With the financial situation of the Phoenix Coyotes becoming clearer in recent days, General Manager Don Maloney has been able to draw a more accurate picture of what his plan will be for the organization this summer as the franchise looks to fill holes and get ready for next season.
The year was going well for the Phoenix Coyotes. They went into the All Star Break fighting for the 5th seed in the Western Conference, a spot they had not been familiar with since the 2001-2002 season when they finished 6th in the conference, one point behind the Chicago Blackhawks who owned the fifth seed. The situation was looking strong and Don Maloney was in line of getting the team into the playoffs for the first time since that year.
However, the team began to unravel. The Coyotes could not get going again and went on a stretch where they lost 12 of their next 15 games. They were held to one goal or less in 8 of those games, including being shut out in back to back games and a scoreless drought which spanned over 180 minutes, the equivalent of three games. Inconsistent and poor play on the part of many players contributed to the rapid decline as rookies could not find a scoring touch and the veterans were snake bitten. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov kept the team in many games but the inability to score on the Coyotes' part led to a padding of his loss column. When he failed, the team was doomed.
The trade deadline saw a better team coming together, winning five of their last seven games, but it was not enough as the team finished 13th in the Western Conference and out of a top five draft lottery spot.
There are many problems that this team needs to address and as I have mentioned throughout the season it starts behind the bench. Head Coach Wayne Gretzky and his staff are not the coaching staff needed to run this team. If this was a team of veteran players then Gretzky's approach may work but with such a young team, the players need someone who can teach and guide the team through good times and bad. Coaching experience is an aspect of the game that often gets overlooked but it is necessary for a team to succeed, especially if the situation involves a young team. There are a couple of candidates that should be considered by Don Maloney for the coaching position:
Peter Laviolette: With a Stanley Cup on his resume', Laviolette should be a man that is considered for the job. He worked hard in bringing a team that did not have alot of big names in the Carolina Hurricanes to the top of the league. Despite the lockout year between the Stanley Cup year and when they finished 11th, Laviolette led a team that had veterans but relied on young players to succeed. Eric Staal was 21 and led the team in scoring both for the regular season and the playoffs while rookie goaltender Cam Ward took over for the veteran Martin Gerber and was phenomenal in the crease during that playoff run. His aggressive style of play would allow for the Coyotes to use their speed more effectively.
He may be an obvious candidate but at this point anyone would be better than Wayne Gretzky and his staff behind the bench.
On the ice the Coyotes have some work to do in re-signing players this offseason, especially young ones. Steven Reinprecht has already been shipped out and signed by the Florida Panthers with the Coyotes receiving AHL player Stefan Meyer.
Two other names that are in the unrestricted pool for the Coyotes are two defenseman. Dmitri Kalinin was acquired at the deadline from the New York Rangers in the Derek Morris trade. He had four points for the Coyotes in his 15 games with the team and was solid on the back end as well. Depending on his price, Kalinin would provide depth to the blue line and some offensive abilities that may have been missing on the back end.
Ken Klee is the other defenseman. He was picked up off waiver during the season from the Anaheim Ducks. He may not be known for scoring points anymore, finishing with 11 points in 68 games but his work with young defenseman Keith Yandle helped his development tremendously on both sides of the puck. Klee may be getting up there in years but another year in the NHL to lead and teach a young blue line will provide a significant benefit to the growth of the young players on the blue line like Yandle and Zbynek Michalek.
It is on the restricted free agent front that the Coyotes management will be looking to spend the money they have in bringing back young players:
Scottie Upshall: Acquired from Philadelphia for Daniel Carcillo, Upshall provided a spark to the anemic offense of the Coyotes. In 19 games with Phoenix, he had 13 points, 8 goals and 5 assists. His speed was refreshing to watch as he drove to the net and his offensive abilities began to blossom. Phoenix did not have alot of fire power on the wings this season but Upshall will be looked at to make up for it next season. Don Maloney must sign Upshall.
Petr Prucha: The young sparkplug came over from the New York Rangers in the Derek Morris trade and he had an immediate impact on the team. His hardworking style of play got him 10 points, 2 goals and 8 assists, in 19 games with the Coyotes as he got time on the top line and on the power play. He has guts and a great work ethic, using it to score thirty goals in his rookie year with the Rangers. Many have questioned whether he could do it again. He has the offensive skills to do so but he needs the opportunity. In Phoenix he will get that opportunity and the Coyotes are hoping that it will pay off. Prucha provides more speed down the wing and needs to be re-signed. Resigned...2 year deal
Matthew Lombardi: A center acquired in the Olli Jokinen trade with Calgary, Lombardi was inserted into the top center spot on the team and had success finishing with 16 points, 5 goals and 11 assists, in 19 games with the Coyotes. Being stuck on lower lines in Calgary he was finally able to show his offensive abilities as he meshed well with Prucha and Upshall, forming a quick and skilled top line. Don Maloney was looking for established young players at the deadline and Lombardi is on the cusp of establishing himself as a skilled center in the NHL. He is another player who needs to be re-signed.
Enver Lisin: A Russian prospect who did not look to have a future in the NHL because of his lack of defensive play was developed by San Antonio Rampage Head Coach Greg Ireland, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Coyotes. Lisin was brought up and his offensive impact was felt as he finished with 21 points, 13 goals and 8 assists, in 48 games. His incredible speed down the wing helped him create offense and at times, he took over the play on the ice. His defensive play fell off towards the end of the season but a full year in the NHL will help him develop that and he can become an effective NHL scorer. In terms of skill his ceiling is very high and it needs to be developed. Bringing him back will add a whole new meaning of speed to the offensive attack of Phoenix. However, Maloney will have to compete with a recent KHL contract offered to the young Russian winger.
Joakim Lindstrom: Acquired from the Anaheim Ducks that sent defensive prospect Logan Stephenson the other way, Lindstrom was having trouble finding his place in the NHL, bouncing from the Columbus Blue Jackets, to the Ducks and finally Phoenix in a short amount of time. However in Phoenix Lindstrom did find his place as his offense finally began to arrive. Finishing with 20 points, 9 goals and 11 assists, in 44 games Lindstrom was a main source of offense towards the end of the season. His prowess in the shootout helped the Coyotes earn a few more victories but his step on the ice has gone a long way in finding his place in the NHL as he certainly has earned another chance to show off what he is capable of.
Daniel Winnik: One interesting case is that of Daniel Winnik. After a great rookie year that saw him score score 11 goals and 15 assists in 79 games, his offensive production fell to just seven points, 3 goals and 4 assists, in 49 games. He is known as a checking forward who can play both sides of the puck but Phoenix was hoping for a better offensive output. His work ethic is near the top of the team and, being a 9th round pick in the NHL Draft, the fact he has made any impact in the NHL is a small miracle. Going from the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) to the NHL in a short span of time has shown his ability to improve, earning him another shot at impressing the Coyotes.
Nigel Dawes: The young winger came over from the Rangers in the Derek Morris trade and is known for his offense primarily. However he had trouble scoring with the Coyotes as he had just two points in twelve games for Phoenix, both of those being assists. The Rangers believed that he could become a solid goal scorer in the NHL but problems with consistency have made it hard for Dawes to accomplish this feat. He could be used as trade bait at the draft this season but with the lack of options at wing for the Coyotes and the uncertain financial situation, the Coyotes will look to bring him back.
Keith Yandle: The young defenseman made great strides this season as his defensive play greatly improved with the guidance of veteran Ken Klee. His strong point of igniting an offense was made known has he had thirty points, 4 goals and 26 assists, in 69 games. The Phoenix blue line has been considered a weakness of the team in the future but Yandle is part of the strength of the future. The team will be looking for him to take an even larger role in providing offense from the back end and will be key for them going forward. Maloney needs to re-sign Yandle.
Josh Tordjman: Playing in San Antonio for most of the season, Tordjman got a cup of coffee in the NHL towards the end of the season playing two games with Phoenix. He lost both games giving up a total of eight goals. With Bryzgalov having the top spot for the foreseeable future and the success that Al Montoya had in his NHL debut, it looks as if Tordjman will be spending another season in the AHL as the top goalie there. However his skills as a goaltender are still high and he is young with plenty of time to learn. With very little goaltending depth in the organization, Tordjman will be re-signed.
The unfortunate piece to the restricted free agent front is that other teams can put in offer sheets and send the Coyotes if they can not match the offer. However the organization and the fans are looking to get out of the rebuilding stage and into being a competitor. With very little to work with, Maloney will need to work fast to get these young players signed before July 1st when other teams can put up offer sheets and possibly outbid the Coyotes for some of this young talent.
While Phoenix will probably not be big players in the unrestricted free agent market, chances at improving the team are always available at any price. Management will have to be stingy about who they target in this market but there are gems at low prices, as Phoenix found out when they signed Kurt Sauer last summer, a stellar defensive defenseman signed at a low price. However, here are a couple of possibilities for the Coyotes:
The Sedins: I am sure that after mentioning that the Coyotes have very little money to work with, you are surprised to see the Sedin twins on this list. However, in the event that the Coyotes do get a viable owner who has money to spend, Don Maloney should go all ahead full for the Sedins. It is not assured that Daniel and Henrik will stay in Vancouver after this season. They want to stay together and a young team like Phoenix may be their chance to truly break out in the NHL. Henrik had 22 goals and 60 assists this season for 82 points in 82 games. His playmaking abilities have developed and he has become one of the elite playmakers in the Western Conference. Daniel was also a point per game player as he finished with 31 goals and 51 assists and as been known more for his scoring. If Don Maloney could get his hands on the money to sign both of these players, who want to stay together, it would go a long way in establishing a firm foundation from which Phoenix could move forward from.
Blair Betts: Regardless of what happens with the Coyotes financially, they need to look to improve their special teams. While the center position is not a weakness for the Coyotes, the penalty kill is and if they want to improve it, they should be looking at one of the best penalty killers in the league in Betts. Phoenix finished 28th in the league in penalty kill and it led to their demise down the stretch. Betts would bring a veteran presence to a young penalty killing unit and would be an option in helping a young player like Martin Hanzal who is slowly becoming a good shut down forward for the Coyotes. Betts would not be overly expensive and would provide benefits both on and off the ice for the Coyotes. Betts finished with 6 goals and 4 assists in 81 games this season, tallying a goal and 3 assists shorthanded. The New York Rangers finished first in the league on the penalty kill.
Stephane Veilleux: A left winger who has played for the Minnesota Wild his entire career, Veilleux has played for a team that has had trouble scoring because of their system. This past season he had 13 goals and 10 assists in 81 games for the Wild. He has played on one of the top penalty kills the past few years as Minnesota finished this season second on the penalty kill in the NHL. Other teams will be after his services this summer but he may fly under the radar and if he does Phoenix should be right there to get him.
As I mentioned before, the Sedins are a long shot and should only be pursued if the right financial situation is in place but other than players like Betts and Veilleux, the Coyotes should not be looking to do too much in the unrestricted market.
Phoenix will most likely not be fielding a Stanley Cup contender the next few years so draft picks are essential to the future of the team. Restricted free agents will be very hard to go after considering all the restricted players that need to be signed for the Coyotes and the little amount of money that could easily be matched or outbid. Giving up draft picks that could result in high draft positions is too risky for a team that is relying on young players and their development for success.
What the Coyotes who do not need to be signed need to do is improve, greatly. Captain Shane Doan had a career season and continues to improve on a mediocre team as he scored 31 goals and 42 assists for 73 points in 82 games. He has committed himself to this franchise when he could have gone elsewhere for more money and glory. His leadership has provided an intangible benefit to the team that many people overlook. However, he will need to continue to be a leader both on and off the ice as he is the focal point of the offense right now.
Young players were going to be the core of the team this season and, unfortunately, things did not pan out as Don Maloney and management would have liked them to. Peter Mueller had a good rookie season where he scored 54 points, including 22 goals. However he was troubled with inconsistency and injuries this season and was only able to tally 13 goals and 23 assists in 72 games. He was being counted on to improve his play and numbers but it did not happen for the young winger. This offseason he will be working hard to get back into optimum game shape after suffering a concussion late in the season. The expectations of the team and of himself will drive him to make him do much better next season
Martin Hanzal, another sophomore for Phoenix, was a bright spot for the team. He may not have improved on his rookie total scoring 11 goals and 20 assists this season but his defensive play was stellar as he was put up against some of the big centers in the Western Conference like Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, and Anze Kopitar. He matured as a two way forward which benefitted the Coyotes and was on their penalty kill. However, he needs to use his large frame more and improve on his offensive totals.
Rookies made their debuts for the Coyotes and they were being thrown right into the fire as they were immediately relied upon for offense. Kyle Turris was the big name for first year players. The team had high hopes that he would have a great rookie year on the score sheet. Unfortunately Turris had trouble with his small frame in producing as much as the Coyotes would have liked him to as he had 8 goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 63 games. However with a year now under his belt Turris can prepare this offseason both physically and mentally for the rigors of the NHL season. His second season will be important to his development as a young player.
Danish forward Mikkel Boedker jumped right from the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League to the Phoenix Coyotes as the 8th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. This season he scored 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points in 78 games. Boedker's chemistry with former Phoenix Coyote Olli Jokinen was stellar in helping him put points on the board while his speed helped him put space between himself and some of the bigger defenders in the Western Conference. Like Turris, Boedker's big issue is in size. Bulking up while keeping his speed and hands will be key to Boedker's success in his second season where Phoenix will be looking for more of an offensive output.
A wild card to make the team, Russian forward Viktor Tikhonov was noted more for his grandfather's reputation than for his play on the ice. However Tikhonov showed why so many teams were after the young forward at the draft last year as he tallied 8 goals and 8 assists for 16 points in 61 games. He needs to learn bulk up his frame a bit but there is no doubt the kid has potential to be a good player in the league and for the Phoenix Coyotes in the future.
Every rookie will need to improve their play if the team wants to be successful now and in the future which means putting in the summer work and coming back to training camp ready to go. Conditioning has been a problem with this team and has led to its downfalls late in seasons. It must be improved if the Coyotes want to take the next step forward. They showed that they have the skill to compete in the Western Conference but they need the physical endurance to stay at that high level for an extended period of time.
What actually happens this offseason with the Coyotes is a great mystery to everyone following the NHL. The battle between Jim Balsillie and the NHL will be branding the headlines for the foreseeable future as a fight for the franchise will continue. Coyotes fans are hoping that there will be a hockey team at Jobing.com Arena this October and for many years to come while critics of Gary Bettman and his initiative to bring hockey to untraditional hockey markets are hoping there will be an empty arena. However what ever the outcome of the financial battle, general manager Don Maloney will need to have a course of action that will field a competitive hockey team no matter where it will be playing.
Count me as a hopeful it is in Phoenix.