Detroit Red Wings v Phoenix Coyotes - Game Four

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.

Poll: Will the Flames be a playoff team in 2016-17?

CALGARY, AB - JANUARY 7: Johnny Gaudreau #13 (L) of the Calgary Flames confers with his teammate Sean Monahan #23 during a break in play against the Detroit Red Wings during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on January 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

When the Calgary Flames reached the second round of the 2015 playoffs there were a lot of concerns about whether or not they could repeat that level of play the following season. Even after adding Dougie Hamilton to their blue line in a trade with the Boston Bruins they were still a popular pick to see a big regression in 2015-16.

They not only regressed and missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, they finished as one of the worst teams in the NHL standings and fired Bob Hartley, the NHL’s coach of the year from the previous season.

Along with hiring a new coach this summer — former Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan — they also added Troy Brouwer in free agency from the St. Louis Blues and overhauled their goaltending by trading for Brian Elliott and signing Chad Johnson in free agency. If the Flames are going to rebound in 2016-17 the latter additions are going to have to be the biggest reason why.

Even though the Flames have Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Hamilton leading their defense, a top-three that can be as good as any other top trio in the NHL. As a team, they only allowed teams to get an average of 29 shots on goal per game, a number that was good enough for the top-10 in the NHL. But because they received the absolute worst goaltending in the NHL and were the only team that couldn’t collectively top a .900 save percentage, it sent the team to the bottom of the goals against leaderboard.

If their goaltenders could manage even a .910 save percentage, which would still be below the league average, on the same number of shots it could shave as many as 40 goals off of that total over the course of an 82-game season. That alone could help close that gap in the playoff race.

Along with what should be an improved goaltending situation and their excellent trio on defense, the Flames also still have that exciting group of young forwards led by Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, and could potentially be adding No. 6 overall pick Matthew Tkachuk to it as well.

Expecting them to catch Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose at the top of the Pacific Division definitely seems like a long shot, but the bottom half of the Western Conference has taken a big step backwards over the past couple of years. A team made the playoffs last season with 87 points, and while that number should increase this season, once you get beyond the top five or six teams in the West the field is pretty wide open, and if the Flames can get that improved goaltending from Elliott and Johnson they should be able to be right in the thick of that race.

So, can they do it?

Under pressure: Brian Elliott and the Flames’ goalies

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12: Brian Elliott #1 of the St. Louis Blues tends net against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2015 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Blues 6-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

The Calgary Flames had their share of flaws during the 2015-16 season. None were more damaging than a goaltending situation that produced the worst team save percentage in the entire league.

That, perhaps more than anything else, contributed to the team giving up the most goals in the NHL and going from a team that was in the second round of the playoffs the year before, to a team that finished with the fifth worst record in the league.

To help address that glaring weakness the Flames completely overhauled their goaltending over the summer by acquiring Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues and signing Chad Johnson in free agency.

The Elliott move is obviously, the big one, but the pressure is going to be on both of them to solidify a position that was one of the worst in the NHL a year ago.

For Elliott, it is going to be a huge opportunity because he is finally going to be the No. 1 guy without having somebody else constantly looking over his shoulder. During his time in St. Louis he consistently put up great numbers, including a .925 save percentage that was among best league between 2011 and 2016. But even with that strong play the Blues never seemed willing to fully trust him to be their top guy and and were always going out of their way to take playing time away from him, whether it was with Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen, or acquiring Ryan Miller in a deadline trade.

That is not going to be an issue for him going into Calgary.

That also means a little added pressure. Because he’s almost always been a part of a goaltending platoon during his career (he played more than 38 games one time in five years in St. Louis), and because he spent the past few years playing behind a Ken Hitchcock coached defensive team, he is going to have to prove that he is not only capable of sustaining that level of play as a full-time starter, but also that his success in St. Louis wasn’t the product of a system.

If he can do both and come even close to performing the way he did in St. Louis it is going to go a long way toward helping the Flames erase the memory what was pretty much a lost 2015-16 season and get back closer to the postseason in 2016-17.

Looking to make the leap: Matthew Tkachuk

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Matthew Tkachuk celebrates with the Calgary Flames after being selected sixth overall during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

Even though the 2015-16 season was a disappointing one for the Calgary Flames, they still have a great young core of young forward talent. They added to that group at the 2016 NHL draft when they selected Matthew Tkachuk with the No. 6 overall pick, immediately making him one of the team’s top prospects.

The 18-year-old forward is coming off of a monster season for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League that saw him score 30 goals and add 77 assists in only 57 games.

When you combine his skill, size and strength he has the potential to add a power forward dimension to the Flames lineup that none of their young forwards currently possess. That could make him an intriguing candidate to make the NHL roster as early as this season, and even though he did not skate at the team’s prospect evaluation camp (something the Flames were OK with given how much hockey he played last year) he is entering camp with the mindset that he is going to make the team right away.

Because of his age he is not yet eligible to play in the American Hockey League, and as he showed last season during his time with an incredible London team he doesn’t really have much left to prove at the junior level after putting up absolutely massive numbers as a 17-year-old.

If nothing else a nine-game look in the NHL to start the season seems like a very real possibility.

It’s not like the Flames are opposed to giving recent draft picks an early look in the NHL if they show they belong. Sean Monahan made the immediate jump to the NHL after being selected in 2013, while Sam Bennett played a role in the 2014-2015 playoffs after he was selected with the No. 4 overall pick that year. There is no reason to think that Tkachuk can’t do the same. Especially when Brian Burke has already referred to his style of play as “kind of a pain in the ass” and that the Flames don’t have enough guys that are like that.

With Monahan, Bennett and Johnny Gaudreu already in place the Flames have an exciting young group of forwards that have already shown they can be top-line players in the NHL.

It is not going to be long before Tkachuk joins them.

It’s Calgary Flames day at PHT

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 29: Sean Monahan #23 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his goal with teammates against the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period at Wells Fargo Center on February 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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If you want to boil the Calgary Flames’ past two seasons down simply, you could do worse than this:

In 2014-15: Bob Hartley won the Jack Adams Award.

In 2015-16: The Flames fired Bob Hartley.

The Flames finished this past season with 77 standings points, missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.

While Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan survived the sophomore curse, the Flames couldn’t survive in their own end. No team allowed more goals than the 260 Calgary surrendered last season. It cost people some jobs, most notably that of Hartley.

Off-season

Naturally, the first big change in Calgary comes with Glen Gulutzan replacing Hartley behind the bench.

Much like the team he’s coaching, Gulutzan needs to get over some past failures (he failed to make the playoffs during his two seasons coaching the Dallas Stars) but is young enough (45) to argue that the best days are ahead.

To little surprise, the Flames decided that Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio isn’t necessarily the group of goalies to get things done. The Flames brought in two-time All-Star Brian Elliott to try to right the ship.

The Flames didn’t stop there, adding Chad Johnson as Elliott’s backup. With a .917 career save percentage, Johnson could very well keep Elliott on his toes.

Aside from big improvements behind the bench and in the net, the Flames’ most noteworthy work came in extending Sean Monahan,* picking up Troy Brouwer and landing Matthew Tkachuk in the draft.

Calgary is making a lot of strong moves, but did they make enough to climb back into the postseason in 2016-17? PHT will explore these factors on Saturday.

* – Naturally, the biggest move needs to come soon: also handing an extension to Gaudreau.