The Summer Doldrums: Looking at the Coyotes Two Weeks in to Free Agency

As our regular readers can attest, there has been scant news to write about on the Phoenix Coyotes front over the past several weeks.  Although prospect camp provided a brief respite for the fans, we remain in the summer wastelands of the hockey offseason.  The Coyotes made a few signings, lost a few pieces of last year's team and watched the Pacific Division shift around them with a few surprising new faces joining our division foes.

Let's start by taking a quick and dirty look at what's happened with the Coyotes to this point.  Nothing has been finalized, but the Coyotes currently have about $17 Million in cap space with two roster spots to fill.  They also have three key RFAs to resign in Kyle Turris, Lauri Korpikoski and Mikkel Boedker.  Here's what's happened so far:

IN:  Raffi Torres, Boyd Gordon, Andy Miele (I know he was added last year, but this will be his first real year with the team where he might play), Petteri Nokelainen, Mike Smith

OUT:  Vernon Fiddler, Eric Belanger, Ed Jovanovski, Ilya Bryzgalov

Although the losses are significant, GMDM has done an admirable job of finding quality players to fill their roles (mostly) and still has plenty of cap space available, although possibly not any actual money to do so.

Obviously everyone's biggest concern is how will the Coyotes perform without back-to-back team MVP, Ilya Bryzgalov.  I'm not entirely sure that losing Bryz is the death of this team that some have predicted.  Certainly, I would not have been happy if GMDM had spent the money that Philadelphia shelled out to sign him.  So for being rational about the goalie market, Phoenix added a number of picks and a few prospects. 

Honestly, of all the players that are leaving, the one I'm most upset losing is Vernon Fiddler, who was a battler and grinder on this team, playing important minutes on the PK and as a defensive shutdown center - and he punched home a few goals as well.  When the Coyotes were at their best this season, it was when Fiddy, Taylor Pyatt and Lee Stempniak/Lauri Korpikoski were clicking as a unit.  Other than Bryz's lackluster performance against Detroit, I think the Coyotes' disappointment in the first round had a lot to do with those three seeming worn down by the long season.

Jovo and Belanger were decent pieces and were at either ends of the bargain bin...Belanger being a cunning, last minute signing and Jovo being a big-money player that disappointed in his performance mostly because we were so focused on how much money he made and how often he was injured.  While I wish them both the best, I am not worried about replacing them on the ice.

What really worries me right now?  Depth at forward and defense.  Let's start with the defense.  There are currently 7 d-men signed for next season:  Keith Yandle, Rostislav Klesla, Michal Rozsival, Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin, David Schlemko and Kurt Sauer.  Additionally, there are non-roster players Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Brandon Gormley, Maxim Goncharov and Chris Summers.  That's four wily veterans, an up-and-coming superstar Norris candidate, a bunch of kids and a guy unlikely to ever play again, unfortunately.  It's not a terrible group and I'm sure a lot of teams would love to have that much young talent on the blueline.  The problem is that for a team that is going to play a defense-first style, it's awfully thin among defensive defensemen that are not prone to injuries.  Klesla, Morris and Rozsival all missed significant amounts of time last year to injuries and Aucoin is on the wrong side of 35 and has put in over 1,000 NHL games on his body.  Hopefully when injuries crop up, the rest of the team is ready to help out the young d-men to make sure that Mike Smith isn't getting pummeled in net.

Forward is a whole other story.  The two top offensively skilled players are probably Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker - both showed that they have all the chops to play in this league during the final months and against Detroit in the playoffs.  Other than Shane Doan, I'm not sure any of the forwards were as impressive as those two in the postseason.  Martin Hanzal continues to be a lockdown center and his offensive skills continue to improve as well, as he's learning how to use his size to his advantage getting in front of goalies and putting in the garbage.  Radim Vrbata is who he is, a talented sniper who needs to remember to keep shooting.  Taylor Pyatt, like Hanzal, is at his best when he is putting his butt in front of goalies and cleaning up the trash.  Lauri Korpikoski was the breakout star for the team last year, scoring 19 goals; and Ray Whitney was an assist machine and helped dramatically improve the power play (although it was still fairly abysmal).  Like it or not, these are the guys that will need to score the majority of goals for the Coyotes next year; it's a good thing they are used to it after last year's season when Doan led the team with 20 goals and 11 players scored eleven or more.

Rounding out the forwards we have new players Boyd Gordon who is a faceoff specialist (winning 58% last season), Raffi Torres who adds a bit of grit to the roster, welcome back Petteri Nokelainen who spent a bit of time with the Coyotes two years ago before being bought out and playing in Europe.  Noki has some speed and not the worst hands, but nobody is going to confuse him with a top 6 forward.  Add to that, Paul Bissonnette who actually played fairly well when given ice time late in the year and definitely gives the Coyotes youth some protection on the ice and Andy Miele, who will need that protection as he is technically a midget in the NHL.  Miele, however, has some of the best hands you will see and great ice vision to boot.  If the Coyotes don't pick up any other seasoned vets, he's going to get a really good look to play with the Coyotes this season.

In net, Mike Smith is ready for the challenge and I think will be a decent Bryz replacement.  He is an excellent puck handling goalie (which we haven't seen in the valley in a very long time) and that could help with our transition play which may be a key to this team considering our youth and speed advantage that we should have over many other clubs. 

With still plenty of time until camp opens, GMDM has lots to consider and plenty of cap space available.  Therefore, it would be far too early to start thinking about line combinations or anything of that sort.  As we move forward in the summer, we'll continue to look at the roster and also take a closer look at our Pacific Division foes to see what they have done this summer to improve their chances of winning Lord Stanley's Cup.

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