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Arizona Coyotes 2014-15 season preview

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A comprehensive look at the upcoming campaign for the Arizona Coyotes.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The preseason is now over. The regular season is days away.

Are the Arizona Coyotes ready?

The challenges remain the same from years past: an offense that, on paper, is going to struggle to score goals, and significant questions on special teams. What does the 2014-15 campaign hold for the Arizona Coyotes?

Last Season By the Numbers

Statistic Coyotes in 2013-14
Points 89 (37-30-15) - 9th West
Goals Per Game 2.56 (20th)
Goals Against Per Game 2.73 (18th)
Power Play Percentage 19.9% (4th)
Penalty Kill Percentage 79.0% (26th)
Fenwick For % (5v5) 49.99% (16th)
PDO (5v5) 100.2 (13th)
Offensive Zone Start Percentage (5v5) 51.48% (10th)
Team Points Leader Keith Yandle (53)
Team Goals Leader Antoine Vermette (24)
Team Assists Leader Keith Yandle (45)

Offseason Transactions

Subtractions: Mike Ribeiro (buyout), Radim Vrbata (free agency - VAN), Thomas Greiss (free agency - PIT), Tim Kennedy (free agency - WSH), Andy Miele (free agency - DET), Paul Bissonnette (unsigned), Derek Morris (unsigned)

Additions: Sam Gagner (trade - TBL via EDM), B.J. Crombeen (trade - TBL), Devan Dubnyk (free agency - MTL), Joe Vitale (free agency - PIT), Justin Hodgman (free agency - Metallurg Magnitogorsk [KHL])

Projected Line Combinations

Forwards

Mikkel Boedker - Antoine Vermette - Shane Doan

Martin Erat - Martin Hanzal - Sam Gagner

Lauri KorpikoskiKyle Chipchura - David Moss

Brandon McMillan - Joe Vitale - B.J. Crombeen

Extras: Justin Hodgman, Rob Klinkhammer

Defense

Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Zbynek Michalek

Keith Yandle - Connor Murphy

David SchlemkoMichael Stone

Extra: Chris Summers

Goaltenders

Mike Smith

Devan Dubnyk

On Offense

For years, the largest question mark for the Coyotes has been on offense. The team fields few, if any, of the league leaders in goals or assists in any given season. But this season, goals may be even harder to come by.

The inability to sign Radim Vrbata over the summer, coupled with circumstances outside of the team's control that led to the dismissal of last year's major free agent signing, Mike Ribeiro, left the Coyotes without two of the team's top five most productive players.

To help counteract this, the team acquired Sam Gagner from the Tampa Bay Lightning (mere hours after the Lightning acquired him from Edmonton) and opened their training camp to some of the team's younger players to give their prospects the opportunity to play their way into the lineup.

Ultimately, the Coyotes' brass decided that none of their younger players, such as Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson, had showed enough upside this season to start the year in the NHL. Though surprising, Arizona will opt instead to stick with their veterans, and hope that underperforming roster figures like Erat, Moss, and Korpikoski can boost their numbers from last season.

Regardless, it is likely to be tough sailing for a team that already finished in the bottom third of the league last season in goal scoring. Look for younger players like Tobias Rieder and Lucas Lessio to get auditions in the NHL later in the year as players struggle on offense.

Bold Prediction: Martin Hanzal will set a career high in points (40) this season and play all 82 games.

On Defense

While the youth movement may have been delayed on offense, it is in full swing on defense. After allowing long-time Coyote and Keith Yandle carpooler Derek Morris to walk via free agency, Arizona will have only one defenseman (Michalek) over the age of 30.

Frequent flyer Chris Summers appears to have secured the 7th spot on defense, while Connor Murphy and Michael Stone appear to have solidified spots in the top six. After cracking the lineup at the end of last season, youngster Brandon Gormley will begin the year in the American Hockey League, but likely will make his way back to the NHL at the first sign of injury or poor play from the current crew.

There is a significant amount of offensive upside on the defensive corps: Yandle and Ekman-Larsson are well established offensive defensemen, while Stone quietly amassed 20+ points last year. It remains to be seen whether the younger players on the bottom pairings will be able to grow into the NHL given the pressures associated with playing close games.

Bold Prediction: Keith Yandle will finish top 3 in the NHL for points by a defenseman.

In Net

Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Coyotes will rely on their goaltending to compete for a playoff spot. A largely underwhelming first half performance was offset by an extremely strong performance post Olympics from Mike Smith, and were it not for an unfortunate injury in the final weeks of the season, it is very possible that Smith would have played the Coyotes into a playoff spot. Smith finished the year 27-21-10 with a 2.64 GAA and a .915 SV%.

A larger question mark in goal will be Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk bounced around in three different NHL organizations last year, starting the season in Edmonton. Dubnyk was then traded to Nashville in January as a stopgap measure while Pekka Rinne was out. When Rinne returned, Dubnyk went to Montreal, where he became the team's #4 goaltender, behind Carey Price, Peter Budaj, and Dustin Tokarski.

At 6' 6", Dubnyk is even larger than Smith, which should bode well for goaltending coach Sean Burke. As the backup, Dubnyk will get plenty of time to refocus his game, as Smith played 60+ games in both full seasons as a Coyote. But with only one year (2012-13) with a save percentage at .920 or better, Dubnyk has a lot to prove.

Bold Prediction: Dubnyk has a hard time finding his game in Arizona, and 2010 1st round selection Mark Visentin is the backup goaltender for the Coyotes before the season ends.

Special Teams

Perhaps the biggest surprise last season was the dominance of Arizona's power play. Thanks in large part to the coaching of Newell Brown, the Coyotes power play was 4th in the league, better than teams like Chicago, San Jose, and Los Angeles. Though Mike Ribeiro undoubtedly helped make the power play better, much of the team's resurgence was led by the 1-2 punch at the top with Yandle and Ekman-Larsson. Both players will be back looking to build off of the success the Coyotes had last year.

As good as the power play was, its effectiveness was severely hampered by a troubling penalty kill. The Coyotes gave up more power play goals (57) than they scored (56), while scoring just three shorthanded goals. Equally troubling were the nine bench minors the Coyotes took, which put the team in the bottom third of the league.

Arizona may try to balance their PK units with stalwart forwards like Vermette and Moss paired with speedier players like Korpikoski and McMillan in an effort to stretch opposing power play units out in the neutral zone. As bad as the team was last year, even a small improvement would go a long way to boosting their season prospects.

Bold Prediction: The power play remains a top 10 unit this season, while the penalty kill finally makes its way into the top 15 of the NHL.

Off the Ice

No Arizona Coyotes season preview is complete without an examination of the off-ice concerns facing the team. A mere fourteen months into the tenure of IceArizona's ownership of the Coyotes, new reports emerged suggesting a majority stake in the team was going to be sold to hedge fund investor Andrew Barroway. Depending on who you ask, this is either an ominous turn of events for a franchise supposedly bleeding money or a recognition of the vastly improved situation of the team, and the league, as a whole.

Barroway's intentions remain unclear, though it seems as if the NHL is at worst permissive and at best supportive of Barroway's effort to buy the team, which given how long the league fought to maintain professional hockey in Arizona would appear to be a positive indicator. Regardless, the timeline of the new arrangement is expected to be completed by the end of October, so perhaps Coyotes fans will get more answers as the season goes on.

As for the hockey operations side of the team, Head Coach Dave Tippett and General Manager Don Maloney will continue in their respective roles despite two consecutive seasons without playoff hockey. Though all indications are that the staff has the confidence of ownership, the decision to not include any of the younger players on this season's roster could land the pair on the hot seat if the team struggles to score goals and misses the playoffs again.

Bold Prediction: The sale of the team to Andrew Barroway proves to be much ado about nothing, and the Canadian media goes back to salivating about the existence of the out-clause in the Gila River Arena management contract.

Season Outlook

At first glance, the largely unchanged nature of the Coyotes roster makes some sense. The team was only two points out of the playoffs last season, thanks in large part to a pitiful 1-4-4 finish to the year. There are two things worth noting however that bode poorly going forward for this year's team.

First, the Coyotes rocketed out of the gate to an extremely impressive 14-4-3 mark through the middle of November, before going 27-26-12 the rest of the way. The team's shooting percentage was unsustainably high, and eventually the Coyotes reverted back to their hard-luck ways by season's end. It is highly unlikely that the Coyotes begin this season as well as they did last season, and unless they go on a run at some point during the year, they will have a large gap to overcome in order to stay in the playoff picture.

Second, the Western Conference has improved itself quite significantly this year, especially down the middle. The Anaheim Ducks added Ryan Kesler as a second line center behind Ryan Getzlaf, the Dallas Stars traded for Jason Spezza to accompany Tyler Seguin, and Chicago signed Brad Richards to be the team's 2C. All three are upgrades to existing playoff teams.

Additionally, non-playoff teams made strides too. The Calgary Flames finally did something about their goaltending by adding Jonas Hiller. Vancouver signed Ryan Miller to replace Roberto Luongo. Nashville traded for James Neal and signed the aforementioned Ribeiro to improve their offense. Edmonton may finally have goaltending stability in Viktor Fasth and Ben Scrivens.

Arizona largely stood pat in a conference where the center depth has improved dramatically, and the poorer performing clubs took steps to address their weaknesses. While the Coyotes can get some credit for not overreacting to their problems and making a huge push for an expensive free agent, it is going to take quite a bit of luck and some successful core gameplay to make the playoffs.

Fortunately, those are two things that Arizona has seemed to excel at for the past two years. Mike Smith has shown that he is at worst, league average, and at best, top quality as a goaltender. Ekman-Larsson and Yandle are exceptionally gifted defensemen, and the team's role players all seem to find ways to chip in here and there. While some have the Coyotes running headlong into the Connor McDavid Derby, this team will likely continue to defy expectations yet again.

Season Predictions

  • Team Leader - Goals: Mikkel Boedker
  • Team Leader - Assists: Keith Yandle
  • Team Leader - Points: Keith Yandle
  • Finish - 4th Pacific - 9th in the Western Conference