It seems like whenever we’re talking about the Phoenix Coyotes it’s always about what’s happening with their ownership situation. All the off-ice stuff gets the headlines for the lovable team in the desert that rolls onward without executive leadership while their efforts on the ice play second banana to all that. That might not be fair, but that’s life.
Going into this season, however, coach Dave Tippett is going to have his hands full in trying to keep the “Little Engine That Could” Coyotes rolling along and keeping them a playoff team. While the team is returning five of their six top scorers from last season, there’s a lot of doubt swirling about the team whether they can score enough while supporting starting goaltending that seems to be, at best, highly suspect.
Take a look at how their forwards stack up. Shane Doan (60 points), Ray Whitney (57 points), Radim Vrbata (48 points), and Lauri Korpikoski (40 points) make up part of that group of players that led the way in scoring for them last year. Doan is 35 years-old and has some hard miles on his body. Whitney turns 39 this season and has seen his production fall off in three of his last four seasons. Vrbata is 30 years-old and is one of their slicker forwards while Korpikoski put up good numbers while buried on the team’s third or fourth line on occasion.
The Coyotes offseason additions don’t bring a lot of hope to their situation up front. Raffi Torres will make them tougher to deal with and Tippett will like having his physical presence out there, but he’s not scoring goals for them. Taking a flyer on Patrick O’Sullivan in hopes he can find his old scoring touch is nice, but where the Coyotes could get their biggest push from is letting their youth run wild.
Players like Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Andy Miele, and Victor Tikhonov haven’t had the leash taken off of them to see what they can do offensively and the Coyotes are going to need a spark from them. The one young forward that has gotten a push is Martin Hanzal thanks to his ability to win faceoffs and play tougher defensively. Tippett demands solid play both ways, even bordering on being highly dull, but getting the lift and injection of life from those youngsters is what the team could use to be a playoff team once again in the West.
Even on defense there’s youth to be found. 2009 first round pick Oliver Ekman-Larsson spent most of last season in Phoenix but as a healthy scratch. His slick puck handling and offensive abilities from the blue line could help take the pressure off of Keith Yandle (59 points) who saw his great offensive work fall off the map in the second half of the year. Asking guys like Derek Morris or even David Schlemko to help support Yandle in that role on the power play is asking more out of those guys than necessary.
Ekman-Larsson will have a bright future in the NHL, and after getting to watch a lot of it up close and personal, perhaps he’ll have the “caged animal” effect in that he’ll go through walls to win a starting job.
One thing is for sure though in Phoenix, the team has a dearth of playmaking centers and it’s something that’s going to hamper their ability to score goals. Unless Turris has a breakout season and is allowed to do his thing creatively, there’s no one else there that is a bonafide set-up man. Hanzal? No. Alexandre Bolduc? Not a chance. Kyle Chipchura? Not even close. The Coyotes will be able to grind other centers’ faces off, but they won’t be able to outscore them.
With how Dave Tippett coaches his teams, perhaps that’s just what his plan is going to be by grinding other teams into submission and give his goalies Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera as much help as possible. It’s like the only way to ensure that Phoenix can win more games than how the roster seems like it should on paper, but it’s not the exciting brand of hockey that’s going to help keep the fans excited either. Obviously Tippett is a perennial Jack Adams Award finalist for a reason, but there’s a lot that stands out on the Coyotes roster that gives us plenty to worry about.