To his credit, while it might be a small sample size against less than top competition, Bissonnette's shot differential numbers are favourable, so he's not hurting the Coyotes on those rare occasions that he's on the ice.
It took some patience to wait on the 2004 first-round pick, but Lauri Korpikoski broke through last season with a strong campaign, scoring 40 points and finishing with a plus-17 rating, making him one of 30 players in the league last season to hit both of those marks.
A good sized forward who does his best work along the boards, Korpikoski had never scored more than 14 points in a season, prior to 2010-2011, so he'll go into next season with a new contract (presumably) and new expectations.
Mikkel Boedker was rushed to the NHL is 2008-2009, when he was 19 and he's spent the better part of the past two seasons in the American Hockey League, making a return to the Coyotes lineup in February, seemingly for good after some back-and-forth to the AHL in those two seasons.
A speedy forward who has enough skill to have put up 34 points in 36 AHL games last season, Boedker hasn't been a big scorer at the NHL level and may be more likely to establish a full-time job as a checker with a little bit of scoring upside.
Like Boedker, Kyle Turris was pressed into the NHL too soon and it's hampered his development. He scored a career-high 25 points last season but, well, it's 25 points. He needs to play more than 11-12 minutes a night and has to produce to make an impact on the lineup.
He'll turn 22 this summer and has three pro seasons under his belt, so Turris should be given the opportunity to play in a scoring role; frankly, the Coyotes need the offence and Turris needs to play in that role. It may be time, again, for him to sink or swim.
The unrestricted free agent game isn't an easy one of the Coyotes to deal with, given their uncertain future, and it could make it difficult to even retain their own, although Radim Vrbata would really seem like a player that should want to stay in this situation, since he plays better for the Coyotes than he does anywhere else.
Presuming that Phoenix is going to be running a rather right budget and may not be a prime destination for free agents looking at multi-year deals, there may be an opportunity for top scoring prospect Brett MacLean to make the jump along with some veteran free agent signings to round out the roster.
Certainly if the Coyotes can't retain the services of Eric Belanger and Vernon Fiddler, they'll need help in the faceoff circle and in checking centre roles. Marcel Goc, Brian Sutherby, Scott Nichol, Rob Niedermayer or Todd Marchant are all veterans that may be able to fit in third and fourth-line roles.
|Player||Rating||Class||'10-'11 Cap Hit|
While overpriced at $5-million on the cap, Michal Rozsival's actual salary is $3-million in 2011-2012, making him a little extra valuable to a Coyotes team that figures to be treading just above the salary floor.
Additionally, Rozsival's still effective enough to play 20 minutes a night and, as he's taken on fewer offensive responsibilities, he's not afraid to lay his body on the line with blocked shots and hits.
24-year-old David Schlemko played a full season in the Central Hockey League when he wrapped up his junior career, so he's as self-made as they come and, while he played 43 games for the Coyotes last season, he did have an especially good stretch in February and March, scoring nine points, with a plus-8 rating in 17 games.
For the most part, however, Schlemko is a spare part on the Phoenix blueline, but his late-season spurt was an indication that he can handle time on the third pair if he finds himself in that role.
Moving into the twilight of his career, 38-year-old Adrian Aucoin still ranked second on the Coyotes with an average time on ice of 21:39 per game and ended up with a plus-17 rating, his best since 2003-2004.
Maybe that season will be difficult to duplicate, but Aucoin has made the transition from blaster on the power play to steady veteran presence.
Good health only comes in spurts for Rostislav Klesla, who played 61 games last season and has missed at least 20 games in five of the last seven seasons. He also struggled a bit in Phoenix, going minus-6 in 16 games after the trade, but he's generally established himself to be a reliable defensive defenceman who can handle significant minutes when he's healthy.
For the second straight season, Derek Morris was given too much responsibility to start the year and, eventually, saw his ice time come down by a couple of minutes when it was apparent that he shouldn't be expected to play 22-23 minutes per game.
With the worst shot differential among Coyotes defencemen, per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, cutting back on Morris' responsibilities makes sense. He's played more than 20 minutes per game every year of his NHL career, but was plus-8 in 17 games in March and April when he was down to 19 minutes per game.
The Coyotes protected Oliver Ekman-Larsson in his rookie year, only playing him 15:02 per game and usually against favourable opposition, and also put him in the AHL for some seasoning, but his upside is readily apparent.
A smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman, Ekman-Larsson needs to get stronger to handle opposing forwards and, once that happens, he could have a shot at stardom.
The Coyotes already have a star on their defence, Keith Yandle, who is in line for a sizeable raise as a restricted free agent after two very strong seasons, during which he's put up 100 points and a plus-28 ratings, which leaves him in rather impressive company.
Jason LaBarbera hasn't seen a lot of work as Ilya Bryzgalov's backup the last two seasons, playing a total of 34 games, but when the Coyotes determined that they weren't going to keep Bryzgalov, they got LaBarbera signed to a two-year extension.
While the Coyotes surely need to secure the services of a better starting option, it seems likely that LaBarbera will be able to play more games next season.
Presuming that the Coyotes aren't going to move from Brygalov to a bidding for Tomas Vokoun, there are experienced goaltenders that would like the opportunity to start, whether it's Jose Theodore, Mike Smith, Marty Turco or Ray Emery.
If the Coyotes are willing to roll the dice a little, maybe look to Josh Harding, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, but has been a strong backup in Minnesota.
Another option could be going the trade route to find a young goaltender that might be ready to take on a starting role. It might cost the Coyotes some valuable pieces, but Semyon Varlamov, Tuukka Rask, Sergei Bobrovsky and Cory Schneider would be among those that would qualify. Jonathan Bernier might too, but the Kings may not want to deal him to a division rival.
|Brandon Gormley||D||Moncton (QMJHL)||13-35-48,-16, 47 GP|
|Brett MacLean||LW||San Antonio (AHL)||23-27-50,+13, 51 GP|
|Andy Miele||C||Miami-Ohio (CCHA)||24-47-71,+22, 39 GP|
|Chris Summers||D||San Antonio (QHL)||1-9-10,-3, 75 GP|
|Mark Visentin||G||Niagara (OHL)||2.52 GAA, .917 SV%, 46 GP|
|Viktor Tikhonov||LW||San Antonio (AHL)||10-23-33,-13, 60 GP|
|Ethan Werek||C||Kingston (OHL)||24-28-52,-3, 47 GP|
|Jordan Szwarz||RW||Saginaw (OHL)||27-39-66,+33, 65 GP|
|Maxim Goncharov||D||San Antonio (AHL)||6-9-15,-3, 61 GP|
|Michael Stone||D||San Antonio (AHL)||2-11-13,-5, 70 GP|
The 13th overall pick last summer, Brandon Gormley did have a strong season in the QMJHL, scoring a point-per-game, but a minus-16 rating and a knee injury that cost him some time midseason presented some challenges too.
Gormley did get a late-season trial in the AHL and he may not be too far away from challenging for a spot in Phoenix.
Brett MacLean's skating has held him back somewhat, but he's continued to score in the AHL (115 points in 127 games over the last two seasons) and the 22-year-old should be knocking on the door for a full-time job with the Coyotes.
Hobey Baker Award winner Andy Miele is smallish, listed at 5-foot-8, but his collegiate production sure makes him worth a look and if his offensive game can translate to the pros, then Miele could offer some potential in a playmaking role.
A wonderfully fluid skater, Chris Summers doesn't have strong offensive instincts, so it's important for him to develop his strength and positioning so that his play without the puck is NHL-calibre.
A late first-round pick in the 2010 draft, Mark Visentin has steadily improved his game through three years in the OHL. The 18-year-old is a top junior goaltender and could be considered the goaltender of the future with at least a couple more years of solid development.
23-year-old Viktor Tikhonov is never going to put up big point totals, but he could earn a role as a checker thanks to his speed.
Picked up from the Rangers in exchange for Oscar Lindberg, Ethan Werek is a big forward with some skill who was a second-round pick in 2009. With some seasoning in the AHL, he could develop into a rugged pro winger.
A fourth-round pick in 2009, Jordan Szwarz has improved throughout his junior career, though he was just barely over a point-per-game scorer in his fourth season.
Maxim Goncharov completed his first season in North America. While he could use further development, his size and skill makes him an intriguing prospect.
Though he didn't put up big numbers in his first pro season, particularly compared to his last couple years in the WHL, Michael Stone has the upside of a puck-moving defenceman and could use some time on the power play to fully realize that potential.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Coyotes have approximately $33.4M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 16 players.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, starting goaltender.
What I said the Coyotes needed last year: Two top six forwards, two top four defencemen.
They added: Ray Whitney, Eric Belanger, Oliver Ekman-Larsson.