|Matt McConnell |
It overcomes you every October. For some, it takes place as early as September when National Hockey League training camps open and the relentless summer heat is replaced by chilly, frozen rinks where packs of loyal puck heads congregate in fleece jackets and chatter.
Of course, certain prerequisites come with this hockey assignment. You’ve analyzed the draft, you’ve memorized the schedule. The check has cleared on your season seats and you look forward to seeing Tyson Nash’s jacket. You also spread the hockey gospel around the workplace and dream about a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Whether you’re a player, a fan or an announcer, October, in many ways, is the best time of the season. It’s hockey nirvana when optimism runs rampant, when players talk up the good chemistry inside “the room” and how great it is to be back at the rink. It’s when fans renew hockey acquaintances with row mates, and when it’s time to pull out of the closet that favorite jersey or lucky lid, all while phoning “Pete” in Section 302 to work out the logistics for opening night.
But that’s OK. We’re all fans. We all want our team to do well, which is the case with our counterparts in the other 29 cities that make up the NHL circuit. But the optimism here in Phoenix has been fueled in large part by the work done by General Manager Don Maloney and Head Coach Dave Tippett. Maloney’s ability to mesh together a roster long on heart, hard work and hockey IQ, coupled with Tippett’s on-ice tutoring have landed the Coyotes in the post-season for two straight seasons despite financial constraint. Optimism often requires an igniter. Those two are the accelerant.
Heading into 2011-12, one could argue the team’s roster is deeper than it has been in years. The leadership remains a franchise cornerstone thanks to captain Shane Doan
who’s back for another season, and Daymond Langkow
who returns to the desert from Calgary. Keith Yandle
has become the leader of the team’s blueline after a breakout season a year ago and youngsters Oliver Ekman-Larsson
and David Schlemko
provide another layer of support that complements veterans such as ever-steady Derek Morris
and dependable Adrian Aucoin
So what about the sandpaper factor? If you’re truly a hockey fanatic, no explanation is needed. Raffi Torres
comes over from Vancouver, bringing with him a second-to-none work ethic, and a scoring touch that could net 15-20 goals in a role as a checking forward. Boyd Gordon
makes his way west from Washington, a face-off master with the Capitals who could become Tippett’s shutdown center on draws late in hockey games.
I know, I know. Goaltending you ask. Get to the goaltending.
Having been around the game for a few years now (OK, decades), goaltending often makes or breaks the seasons of teams with playoff aspirations. But an equally important thought worth pondering is how a team’s play complements the goaltender. Tipp’s system has proven in the past to be very beneficial to the position. Ilya Bryzgalov flourished within it.
Which brings us to his successor, Mike Smith
It’s important to analyze his numbers when he played for Tippett in Dallas. His goals-against average was 2.23 the first season and 2.46 the next. Smitty had an excellent training camp and was lights out at times in the preseason finale last Saturday against San Jose. Maybe his coach has aided his comfort level. That will play out over time. What we do know today is his play in the preseason has set himself up for success once the regular season begins. His puck-handling skills should engage the breakout and allow a quicker transition. As a testament to the position, the Coyotes also have their “1-A” go-to tender in Jason LaBarbera
, whose steady play over the past year has been worthy of additional duties in the coming weeks and months.
See that? Hockey’s annual off-season of optimism has gotten the best of me again. There are plenty of great storylines heading into the season, but then again, you already know them. Your hockey prep for the season started weeks ago.