After five straight seasons of missing the playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes believe they can finally break that drought in 2008-09.
Wayne Gretzky begins his fourth full season as Coyotes coach on Saturday night facing plenty of expectations as his club opens the new campaign with a visit from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Phoenix finished fifth in the Pacific Division in each of Gretzky's first two seasons as coach before going 38-37-7 last year for 83 points - the fourth-worst total in the Western Conference.
The Coyotes, however, believe they will see improvement with a full season from Ilya Bryzgalov, who was picked off waivers on Nov. 17. The former Anaheim goaltender posted a 2.44 goals-against average last season to help stabilize what had been a major problem area for Phoenix.
The addition of Olli Jokinen, who turned in three straight 30-goal seasons with Florida before being traded to Phoenix this summer, is expected to bolster an offense that was in the bottom third of the league with 214 goals a season ago. Shane Doan returns after the best year of his career - a 78-point effort.
"We believe that we can make the playoffs with the team we have," Gretzky said. "Now, in saying that, we know we've got our work cut out. It's a tough division. It's a tough conference."
Veterans Jokinen and Doan are complemented by several young players, including 20-year-old forward Peter Mueller, who had 54 points as a rookie last season. Last year's first-round pick - Kyle Turris - is 19 while 18-year-old Mikkel Boedker - the eighth overall draft pick this year - is expected to make his NHL debut Saturday.
Jokinen likes what he seems from the youngsters.
"I think the talent is here," Jokinen said. "I think these guys are going to be impact players right away. They're only going to get better. I think the future is right here."
Phoenix could have a difficult matchup in the opener after going 1-3 against Columbus last season. The Blue Jackets won both visits to Arizona in 2007-08, and have made major changes as they try to reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
"They have revamped their whole team," defenseman Derek Morris said about the Blue Jackets. "They are coming with a lot of youth, a whole different defensive corps, and they have a different team, like us. I am expecting a tough game."
Columbus put that revamped team on display in its opener, earning a 5-4 overtime win in Dallas on Friday. Rick Nash scored the game-winner with 20 seconds left in the extra session on a pass from Jason Chimera after the Blue Jackets blew a two-goal lead in the third period.
"It was a good pass ... I got it, closed my eyes and fired away," Nash said. "We showed a lot of character to come back."
Nash and newcomers R.J Umberger and Kristian Huselius form a potent top line for the Blue Jackets. Umberger assisted on a goal in the third period by Huselius on Friday.
"It's a pretty dangerous line so we have to make sure we are ready to go," Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Mihalek said. "(Nash) is one of the top forwards in the league and the guys on his line are good playmakers."