NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
After making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of Dave Tippett's first three seasons behind their bench, culminating in an appearance in the 2012 Western Conference Final, the Phoenix Coyotes experienced a sudden fall during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
With goaltender Mike Smith struggling through injuries and inconsistency and the team's offense suddenly failing to find scoring at opportune moments, Phoenix failed to gain any traction and missed the postseason.
Rather than panic and make sweeping changes, general manager Don Maloney banked on the key pieces making up the core of the team that came within three wins of advancing to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. It started with signing Smith and Tippett to contract extensions, important moves that were followed up with the arrival of top-line free agents and some important prospects.
With training camp underway, the questions surrounding these moves could ultimately decide whether or not the Coyotes return to the playoffs.
1. How will the top line do? -- The signing of center Mike Ribeiro, who starred with Tippett when both were with the Dallas Stars, gives the Coyotes an offensive element they haven't had in some time. That presence of a marquee playmaker in his lineup was something that immediately excited Maloney.
"He's underappreciated without the puck," Maloney told NHL.com. "Since I've been here, we've been searching for a creative playmaking center, which should help players like Mikkel Boedker or Lauri Korpikoski or Shane Doan, the players who will be able to play with Mike."
Sure enough, Ribeiro started training camp centering a line with Boedker and Doan, two of Phoenix's most talented offensive players. On paper, this move immediately gives the Coyotes a potent top line, something they haven’t really had under Tippett. As with every Coyotes trio, the line will be expected to execute efficiently at both ends of the rink. But if the group finds chemistry, it could provide an impressive offensive flair to a team that ranked 21st in goals last season.
"I'm enjoying it. [Ribeiro] is so good with the puck and we know what [Boedker] can do," Doan said in the opening days of camp. "I just want to stay there as long as possible."
2. Can Mike Smith rebound? -- Phoenix's breakthrough 2011-12 season, in which it finished atop the Pacific Division standings before advancing to the conference final, was keyed in large part by the emergence of Smith. After spending some time with Tippett in Dallas, Smith established himself in Phoenix as a franchise goaltender.
In his first year in the desert, Smith established career bests in wins (38), goals-against average (2.21) and save percentage (.930) before struggling with injuries and inconsistency last season. But armed with a new six-year extension, he'll be counted on to lead the Coyotes back to the playoffs. If he can regain his form from the 2011-12 season, Phoenix could potentially find its way back to the conference final.
Having a full training camp should help Smith rebound. A lack of a proper camp, coupled with the rigors of the compacted 48-game season, caused a number of goaltenders to struggle last season. Smith is now looking to move on.
"Coming off a shortened season, I didn't have the year I would've liked to have. But I'm excited to be able to tip-toe into the season," Smith told NHL.com. "With a full camp, some exhibition games -- stuff we didn't have last year -- that definitely will be beneficial.
3. Which prospects will step up? -- For the past few years, Phoenix has done a fine job of stockpiling prized prospects. And for the first time during their tenure together, Tippett and Maloney are looking to unleash that young group on the rest of the League. Long before camp started, they made it clear that a number of young players would get their first real chance to compete for roster spots in training camp.
"I feel we're going to get a good push at training camp from a couple of younger players," Maloney said. "We made a concerted effort to leave three open scoring spots available. Whoever wants to step up and grab them, we like that push. Hopefully somebody will seize the opportunity and take it."
The Coyotes have a number of youngsters who could make a play for an opening-night roster spot. They include forwards like 2013 first-round pick Max Domi, Lucas Lessio and Chris Brown, who in his first pro season with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Portland scored 29 goals in 68 games.
The team's back end features plenty of veteran talent, but prospects like David Rundblad, Connor Murphy and Brandon Gormley could also compete for a spot and provide insurance should one of the vets get hurt. If a couple of these young players can step in and give the veteran-heavy Coyotes a little extra jump, the team should rebound nicely from a tough 2012-13 season.
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