GLENDALE -- The Coyotes have played 41 of the 82 regular-season games on their 2013-14 schedule.
With half of the season in the books, Dave Vest of phoenixcoyotes.com checked in with General Manager Don Maloney this weekend to get his thoughts on what he saw in the first three months of the season and what he expects to see over the next three as the Coyotes, who are currently in eighth place in the Western Conference standings, drive toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Vest: What are your primary thoughts on how the team played in the first half of the season?
Maloney: “Well, I think the reviews on the first half are mixed. We had some very good moments, including a very strong start, which is important. In the last 20 games, we’ve been inconsistent and obviously we’re going to need to be better if we expect to be a playoff team. Having said that, I would prefer to look at it as a glass half-full. We have a good team here, we just need to continue to work on our mix and our chemistry and our health, and if everything comes together then I’m confident we can make a strong push in the second half and really solidify a playoff position.”
Vest: What pleased you most about the first half of the season?
Maloney: “The biggest surprise of this team has been the offensive production as a whole, and more specifically our blue line over the first 30 games or so. We’re getting terrific contributions from our back end. We’re scoring more this year and the defensemen are helping us do that. That’s been the most pleasant development this season, that we’ve been able to become one of the highest scoring teams in our conference. For years here we had such struggles to score goals and had to rely solely on our defense to win, but we’ve scored more this year and that’s obviously a good thing. On the flip side, we’ve given up more goals and I believe that’s correctable. That’s something our coaching staff will continue to work on and I’m confident we can better. If we do that, we’ll be a much stronger opponent come playoff time.”
Vest: What are your thoughts on the team having stayed in the playoff hunt despite having to play a substantial amount of games without two key cogs: captain Shane Doan and defenseman Zbynek Michalek.
Maloney: “Losing Shane’s voice in the locker room, I feel we missed that as much as him not playing. He’s so good at keeping his teammates focused on the task at hand. It’s a credit to our group that we’ve stayed in the pack of playoff teams without him there doing that. With Zbynek, he’s our top match-up defender and it’s tough for us to replace him. Having both of those players not around at the same time has been been very challenging. I give credit to ‘Tipp’ and his coaching staff for keeping us competitive every time we take the ice.”
Vest: How would you grade the team’s goaltending in the first half?
Maloney: “Mike Smith was very good to start the season and I think he’s playing well of late. But we’re still searching for that A-level consistency from him. I think there’s another level Mike can get to and if he gets there that will push us into the top half dozen teams in our conference. And Thomas Greiss has been an excellent upgrade at backup goalie. He’s given us a chance to win in every game he has played and his record (5-2-1) speaks for itself.”
Vest: Which players stood out to you most over the first 41 games of the season?
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Maloney: “I think Antoine Vermette has quietly been a very valuable player for us in all areas of the game – power play, penalty killing, face-offs, blocking shots. He touches a lot of parts of the game. Without question, he’s been one of our most consistent players from Day One.
“When you look at our blue line, I think Keith Yandle has been a valuable offensive player and he’s shown great improvement in his game without the puck. I really like where his game is right now.
“Mikkel Boedker, over the last 10-15 games, has really started to establish himself as a top forward, game in and game out. I really like what he’s bringing to our team on a nightly basis. He’s taken another step forward in his belief that he can be a top forward in this league, and he’s showing his strength and his speed and he has created scoring chances on a consistent basis. Plus, he’s quietly taking a leadership role on this team. Hopefully it all continues.
“And I have to mention Connor Murphy. He’s been one of the most pleasant surprises of the first half. The way he’s been able to come up from the AHL and get regular ice time and play in our top pairing, for a 20-year old to do that is impressive and it bodes well for us going forward.”
Vest: On Dec. 29, you assigned forward Gilbert Brule to the American Hockey League. Instead of reporting, Brule opted to retire. Is there any update on his situation?
Maloney: “He decided to retire but we wanted to give him a little bit of time to see if he would have a change of heart. He has not, so now we feel that it’s better for all parties if we go our separate ways. We have initiated the process of terminating his contract.”
Vest: The Coyotes will play 17 games before the NHL shuts down for 18 days so its players can play at the Winter Olympics. How important are the next 17 games?
Maloney: “I think the next 17 games are extremely vital to us. Eleven of those games will be played in Glendale. If we can get on a roll on home ice, like we did to start the season, that would set us up nicely for a very challenging stretch we will face after the Olympics. We’re going to look at our group closely from now until the Olympics to really gauge where we are as a team and what we need, and whether we‘ll have to do some minor tweaking or major surgery coming out of the break for the Olympics. I think we’re as strong at the center ice position as we ever have been here in my tenure, but we’re still lacking a little consistency out of our group and maybe more so at the forward position. We shall see.”