2011-2012 season preview: Phoenix Coyotes

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2010-2011 record: 43-26-13, 99 points; 3rd in Pacific, 6th in West

Playoffs: Lost to Detroit 4-0 in Western quarterfinals

The Coyotes have surprised the critics in each of the last two seasons. Two years ago, many people picked the Coyotes to finish last in the league — only for the team to win 50 games and earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Many thought it was a fluke and doubted Phoenix once again last season, and again the Coyotes surprised the doubters, producing a 99-point season, and another trip to the playoffs. But if the Coyotes are to make the playoffs this time around, it could be their most surprising feat yet.

Offense

There isn’t much offensive firepower amongs the forwards. Someone looking at the team in a negative light would point out that Phoenix only had a single player that scored 20 goals last season. Then again, an optimist would point out that the team had 10 players who scored double-digit goals for the team a season ago. To understand this simple stat is to understand the way the Coyotes are built: they don’t have any superstars who are going to carry the offensive load. Just like all players are expected to buy into Dave Tippett’s team defense philosophy, all forwards are expected to chip in on the offensive end as well. This season, Daymond Langkow, Boyd Gordon and Raffi Torres will be expected to pick up where departed forwards Lee Stempniak, Vernon Fiddler and Eric Belanger left off.

Defense

The team has made a living over the past couple of years by keeping the puck out of their own net. Last season, Keith Yandle emerged as an elite defenseman and signed a five-year contract extension in the offseason to prove it. He’ll be expected to play about 25 minutes per game as he helps the Coyotes on the offensive side of the puck as much as the defensive side. Adrian Aucoin, Rusty Klesla, and Derek Morris all provide depth, but it’s the youth that should make Phoenix fans excited. After splitting time between Phoenix and San Antonio last season, former No. 6 overall pick Oliver Ekman-Larsson will start the season with the big club. He has all the tools and the team fully expects the young Swede to develop into a top-pairing defenseman in the near future.

Goalies

Goaltending is the 800-pound elephant in the room for the Coyotes. Over the last two successful seasons, Ilya Bryzgalov has been one of the best netminders in the game. The Coyotes sent Bryzgalov to the Flyers when they couldn’t reach an agreement with the pending unrestricted free agent and turned their attention to the open market for a replacement. The good thing is that they were able to acquire their No. 1 option on July 1 when they nabbed former Lightning goaltender Mike Smith. The bad thing is that very few people outside of Phoenix think Smith will be able to replicate Bryzgalov’s success in the desert.

For Smith’s part, he had success when he played under Dave Tippett in the Dallas organization. The team likes his style: he’s a big goaltender who can play the puck extremely well. He’ll need to have a career season — otherwise the Coyotes will suffer a substantial drop off in goaltending.

Coaching

If it weren’t for Shane Doan, then Tippett would be the face of the franchise. The defensive philosophy that he brought with him from the Stars two seasons ago is exactly what the organization needed to survive. Despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league, Tippett consistently finds a way to get the most out of his roster on a nightly basis.

Breakout candidate

The organization thinks that Mikkel Boedker is poised to break out this season. Last season, he split time between the Coyotes and the minors, but with a new contract and a more mature game, he could be set up to take the next step in the NHL. Boedker plays with incredible speed and with Stempniak moving on to the Calgary Flames, there’s a spot on the right wing for the young Dane. He may never develop into the 30-goal scorer that people envisioned when he was drafted, but don’t be surprised if he scores double-digit goals, plays a strong two-way game, and creates energy for his team with his speed.

Best-case scenario

If the recent past has told us anything, it’s that the best-case scenario for the Coyotes is a solid playoff spot. If Smith can come in and thrive like the team expects him to, he could minimize the pain from losing Bryzgalov. If Langkow can come in and stay healthy for a full 82-game season, Torres can find chemistry with a center like Gordon, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson can start filling his immense potential, the Coyotes could make it back to the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

Reality

The reality is the Coyotes have a gigantic hole in net they have to fill. In fact, the void in the Phoenix net may be the most devastating loss for any team this summer. The Coyotes are asking Smith to walk into a new team and have a career season just to maintain their success from last season. They had a Norris Trophy candidate put up 59 points from the blue line and will need the same kind of production again this season. The forwards will have to continue to play an even stronger two-way game while scoring a little more to compensate for the new netminder. There are just too many questions the Coyotes to answer to put them into a playoff spot. This could be the season where it all catches up with them — last place in the Pacific and one of the bottom feeders in the Western Conference.

Panthers coach Tom Rowe wishes he didn’t play Aaron Ekblad this week

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A miserable season for the Florida Panthers got a little bit worse earlier this month when defenseman Aaron Ekblad was sidelined with another concussion on what coach and general manager Tom Rowe called “a real cheap shot from behind.”

After missing a few games, he was cleared to play by the team’s medical staff and returned to the lineup on Tuesday, 10 days after the injury, and played 18 minutes in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Based on what happened in the aftermath of that game, it seems pretty obvious he may not have been completely ready to return to the ice.

Ekblad will not play in Saturday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks and will not accompany the team on its upcoming road trip after he complained of a sore neck following Tuesday’s game. He was also dealing with headaches on Friday that were attributed to a neck injury and not the concussion.

On Saturday, Rowe was asked if he regretted playing Ekblad earlier this week and he was quite honest in his assessment.

“I’m not going to lie, I wish we didn’t,” Said Rowe, via George Richards of the Miami Herald. “That’s on me. The doctors cleared him, our medical staff cleared him but I had some reservations and I wish I stayed with my gut. That’s no one’s fault but my own.

Ekblad wanted to play in Tuesday’s game but Rowe insisted he should have used his experience to hold his top defenseman out of the lineup.

“I’ve have a lot more experience in this business than he does,” said Rowe, again via the Herald. “I have had a ton of experience with those types of injuries. I usually give those guys two or three days of practice and I wish I had done that. It’s no one’s fault but my own.”

Ekblad has had some significant head and neck injuries over the past couple of years. This is the second time in the past two seasons he has missed time due to a concussion, and he was also sent home from the World Cup of Hockey earlier this year with what was said to be “whiplash.”

The 21-year-old Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, has 10 goals and 11 assists in 68 games for the Panthers this season. With only four games remaining following the team’s upcoming four-game road trip it is not out of the question to think that Ekblad’s season could be over.

The Panthers are only 4-10-1 in their past 15 games and have pretty  much fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Ryan O’Reilly comments on Sidney Crosby spearing incident: ‘It happens’

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Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has made some headlines this week for a couple of stick infractions that were overlooked by the on-ice officials during his games.

They were not overlooked by everybody else.

On Thursday, he caught Marc Methot with a slash to the hand that ended up busting the defenseman’s finger on a play that made Senators owner Eugene Melnyk go berserk on Ottawa radio the next day. On its own it would have been an incident that received a ton of attention, if for no other reason than the gruesome image of Methot’s finger dangling around. But what added to it was the fact that two days before that incident there was the spearing incident involving Buffalo Sabres forward Ryan O'Reilly that you see in the video above.

On Saturday, O’Reilly was asked for his thoughts on the play after everything that has happened with Crosby over the past couple of games.  He does not seem to have any hard feelings regarding the play, via TSN’s Mark Masters:

“It was a weird thing,” said O’Reilly. “You know, it happens. I didn’t expect it and he apologized after the play and it was understood. It just threw me off. I wasn’t expecting anything and then something happens, but he’s a good guy and he is just playing hard and he takes a beating every night too so it happens.”

He was then asked if he knew who initially hit him, and O’Reilly said he did not until Crosby apologized later in the game.

“No, I didn’t,” said O’Reilly. I was watching the puck and the next thing I know I had a stick right to the crotch and it threw me off for sure. I got up slowly and turned around to see who it was, and then off the won faceoff he comes up as we’re skating down the ice and says, ‘yeah, sorry about that, I was kind of going for your stick.’ I go, ‘meh, it happens, I guess. Would’ve been nice to have a penalty, but it happens.”

Crosby was not penalized for either play and received no supplemental discipline from the league. The latter part is not a surprise, and it is not because of some sort of preferential treatment from the league. Since the NHL’s department of player safety has been put into place it has never suspended a player for spearing (it has fined seven players) and suspended only two players for slashing (it has fined six).

Bruins will not have Tuukka Rask for massive game against Islanders tonight

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Massive game in Brooklyn on Saturday night when the New York Islanders will be hosting the Boston Bruins in a key game in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

The day is already off to a bad start for the Bruins, losers of four in a row, when coach Bruce Cassidy announced that starting goaltender Tuukka Rask did not make the trip with the team and will not be available for the game. Anthon Khudobin will get the start in his place, while Zane McIntyre has been recalled from the American Hockey League on an emergency basis.

Cassidy said that Rask is dealing with a lower body injury and is considered day-to-day.

Rask did not practice with the team on Friday.

It is a massive game as both teams enter the night tied in the standings with 82 points. But because the Islanders have played one fewer game, they currently occupy the second wild card spot. They are both just one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in what is now pretty much a three-team race for that spot. It is the last meeting of the season between the two teams (Boston does play Tampa Bay once more).

Overall it has been another frustrating season for Rask, whose .910 save percentage is currently the worst of his career. He has really struggled during the Bruins’ current four-game losing streak, giving up 15 goals during that stretch.

Khudobin, meanwhile, has been on a bit of a roll for the Bruins in his recent starts following a terrible start to the season. He has won each of his past four starts, allowing just eight goals.

The Islanders are coming off of a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh on Friday night against the Penguins with Jaroslav Halak making his return to the team and picking up the win.

Brock Boeser will make NHL debut for Canucks today after signing entry level deal

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After a deal appeared imminent on Friday night the Vancouver Canucks made it official on Saturday morning and announced the signing of 2015 first-round draft pick Brock Boeser to an entry level contract.

Not only is he under contract with the Canucks, but he will also make his NHL debut on Saturday afternoon against his hometown team when the Canucks visit the Minnesota Wild.

The Canucks selected Boeser with the No. 23 overall pick in 2015.

He played his collegiate hockey at North Dakota where he put up some massive numbers, recording 94 points in 74 games over two seasons. That includes 16 goals and 18 assists in 32 games this season.

His addition to the Canucks lineup over the remaining nine games of the 2016-17 season will burn one of those years of his entry level contract, but it will give Canucks fans a glimpse of their future and maybe a reason for optimism in what has become a lost season. The Canucks enter the game having lost seven of their past eight.