All agree, it’s time to turn the page. Simply forget about the past and get excited for the future.
For the Arizona Coyotes, there is likely no other way to look at their fortunes. Here’s a team that finished second to last in the NHL a year ago in the standings and possessed one of the most anemic offenses in the league. Now, the curtain rises on another season and a new beginning. Players, coaches and staff say they can’t wait to hit the ice, wipe the past from their collective memories and get on with the business at hand.
“No one ever wants to go through another like that again,” said winger Mikkel Boedker after practice Wednesday in the Gila River Arena. “That’s not something we mention around here. For us, we need to start in the right direction so we don’t have to go through we did last season.”
Essentially, that means two things. First, the Coyotes will likely go as far as goalie Mike Smith carries this franchise. Compiling a 14-42-5 mark a year and a dreadful career-high 3.16 goals against average, Smith redeemed himself by leading Team Canada to becoming the World Champions this past May. For Arizona to be successful, he must continue the stellar play and have the Coyotes ride his coattails.
Also, this team needs to score. Finishing next to last last in goals scored a season ago, firepower is required. Where this will be generated here at the start of the season remains one of the biggest issues. To participants, the dilemma covers two critical areas.
“First, we have to get our initial shot on goal,” said assistant coach Newell Brown, who directs the offense and power-play strategy. “This is a shoot first league and then pass. When we get the opportunity, we then have to execute and learn how to manufacture scoring chances.”
For a team struggling offensively, that puts an added burden on head coach Dave Tippett. That’s in that area of constructing lines and trying to gain the maximum scoring opportunities.
Speaking with reporters after practice Wednesday, Tippett indicated Antoine Vermette would center Tobias Rieder on the left side and captain Shane Doan on the right side to open power-play chances. Tippett also likes the combination of Martin Hanzal in the middle and Boedker on the left wing. The right wing for this line is yet to be determined. That’s all Tippett would concede about any line constructions.
In practice, Tippett experimented with four line combinations and these included Vermette between Boedker and Max Domi on the right wing, Hanzal between Rieder and Anthony Duclair on the right side, Brad Richardson in the middle between Kyle Chipchura on the left and Doan on the right, and Boyd Gordon in the middle between Jordan Martinook on the left wing and veteran Steve Downie on the right wing.
With the Coyotes’ curtain call set for Friday night against the Los Angeles Kings in the Staples Center, Tippett said the season ahead is about growing as a team and getting better.
“Everyone, the players, coaches, is excited to get going,” he said. “This is what we waited for and it’s time to drop the puck. Players need to play meaningful games because training game is tough on them. Players go through mental anguish and they can’t wait for the season to start.”
The Coyotes open the season with back-to-back games and Tippett said this is the first time, as a player or coach, he will experience this kind of schedule.
The significant question is the presence of goalie Smith in these contests. The Coyotes open the season Friday against the Kings in L.A. and immediately return home to face Sidney Crosby and the Penguins at home the following night.
After practice Wednesday, Tippett said he was uncertain whether Smith would start in these back-to-back games but then made himself clear on the issue.
“You want your goalie to start the home opener, right?” he smiled. “You also want your goalie to open the season.”
Here, Tippett left little uncertainty that Smith will start both games. If he does that, Smith would have three days off until the Coyotes next game and that is scheduled for Wed. Oct. 14 against the Ducks in the Honda center.
With the start of the new season, the NHL will implement two significant changes.
Previously, four skaters plus the goalie was the personnel arrangement for the five-minute overtime session. Starting with the new year, each team will put out three skaters and the goalie. The aim is to eliminate the shootout and put more meaning into overtime play.
“Personally, I do not like the shootout,” said Smith after practice Wednesday. “When that began, it was fine and the fans got into this. Now, it’s not my favorite. I expect to be more involved with puck movement now and to help my teammates generate some offense.”
The second significant change is the coach’s challenge. Though a coach can only challenge an offside call and goalie interference, Tippett thinks the use of the challenge and placement of television monitors at the bench level will be significant.
“The spot to challenge would be in the final minute, probably at the end the game,” he said. “We will have several people watching plays from all angles closely. We will be able to challenge a call in a short period of time.”
As of Wednesday, the Coyotes said tickets remain for the home opener with the Penguins. Though a sell-out is anticipated, seats between the blue lines and in the lower are available. Capacity for Gila River Arena is 17,125. The Coyotes have three additional home games in October and face the Wild on Oct. 15, the Bruins on Oct. 17 and the Canucks on Oct. 30.
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.