GLENDALE -- The first half of the 2014-15 season for the Arizona Coyotes is in the books. As the team enters the second half of the campaign, I wanted to take a look back on a few of the stories that emerged over the first 41 games. Yes, it has been a roller-coaster ride. And through it all, several good story lines have emerged.
Here are a few:
1. RIEDER’S RISE: It’s not very often a prospect from Germany makes it all the way to the National Hockey League. But that was the case November 2nd when Tobias Rieder joined the Coyotes for a Sunday game in Washington. He arrived at the team hotel without the customary suit and luggage. You see, the Portland Pirates were on a day trip, which meant formal clothing was not a requirement. Later that night, the kid from Bavaria, who very few in the hockey world had heard of, scored the game-winning goal as the Coyotes wrapped up their eastern junket with a win against the Capitals. Not only had they finished the trip on a winning note, they had also found a piece of their future. After nearly making the team out of training camp, Rieder asserted himself on the defensive side of the puck. He flew home that night with the team and proceeded to go even or plus in eight of his first nine games. Head Coach Dave Tippett compared him to a young Jere Lehtinen, a Finnish native who played a strong two-way game for him when he coached the Dallas Stars. In early December, Rieder scored two short-handed goals in the same period in Edmonton, which only helped to cement his lineup status. In just a few months, he has gone from an obscure prospect acquired in a deal with Edmonton two seasons ago to a vital piece of the team’s future. His development as a player could be viewed as the biggest story of the first half of the season.
2. “BROWN OUT” ON THE POWER PLAY: For years, the Coyotes have emphasized playing good defense. But in order to win games, you still have to score goals. That’s why this season’s power-play proficiency has been vital to the team’s ability to win games. That’s where Assistant Coach Newell Brown enters the picture. He runs the team’s power-play strategy, and over the past two seasons since his arrival from the Vancouver Canucks, the unit has rarely disappointed. Under Brown’s guidance, the team’s power play has ranked among the best in the league. This season, it has been consistently ranked in the top ten and in late December, it was the NHL’s top-ranked unit on the road. Its success has been aided by two of the best point men in the league in Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The team started the first half by scoring in five of the first six games. The unit also put together a five-game power-play goal streak and had a pair of three game streaks as well. And as of late, the unit had tallied three power-play goals in a game twice in the final five games of the first half.
3. YOUNG AND ABLE: Last April, Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney said it was a priority for the organization to get younger and to afford the youth of the organization an opportunity to earn spots on the roster. I think it’s fair to say Maloney has kept his word as we saw such a strategy unfold over the first 41 games. Defenseman Connor Murphy made the team out of training camp and has been a regular in the lineup ever since. In fact, he’s more than doubled his man-games of experience in just a few months. Other “on the job” apprenticeships have gone to the likes Brandon Gormley and Lucas Lessio. Both players have spent the majority of the season with Portland in the American Hockey League but are now at the point of their development where they are being called upon to contribute significant minutes to the lineup. And players such as Tyler Gaudet, Brendan Shinnimin and Jordan Martinook have jumped aboard the Arizona-Portland shuttle as well. And most recently, Philip Samuelsson, who was acquired from Pittsburgh earlier in the season, will get a chance to make his case for a roster spot. And based on the number of prospects near or ready for NHL duty speaks well to the depth of the organization.