2010-11 NHL season preview: Phoenix Coyotes

tippettwithtrophy.jpgLast 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.

Thumbnail image for bryzgalovandtheyotes.jpgUnder 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.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for paulbiznastyfalling.jpgStreet 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.

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    Ducks give Bruins first loss under Cassidy, putting … Islanders in wild card

    ANAHEIM, CA - FEBRUARY 22:  Korbinian Holzer #5 of the Anaheim Ducks pushes David Backes #42 of the Boston Bruins during the second period of a game at Honda Center on February 22, 2017 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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    Wednesday was a night of futility in the Eastern Conference wild card races, so it make sense that a team that didn’t even play ended up grabbing the second spot.

    To recap:

    • The Florida Panthers began the night in the second wild card spot. However, they were knocked down the totem pole when they lost in regulation to the Edmonton Oilers.
    • The Boston Bruins inherited the second wild card spot from Florida, but the Anaheim Ducks just gave them their first loss under Bruce Cassidy. With that defeat coming in regulation, it meant that the Bruins’ stay in the East’s top eight lasted mere hours.
    • So, congrats to the New York Islanders, who enjoyed the rare tiebreaker treat of climbing into playoff position even though they didn’t even play on Wednesday.

    (The Philadelphia Flyers were out of reach here, but they didn’t do themselves any favors in losing to the Washington Capitals.)

    Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were kept off the board as Jonathan Bernier won one for the Ducks, who stay right behind the Edmonton Oilers in a battle for second in the Pacific.

    Despite Pastrnak’s -3 rating in this one, Marchand probably had the toughest night thanks to Bernier and Josh Manson:

    This one hurts, but it’s also a reminder that there will probably be plenty of twists and turns in the races for the lower spots in the East and Atlantic Division. With that in mind, the Bruins have to shake it off and get ready to face the Kings in Los Angeles on Thursday.

    Kuznetsov, bad breaks baffle Flyers in loss to Capitals

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    Here’s what went right for the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday: the Florida Panthers lost. Yep, that’s about it.

    Otherwise, it was a pretty lousy time, as the Washington Capitals beat them at home 4-1 tonight.

    Washington’s big names came to play here, highlighted by Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring two goals. T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom enjoyed one-goal, one-assist nights while Justin Williams and Alex Ovechkin both grabbed two assists.

    The Capitals won their first game after a bye week (following two losses), improving their Metropolitan Division lead to five points and Presidents’ Trophy edge over Minnesota to three.

    The Flyers fail to make up some ground in the Eastern Conference wild card race, staying at 63 standings points in 60 games played. The Panthers are tied with the Islanders and Bruins at 66 points, though Boston can change the picture ever so slightly against Anaheim (still in action) tonight.

    The bottom line, again, is that the Flyers failed in a chance to get a little closer to that logjam for the last East spot.

    Of course, plenty of Flyers fans will grumble about missed opportunities and iffy calls. Mike Milbury broke down the early setbacks that made life that much tougher for Philly:

    Philly couldn’t overcome the Capitals and that bad luck, making their playoff hopes a little dimmer as the trade deadline approaches.

    Oilers win on rare Russell goal, Panthers fall out of second wild card spot

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    The Edmonton Oilers’ 4-3 win against the Florida Panthers might end up being costly if Andrej Sekera misses significant time.

    But, hey, at least it was a win.

    The two rising squads engaged in a back-and-forth game, with the Oilers winning in regulation. Maybe fittingly with Edmonton leaking defensemen lately: Kris Russell was the guy to score the game-winner, set up by Connor McDavid‘s blazing speed and a nice pass by Leon Draisaitl.

    It was Russell’s first goal in more than a year.

    The Oilers will remain in the second spot in the Pacific at the end of the night whether the Anaheim Ducks beat the Boston Bruins or not. Interestingly, this puts them in a reasonable position to catch the Sharks for first place in the division, too.

    1. Sharks – 77 points in 60 games
    2. Oilers – 74 points in 61 games
    3. Ducks – 72 points in 61 games (in progress vs. Boston)

    The Oilers likely had some fans out East tonight, as this loss pushes Florida down the wild card rankings. They’re actually out of the second spot thanks to tiebreakers.

    Second wild card spot: Bruins – 66 points in 59 games, 30 wins and 28 ROW (in progress)

    Islanders – 66 points in 59 games, 28 wins and 27 ROW
    Panthers – 66 points in 59 games, 28 wins and 25 ROW

    The Isles would move into the second spot if Boston loses in regulation, underscoring just how congested this situation is. But either way, the Panthers won’t be in the East’s top eight at the end of the night.

    With Gibson out, Ducks recall interesting goalie: Enroth

    TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 11: Jhonas Enroth #35 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Air Canada Centre on November 11, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Flyers 6-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    One player’s injury is another player’s opportunity.

    Considering how much the Anaheim Ducks lean on John Gibson, it’s troubling that he’s day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

    Even so, it’s interesting to note that such a situation prompted the team to recall Jhonas Enroth, who will back up Jonathan Bernier during Wednesday’s game against the Boston Bruins.

    With the way Bernier’s been playing at times, it’s not impossible that Enroth could play as soon as tonight. But if he doesn’t you have to wonder if the Ducks might feel compelled to throw a start his way in the next week.

    The trade deadline is coming, and while the goalie market is really cold, some of that slow movement likely comes from how cap-unfriendly netminders like Ben Bishop might be.

    But what about Enroth? His cap hit is $750K this season, and while he thoroughly unimpressed Mike Babcock with rapid speed in Toronto, he was fantastic as a backup in Los Angeles last season and has been outstanding lately for the AHL’s San Diego Gulls.

    All things considered, it’s almost a little surprising the Ducks aren’t throwing him right into the deep end tonight. If you’re a team with poor backup goaltending like the Edmonton Oilers or any number of other teams,* why wouldn’t you give the Ducks a call?

    Maybe they need to see him in action in the NHL before doing so, making this an intriguing scenario to follow.

    And, hey, maybe the Ducks themselves might decide that he’s a better option behind Gibson than Bernier. Stranger things have happened.

    * – The Leafs might qualify, honestly … but again, Babs doesn’t seem to be an Enroth fan.