With the way this team is constructed, there is little surprise why the Arizona Coyotes are off a quick start. Just ask the principals who revamped this team and integrated the squad with an intelligent blend of youth and veterans.
From the opening two games, the change is dramatic and this starts at the blue line. Of the three pairings of defensemen, one-third were not skating in the Gila River Arena at the All-Star break this past January. By the trading deadline in early March, that number was reduced by one and coach Dave Tippett was forced go with marginal players like John Moore and Andrew Campbell on the blue line
Once the free agent and trading season opened, general manager Don Maloney made two key acquisitions. First, he signed veteran blue-liner Zbynek Michalek, who returned to the desert for his third tour of duty with the franchise. Then, he traded for defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, who could turn out to be the stabilizing force Maloney, Tippett and other-decision makers desperately sought.
After the Coyotes defeated Pittsburgh last Saturday night to complete a sweep of the Kings and Penguins in their opening two contests, Tippett lauded his team’s defensive effort. In particular, he identified goalie Mike Smith as the difference-maker in the 4-1 victory over the Kings in the Staples Center and then credited the squad with a better, overall effort the following night against the Penguins.
The bottom line is Grossmann’s presence, a strong, steadying factor on the blue line. That’s certainly something the Coyotes did not have at the start of last season. Instead, the offensive-minded Keith Yandle, considered a defensive liability, had difficulty moving the puck from his own side of center ice and was particular generous with turnovers deep in his own end.
Grossmann, at 6-4, 230 pounds, plays larger than his frame and indicates he gets more gratification from taking a player out in front of the net or along the boards than scoring. At this point in the young season, Grossmann admitted far from playing at a maximum level for this, his third NHL team.
“Right now, I’m learning a new system and this will take time,” he said Monday after practice in the Gila River Arena. “While the game is obviously the same, you have to get used to different forms of communication and how your defensive partner plays the game. I have (Connor Murphy), who is good, smart hockey player. He has great vision of the ice and likes to push the play. I’m a left-handed shot and he’s right-handed, so we complement each other. My job is to keep the crease clear for (Smith), and I get satisfaction for putting good hit on a guy or taking out a player along the boards. For me, that’s better than scoring.”
Equal to Grossmann’s response is the way Tippett uses his personnel as role players. Here, he stress the squad engage in a structured game, and pointed to Jordan Martinook, Boyd Gordon, Antoine Vermette and captain Shane Doan as prime examples. Aside from his essential defensive responsibilities and out against Sidney Crosby (no shots on goal in his first two games of the season) and Evgeni Malkin in the final minutes Saturday, Martinook has stepped forward as an important foot soldier in Tippett’s structured approach.
“I want to play the game the right way,” he said after he picked up his first NHL goal Saturday, the game-winner against the Penguins. “That means to pick up (Tippett’s) trust.”
With Grossmann skating effectively at the blue line and a rejuvenated Smith between the pipes, the Coyotes hope that combination will help fans and pundits alike forget the most recent past. That’s when the Coyotes finished with the second worst record in the NHL a year ago, and remain, coming into play Tuesday, one of 11 teams still unbeaten.
“In the first two games, we’re making plays and not chasing the puck,” Smith said. “It’s a good start, but we have a lot of hockey to play. We beat two pretty good teams and that’s a confidence booster. We want to be the hardest-working team in the league. Whoever plays us will quickly realize our team is not an easy two points.”
With greater help in front of Smith and speedy forwards to get the puck quickly into the neutral zone, this is the place for Tippett to introduce his structured game. While there is no prescribed “x’s” and “o’s” to his diagram, Tippett’s approach is all about playing smart.
“(Martinook) is smart hockey player,” Tippett said. “He hunts down loose pucks and is in the right place at the right time. That was evident by his goal against Pittsburgh.”
As if the Coyotes were not tested in their opening two, back-to-back games, they now face two playoff teams in their second, back-to-back set to open the season. After disposing of the Kings and Pittsburgh, they now engage the Ducks in Anaheim Wednesday and Minnesota at home the following night.
“In playing back-to-back against two very good teams, we know we can compete,” Smith said. “It’s a tough situation to open the season, but it is what it is.”
Following a home date with Boston Saturday, the Coyotes embark on a five game Eastern swing to play the Devils, the Rangers, the Senators, the Leafs and Bruins. By the time they return home to face Vancouver October 30, the night before Halloween, this team should have a pretty good idea of such how frightening they can be and play.
With a 1.00 goals against average in his opening two games and helping the Coyotes break out to their best start in six years, goalie Mike Smith won recognition from the NHL. For the first week of the season, he was named the Third Star and but shook off the accolade.
“It’s nice to get the recognition,” he said after practice Monday. “At the same time, I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. Everyone played well in front.”
From the All-Star break last season and carrying Team Canada to the World Championships in May, Smith regained glory and success from his stellar 2011-12 season. That’s when the 33-year-old native of Kingston, Ont. went 38-18-10, sported a 2.21 goals against average and recorded eight shutouts. In the Stanley Cup playoff season for 2012, Smith turned in a solid 1.99 goals against average and picked up three more shut-outs.
While Smith received notice for his work, Red Wings’ left wing Justin Adelkadter, with four goals in his first two games, was named the first star and Rangers’ center Oscar Lindberg was designated as the second star.
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.