We’re now something like 28 days out from the start of the NHL season so I figure this is as good a time as any to start doing the season previews. This is mainly for two reasons: 1) I am lazy and there’s no way I’ll do one of these every day, and 2) This is early enough that if I just stop doing them entirely you’ll have forgotten by October anyway. Oh and I guess also to show off my near-infinite knowledge of the National Hockey League. I’ll be previewing the teams in reverse order of finish in the 2007-08 season. Please note, though, that this is the opinion of one man, however smart and handsome he may be.
Phoenix Coyotes, you’re on the clock.
We saw a little bit of this team’s capabilities last year. Very little. But there’s reason for optimism in the desert.
Yeah, the Coyotes were pretty bad last year. Granted they finished above .500 (by a game) and ended with 83 points in a very strong Pacific Conference that sent three teams to the playoffs and saw two teams get out of the first round (the one that didn’t, Anaheim, lost to Dallas). However, I liked the Coyotes’ style of play last year and could stomach their announcers, so I watched a fair number of their games, and I can tell you what their problem was.
More after the jump.
It’s a word I hate to use in sports, but in this case it’s fairly apt, I think. Consistency. You could watch three or four Dogs games in a row and be mightily impressed with the team. You’d think, “These guys are going to go on a serious run here.” Then the next game they’d lose 5-0 and look nothing like they did in the previous games. After that, it would take them another few nights to get back to an acceptable level of play. It must have been frustrating to be a Coyotes fan.
Their wins often came in bunches by the time November rolled around. They didn’t win back-to-back games at all in October. There were several streaks of four or more wins in a row, and only a three such losing streaks. You could see the pieces were there, and everything was turned around by my favorite goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov.
Bryzgalov was picked up on waivers on Nov. 17, and the Coyotes immediately won four games in a row, 3-0, 1-0, 4-3 in a shootout, and 5-1. It was the first time since opening night the team was above .500. But because they’re the Coyotes, they then lost four in a row. And so it went.
But the good news is that the team is going to take a giant step forward next year. Part of the reason for some of the struggles last year was that the team was composed largely of rookies, many of whom were asked to play big roles. Peter Mueller was pretty impressive at times, especially for a 19-year-old on that team. He and the underappreciated Shane Doan played very well together on the top line with Radim Vrbata, who also only occasionally looked out of his depth. Mueller’s 54 points is a solid total from an offensively challenged team (Phoenix only scored 214), but that will probably stay about the same next year when he’s dropped to second-line center in favor of newly-acquired Olli Jokinen.
Martin Hanzal, also just 20, will step his contribution to the offense up a bit. Hopefully. There were many nights when the kid just didn’t show up, which must have had Gretzky kicking chairs in the locker room. When Hanzal did show up, he was deadly. His hands are incredible, and are rarely seen in players of his size. But if he doesn’t get his act together and, y’know, play a full 82, he’s going to get bitched about a lot more this season. The 35 points he scored last year simply won’t be acceptable.
Then there’s also the matter of a feisty young man by the name of Dan Carcillo, a revelation for the Coyotes last year. He scores, he throws absolute bombs in fights, and he’s the closest thing the NHL has to a maniac (I mean that in the nicest way possible). He missed 15 or so games with a knee injury at the beginning of last year, which explains why he only played 52 NHL games, but now he’s fully healthy and will punch you in the face if you ask him to, which is something Phoenix needs.
Also, I think the Rangers are going to regret trading away Alex Bourret.
Then there’s the new kid in town, Kyle Turris, 2007’s third overall pick. He played just three games up with the Coyotes last year after leaving the University of Wisconsin, but he looked mighty impressive despite only collecting one assist. This kid is going to be something special for Phoenix.
What could be a little troubling is the loss of solid defenseman Keith Ballard and okayish defenseman Nick Boynton (both in that Jokinen deal) from a blue line that allowed 231 goals last year, just three above league average, which is an acceptable number for a team where Phoenix is now. The Good Michalek Brother, Zbynek, will probably be asked to fill Boynton’s role (a task for which he’s more than capable) and freshly-signed Kurt Sauer will probably eat most of Ballard’s minutes, especially on the penalty kill.
But that’s not to say they’re not okay at the back, because they are. Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris do a pretty respectable job as the top pairing, and the supporting cast of the aforementioned Zbynek and Sauer as well as young guys Keith Yandle will also be able to contribute. David Hale is also in the mix, but still won’t score an NHL goal because he is quite bad. Mikael Tellqvist, by the way, is a capable backup to Bryzgalov and nothing more, but the Dogs are set in goal with Bryz eating Evgeni Nabokov-type minutes.
The other thing to mention about the Coyotes is that they’re currently under the cap floor, and will have to sign someone (MATS SUNDIN!?) or call up some more kids, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Phoenix will take a small step forward, but if everyone plays to their potential (not a guarantee), they could exceed expectations.
The Hero: Ilya Bryzgalov. Shane Doan makes the offense go, but it’s mediocre at best right this second. Without Bryz, this team would be atrocious this season and last. Why you heff to be mad?
The Darkhorse: Enver Lisin. (”Who?”) Here’s a brief history: Phoenix drafts this kid in the second round in 2004. He comes over to the US in 2006 and plays 17 games before being sent to the minors to work on some things. Instead, he goes back to Russia. He was back in North America last season and scored four goals in 13 games AND happily toiled in the AHL the rest of the year. The kid’s a do-it-all player and I think that if he plays the full season on the big club and gets someone to feed him the puck, he’ll be a 20-goal guy no problem.
The New Guy: Tough not to go with Turris here, but instead, there’s Olli Jokinen. He’s a proven NHL commodity and will add a strong presence to the top line alongside Doan. He’ll bump that offense up by a third of a goal per game no problem.
The Big Question: Can they actually keep it together for longer than four games at a time this season?
- Acquired C Olli Jokinen from the Florida Panthers
- Acquired RW Alex Bourret from the New York Rangers
- Acquired RW Brian McGrattan from the Ottawa Senators
- D Kurt Sauer
- LW Todd Fedoruk
- D Drew Fata
- D David Hale
- RW Francis Lessard
- LW Jeff Hoggan
- D Ryan Lannon
- C Garth Murray
- D Keith Ballard, D Nick Boynton and a 2008 second-round pick (Jokinen deal)
- 2008 third-round pick (Bourret deal)
- 2009 fifth-round pick (McGrattan deal)
- LW Pete Vandermeer (to Calgary)
- LW Mike York (to Columbus)
- RW Craig Weller (to Minnesota)
- LW Jon DiSalvatore (to New Jersey)
- D Brendan Bell (to Ottawa)
- RW Bill Thomas (to Pittsburgh)
- RW Radim Vrbata (to Tampa Bay)
Apropos-of-nothing TLP predicted finish: Fourth in the division, 12th in the West, 22nd in the league.