Last season: (50-25-7, 107 points, 2nd in Pacific Division, 4th in Western Conference) Only the most optimistic, pie-in-the-sky Coyotes fans expected the team to be so successful last season. Amid ownership squabbles and the hasty addition of new coach Dave Tippett, the Coyotes nearly took the Pacific Division before pushing the Detroit Red Wings to a Game 7 in a captivating (if sloppy) first-round series. It will be a difficult season to top, that’s for sure.
Head coach: Tippett earned the Jack Adams Award as the top NHL coach for good reason. He took an unshaped mass of a team left behind by befuddled coach Wayne Gretzky and made a playoff team out of them. He doesn’t have the most-talented team in front of him, but if anyone can get an encore performance out of this group, it’s Tippett. I just wish he would grow his mustache back.
Key departures: F Matthew Lombardi, D Zbynek Michalek, D Mathieu Schneider, F Robert Lang, D Jim Vandermeer. Michalek is the biggest loss since he logged big defensive minutes last season, but he received a pretty staggering deal from Pittsburgh. Lombardi’s speed and skill will be missed. Schneider, Lang and Vandermeer were somewhat marginal veterans by the end of last year.
Key arrivals: F Ray Whitney, F Eric Belanger. Whitney might be an underrated pickup. The Coyotes need a pure point producer, and when he’s healthy, Whitney is just that. Belanger might be bitter toward the Capitals, but he’s a solid two-way center who should fit in well with Phoenix.
Under pressure: Ilya Bryzgalov had a near-Vezina-worthy campaign last season and the Coyotes will need that kind of season from him again to maintain their momentum. The wacky Russian goalie has the added pressure/incentive of being in a contract year.
Protecting the house: Bryzgalov was one of the best goalies in the NHL last season — and like I wrote before — he’ll need to be great again next year. My instinct is to say that Jason Larbarbera is an exceedingly mediocre goalie, but he put up great numbers last season. In 17 games, Labarbera boasted a 2.13 GAA and a .928 save percentage. It seems like both goalies are going to struggle to match last season’s work.
The Coyotes will miss Michalek dearly, as their next best defensemen are Keith Yandle, Adrian Aucoin and Ed Jovanovski. You have to wonder if they’ll regress a bit, but perhaps Tippett’s system will help to mask some of those blemishes.
Top line we’d like to see: Whitney-Wojtek Wolski-Shane Doan. The Coyotes aren’t loaded with flashy talent, but this trio would put up some nice offensive numbers. Lee Stempniak is another player who could be in consideration for such a top line.
Oh captain, my captain: After years of being the only good player on an abysmal team, Doan is now the heart-and-soul captain of a group that gets it done by committee. He didn’t score very often in the series against the Red Wings, but his physical play helped the Coyotes make life very difficult for Detroit.
Street fighting man: Their fighter is the man who goes by Paul Biznasty 2point0 on Twitter, otherwise known as Paul Bissonnette. He hates PT cruisers, speaks his mind and punches people for a living. Hard to argue with a guy like that.
Best-case scenario: Instead of struggling to match last year’s output, the Coyotes show that last season was just a transitional phase since Tippett received a full training camp to work with this summer. Bryzgalov tops last year with a Vezina-winning season, while Stempniak and Wolski prove that their trade deadline hot streaks were just a sign that they needed a change of scenery. The Coyotes win a slightly weakened Pacific Division and get to the Western Conference finals.
Worst-case scenario: Much like the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues last season, the Coyotes fail to match their Cinderella season. Bryzgalov comes back to earth, the Coyotes’ offense cannot produce by committee and their defense misses Michalek badly. The Coyotes finish last in the Pacific division and (ugh) leave town with their tails between their legs.
Keeping it real: The Coyotes are a well-coached team with a quirky but talented goalie that should stay with most teams. They made solid, subtle moves all summer long but lack much in the way of scoring punch. Nothing will come easily for the Coyotes, but I think Tippett will help them take third place in the Pacific and a low seed (probably 8th place) in the West to squeak into the playoffs.
Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Coyotes deserve a 3. Scrappy teams with good goalies and even better coaching can go a long way. They have great leadership, plenty of two-way players and a lot of mojo. Still, as that Red Wings series showed, they struggle against more talented teams and are a long shot to actually win it all.