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Off The Post: Five Positives From First Half of Season

by Luke Lapinski / Arizona Coyotes
GLENDALE -- We’re just past the halfway point of the 2011-12 season and the Coyotes are in the thick of the playoff race yet again. What better time to stop and examine some of the players that have stepped up to guide this club through a rigorous schedule so far? With that in mind, here are five positive developments from the first half…

5. Role players stepping up. The Coyotes lost some unheralded players in the offseason, so General Manager Don Maloney went about his usual business of finding impressive replacements for a good deal.

Kyle Chipchura
Head Coach Dave Tippett, meanwhile, has seamlessly worked them into the lineup – a fact that should shock absolutely no one. Whether it’s a guy like Kyle Chipchura delivering energy or Raffi Torres providing some grit, players that aren’t afraid to go into the tough areas of the ice and sacrifice the body make a huge difference in today’s NHL. And we can’t forget Boyd Gordon, who loses a faceoff about as often as a Kardashian joins MENSA.

4. More emerging young defenders. David Schlemko has quietly gone about his business, becoming a steady force on the back end and giving this team yet another solid option to work with along the blue line. In fact, with all the defensive talent the Coyotes have at the moment, it’s Schlemko who leads the way with a plus-7 rating while averaging nearly 18 and a half minutes of ice time per night. He will be missed as he nurses a lower-body injury.

Meanwhile, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is delivering the breakout campaign we all knew he was capable of – and he may even be a little ahead of schedule in doing so. The game just seems easy for him and it’s only going to get easier. The possibility of an Ekman-Larsson – David Rundblad defensive pairing someday is intriguing to say the least. Two of the most highly regarded, up-and-coming Swedish defenders in the world, who already know each other from when they were younger and who possess opposite handed shots from the point. They’re each about half the age of Nicklas Lidstrom. And if they each accomplish half of what he has in his career, this team is in great shape for a long time to come.

Radim Vrbata
3. Offensive improvements from established vets. Radim Vrbata was second on the team last season with 19 goals, so it’s not as if we’ve never seen him trigger an offense before. But he’s been on an absolute tear this season. He’s already passed that goal total from a year ago - and there are 39 games left. Wait, let me do the math… yeah he’s on pace for a good season. And while he might not get the 37 tallies he’s currently on track for, he’s certainly been a high point for the offense.

Ray Whitney has been huge as well. It’s not shocking that he’s putting up points and making plays – after all, he’s been doing it consistently since Sir Mix-A-Lot was topping the charts. But he’s doing it at a much more feverish pace this season and it’s clearly opening up the offense. His 36 points right now put him on pace for nearly 70 - well above the 57 he posted last season. And while he was certainly effective in the 2010-11 campaign, he’s clearly healthier and reaching new levels in his second run with the Coyotes.

2. Mike Smith. I don’t know what more to say about Smith. He spent the summer serving as a lightning rod for those who make a yearly habit of picking this team to fail despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests they’ll do otherwise.

Mike Smith
The 29-year old netminder represented the biggest unknown for the Coyotes entering this season, and he responded by delivering a phenomenal first half. Sure, there were rough spots – every goalie except Tim Thomas has those. But Smith also has games where he simply takes over (look no further than his last three outings). He’s been solid across the board and you can see the effect that playing under the tutelage of Sean Burke is having on him.

Naysayers will point out that his career high for starts in a season is 40 and he’s already at 32 but, as Tippett noted after a recent practice, this is the sort of challenge Smith has looked for his whole career. He’s coming up big and the entire organization is benefitting from the fact that they believed in the determined goaltender when a lot of others simply didn’t.

1. Shane Doan’s hat trick. In a game where the Coyotes really needed a spark to start the second half of the season, Doan took it upon himself to lead this team by example both on and off the ice again. The fact that it came at home in front of a raucous crowd as time expired was only fitting. And yes, I know I said “positive developments of the first half” and this happened in game No. 42. Sue me. This blog is free.
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