For a team which missed the Stanley Cup playoffs the last two seasons, the Arizona Coyotes do not appear as a desperate team.
Sure, coach Dave Tippett likes to tell listeners there is a sense of urgency and his team clearly recognizes its current state. While the Coyotes are set to commence their season Thursday night at home against Winnipeg, players are saying all the right things and coaches seem to ally the fears of any questioner.
As Tippett and Don Maloney, the team’s general manager, construct the roster, the task ahead seems somewhat formidable.
With two days until the first game, Tippett has yet to finalize lines as well as pairings on defense.
In training camp, he experimented with newly-acquired forward Sam Ganger, both at his natural center position and on the right wing. As well, Tippett used defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson occasionally on the right side and on the right point during power player opportunities. All of which tends to put a greater anxiety on getting things “right” at the beginning of the season.
“You tend to match players on the how the game flows,” Tippett said after a recent practice. “It’s about getting a structure in place and see how the players work out.”
The Coyotes enter regular season with a plethora of veteran players.
Former first-rounds picks, forwards Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson and defenseman Brandon Gormley did not survive the final, training camp roster. As a result, Tippett will rely on Kyle Chipchura, Martin Erat, Rob Klimhammer, Brandon McMillian, Joe Vitalte and rookie Justin Hodgeman, third and fourth line players, to produce and produce quickly.
As the season begins, it’s pretty much granted the scoring will start with center Antoine Vermette, who led the Coyotes in goals last season with 24, captain Shane Doan, who scored 23 and now says 30 is on his radar for the season, and Ganger, who is coming off a 10 goal season (in 67 games) with Edmonton last season.
If any player holds the fate of the Coyotes in the palm of his hand, it is goalie Mike Smith.
Coming off an injury-plagued March and rendered useless while his teammates made a desperate leap toward the Stanley Cup playoffs, Smith said he is ready to shake the cobwebs of the past. In the process, the 32-year-old naive of Kingston, Ont. indicates he’s set to regain the quality of play which assisted his team into the Western Conference finals three years ago.
“It’s all about being consistent,” he said during training camp. “The consistency needs to be better. That’s how we will have to play. Everyone wants to get back to playing the way we are capable.”
For the Coyotes to reach their collective goal of playing hockey late in April and into May, two major elements must be addressed.
First, the defensive play of Keith Yandle must improve.
Last season, Yandle’s plus-minus was minus 23, one of four Coyotes’ players that reached minus numbers. The others were defenseman Michael Stone (-10) and forwards Mike Ribeiro (-13), now with Nashville and Mikkel Boedker (-10). Yandle is the first to recognize his deficiency and pledges to improve.
“I have to better in our zone,” Yandle said during training camp. “I hope I’m pushed because we have guys here that will push others. I think the biggest priority we have is to get the puck to the forwards faster.”
Plus, the Coyotes must find scoring from somewhere. At this point, Tippett smiles and says “we score by committee.” In the Western Conference dominated by strong clubs which became stronger in the off-season, Tippett needs to find a 30 to 35 goal scorer who can come to the rescue. Many believed that sniper was Radim Vrbata but the native of the Cezch Republic was terribly inconsistent and since signed with Vancouver as a free agent.
If the Coyotes are not ready for the Jets on opening night Thursday night, then a decided wake-up call will come two nights later. That’s when the defending Stanley Cup champions Los Angeles Kings skate into the Gila River Arena. After facing the Kings’ challenge, Tippett and his players should be able to define the start to their season and plot their collective future..
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.