Photo Credit: Norm Hall
The 2006-07 season has not started out exactly the way the Coyotes wanted as the team has endured a couple tough losses, and already seen three members of their opening night roster fall out of the lineup do to injury. Joel Perrault is day-to-day with a rib injury, Keith Ballard is gone for four to five weeks with a hand injury and the latest, Center Steven Reinprecht, is out eight weeks with a fractured collarbone.
Despite the recent struggles, there are still a number of reasons for Coyotes fans to be optimistic, perhaps none more compelling than the team's improved defensive unit.
At the beginning of the season most people thought the Coyotes had one of the top defensive corps in the league. After five games some people might beg to differ, but consider this. Ed Jovanovski has four points, (2 goals, 2 assists) while posting an even in the plus/minus column. Jovanovski's defensive partner, Derek Morris, has played as tough as any blueliner the Coyotes have had in years, registering 25 penalty minutes in five games.
Just as important has been the play of the younger Phoenix defenders. Last season Coyotes Head Coach Wayne Gretzky received a nice surprise along the blueline in Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek. In 2005-06, Ballard posted 39 points, (8 goals, 31 assists) and 99 penalty minutes, while Michalek scored 24points 9 goals, 15 assists and 62 penalty minutes, while neither missed a single game all season long.
Michalek has shown no signs of letting up this season as he continues to rank among the team leaders in ice-timer per game and serve as one of the clubs primary penalty killers. Every day that passes makes the last's years decision to keep Michalek on the Coyotes roster look even better.
"We watched him everyday in practice and it became more and more apparent that this guy was an NHL player," said Gretzky. "We ended up making a roster move trading three players so we can make a roster move to keep him, had we not made that move at that time, we would have had to put him on waivers and there is no questions we would have lost him."
Entering his second full season in the NHL, Michalek recognizes the knowledge he gained during his rookie campaign and is aware that the experience he has will certainly help him in the future.
"I already know what to expect," said Michalek. "I went through the same thing last year, that was a good experience. I can just learn from there and hopefully have a better year than last year."
Unfortunately for Ballard, a fractured wrist has put him on the shelf for 4-5 weeks, but he is anxious to get back into the lineup, help his team get back on the right track, and to make a name for himself around the NHL.
"I think I made some good strides last year and now the challenge is to continue to do well and continue to improve," said Ballard. "One good year doesn't make a career and doesn't make you a good player. I want to build off last year and build on the things I did as well as improve on the things I didn't do so well."
Gretzky is very aware of how important the presence of Keith Ballard is to his hockey club.
"When we came to camp last year, Keith had played one year in Utah at the time and we weren't sure where he was going to go, if he was ready to make that step (to the NHL)," said Gretzky. "I just think the world of (Keith) because (he) plays hard every night and practices hard every day."
Ballard and Michalek are two defensemen that the Coyotes are very excited about and know that they are going to be on this team for a long time to come.
"They block shots they take hits to make plays," said Gretzky. "They make good passes and they practice hard everyday, and as a coach you can't ask for anything more than that."
With Ballard out nursing his wrist injury, a spot opened up for another young defenseman to enter the lineup and show what he can do. Keith Yandle made his NHL debut last week against the Detroit Red Wings and in two games, as shown that he has the ability to play regularly at the NHL level. The rookie has recorded one assist, is even through his first two NHL games and looks as though he is going to be player in league for many years to come.
The start of the season hasn't been what the Coyotes had hoped for, but they know they'll get things turned around, and they know they have a couple of future all-star defensemen to help them do it.