GLENDALE -- Training camp is here. And with it comes plenty of story lines as the Coyotes work their way toward opening night on October 3.
Here are six stories I will keep a close eye on as we head toward play.
1. HOCKEY NORMALCY:
Last season’s work stoppage forced teams to abandon their traditional preparation. Camps were abbreviated and no preseason games were played. Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith might have been affected most by the lack of preparation time since goaltenders arguably benefit the most from a lengthy camp in terms of establishing timing and routines. Just take a look at his numbers in the last half of the season. They were similar to what he posted in his first season in the desert. Then there’s team captain Shane Doan. While the team’s unquestioned leader would be the last on the planet to offer up excuses, his involvement in key issues away from the ice undoubtedly took time away from his seasonal preparation. He played a prominent role during the prolonged labor negotiations, often making the cross-country trek from Phoenix to New York City. He was also forced to keep an eye peeled on the status of the team’s ownership saga. Smith and Doan are just two examples of players having to adjust to a truncated cadence who tend to be creatures of habit. All of them like structure and familiarity. So having it all back should benefit everyone.
2. NINE LIVES:
General manager Don Maloney is on the record for his desire to add one additional scoring forward. And it appears the hole he is looking to fill is at left wing. Former Coyote Gilbert Brule has been brought in on a try-out basis, as has Guillaume Latendresse. Both have proven they have the ability to provide offense based on their past numbers. Brule was acquired at mid season two years ago and added key goals down the stretch and an element of speed to the lineup. Latendresse had one of his finest campaigns just a couple of seasons ago after being picked up from Montreal by the Minnesota Wild. Could one or both fit into this lineup? We’ll find out during training camp.
3. YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS:
Not to be left out are some of the team’s young prospects who are looking to knock the door down during training camp and secure a spot on the roster. First round draft pick Max Domi had a strong prospects camp back in July, as did Lucas Lessio. Both players lit it up in the Ontario Hockey League last season and should get strong consideration. Then there’s Chris Brown who’s also high on the prospects list. After a solid career at the University of Michigan, Brown turned pro after his junior season in Ann Arbor and had a successful American Hockey League debut in Portland, even earning a promotion to the big club in 2013. Former Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele led Portland in scoring last season and had a strong rookie camp earlier this month. Are any of them ready for full-time duty?
4. BLUE LINE BATTLE:
The Coyotes are as talented and as deep at defense as any team in the National Hockey League. Many consider it the strength of the team. Yet with depth comes decisions. A season ago, Oliver Ekman-Larsson took another step in his emergence as a top rearguard while Keith Yandle led the team in scoring. David Schlemko finished as the team’s leader in plus/minus, while Derek Morris provided priceless leadership and experience. Zbynek Michalek had a successful return to the desert via Pittsburgh. Michael Stone took another step in his development in his second season, adding another layer of depth. This fall, Brandon Gormley is knocking. After taking on a heavy workload at AHL Portland last season, he wants in. Should he be ready to move up, would someone move out? Having to make decisions based on depth is never a bad problem to have.
5. CAPTAIN COYOTE:
What a season 2013 turned out to be for Shane Doan. First there were the labor negotiations between the League and players and his involvement and moderate voice that seemed to get things moving in the right direction during the 11th hour. Then there was the ongoing ownership saga of which he was involved and updated on a regular basis. Then over the summer, the revelation that he played through pain the entire season, thanks to a herniated disc. Yet through all of the distractions, as captain, he managed to keep all of the distractions out of the locker room. All of those distractions are long gone. And for the first time in years, Doan can simply play. Good for him and the team. Bad for opponents.
6. THE OWNERSHIP EFFECT:
Four years ago, the Coyotes entered bankruptcy. This past summer, the franchise emerged from uncertainty with a new ownership group committed to building the brand in the desert. With uncertainty having become the norm back then, so to had the resiliency of Coyotes fans. They not only made their annual financial investment in the team, but an equally as important emotional investment as well. Their loyalty is starting to pay off. Luxury suites are selling again and fans are renewing season tickets in record numbers. Many who once followed the team but fatigued from its ongoing strife are coming back to take another look. The Coyotes have momentum, and the marketplace is taking notice. If you’ve followed the saga, you know it’s personal for many. That’s reason enough to believe the owner’s new plan is not only going to work, but thrive and succeed.