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Drop The Puck! The NHL Is Back

The shortened season will start with a spark unseen in prior seasons. Are the Phoenix Coyotes prime to finish strong like last year or was it an anomaly? It’s time to howl. It’s time to drop the puck and start the 2013 season!

Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Tonight is the first night of the long awaited 2012-13 NHL Season. This season is staged to be one of the most unpredictable and exciting in recent history. The fans are quickly forgiving the NHL Players and Owners, dusting off their team jerseys and, at the hopes of the owners, returning to the ticket windows. Both the owners and players have reached out on a grand scale to apologize for the lock-out. Now, it is time to "Drop the Puck!"

The Players: Many players spent their lock-out warming up in the minor and European leagues. While they have to retool for smaller rink size and more intense play, it is easy to assume that this group of players will have the most to benefit in the early part of the season. However, it is also easy to assume that this group of players will be more susceptible to fatigue and tired legs at the end of the season. Other players rested and skated during the lockout. While they may not be as warmed up and possibly strain themselves with the quick training camps and fast paced start to the season, we can also assume that these players will be arriving at their season prime just as post season is starting.

The Schedule: Aggressive! One game every 2.04 days. Do you need to say any more? Most teams average between 8 and 14 "back to back" games. 98 Days of hockey season makes it exciting and adventurous for the fans, but a challenge for those managing the team, players with minor injuries, and an insane travel pace.

The Coaches: The Coaches have to balance the players and the schedule. Most are speculating on the depth at goal and their desire to see their top goalie play a majority of the hectic schedule. This season more than most, you hear more about defensive players and needing more depth (specifically to take the strain off their goalies). The Coaches are also looking at the foreign play and having to judge who is where, on their own team as well as the opposing team. Many players have found a rhythm in the oversees leagues that should help with the shortened season.

The Phoenix Coyotes: Are you ready to "Join the Hunt"? The 2011/12 Pacific Division Champions return with some interesting roster changes and lack of respect. Finishing respectably in the third round, losing to the Stanley Cup Champions, you would the Phoenix Coyotes would have earned the respect of the league. However, much like last year, the team has been relegated to a third rate team that might make the playoffs if they are lucky. Perhaps it is the market or the ownership issues, but the reality is that most analysts rank the Coyotes to finish somewhere in the 6 to 10 position in the Western Conference this year.TSN did not rank one single Coyote on their Top 50 Players list. In reviewing the list players like Mike Smith and Keith Yandle could have seen better rankings.

Ray Whitney’s production, especially on the power play, will be missed. However, the additions of Steve Sullivan and Matt Lombardi bring some excitement to the offense. The off-season moves and lock-out production overseas has delivered heightened expectations for Mikkel Boedker, Paul Bissonnette, and Lauri Korpikoski to step up their production in the short season. These are three players to watch in the 2013. The Phoenix Coyotes defense remains strong. A signature for Coach David Tippett, the Coyotes are boasting a team of defenders that looks like an all-star ballot. Keith Yandle is well respected and a proven producer, on offense as well as defense. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is truly one of the rising stars in the NHL and spent the lock-out refining his skills with the Portland Pirates. He will be missed in Maine. Lastly, we see the return of Zbynek Michalek, an excellent defender and shot-blocker, capable of playing a shutdown role. Michalek, with his big shot can be a true playmaker on the power play. Teamed with Ekman-Larsson, you have a duo that will yield big results all season long.

The big question for the Coyotes is will the Mike Smith of last year return with the puck drop in 2013? While the jury is still in deliberation, the consensus is yes it will. This is a pinnacle year from Mike Smith. This Sean Burke protégé knows his spot on the team and the effect he has on the outcome of most games. Burke’s record season last year should continue forward. Obviously, the concern, like all teams are worried about, is stamina and injuries. If last year is any indication, these should be of little concern to the Coyotes. Mike Smith is a goalie that can save 35 shots per game and with the defense shaping up the way it is, Smith should see very few of those nights. This season looks to be one of the most enigmatic in recent history. This provides an opportunity for the Phoenix Coyotes to gain respect and finish strong. Let the puck drop!