GLENDALE -- Training camp starts next month. No seriously, next month. Hockey is finally almost back, so it's time to focus on the 2012-13 campaign… as if we haven't already been doing that for two months now anyway. There's a lot I'm looking forward to as the Coyotes look to build on the greatest season in franchise history. Here are some of the highlights...
RAISING THE PACIFIC DIVISION BANNER
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May as well start with the obvious. Last season's run was amazing - it really did feel like a movie at times. Teams love to play the "us against the world" card, and sometimes it just doesn't apply. But the Coyotes have had it forced upon them and they've rallied admirably. This group knows know how to win when the odds seem stacked against them better than maybe any team in professional sports right now. I was told as a kid that I tend to exaggerate a lot - and that may be true (for the record, it wasn’t) - but this isn’t one of those times. The Coyotes get stronger when they’re backed into a corner, and nothing exemplified that better than the stretch after the All-Star Game last season. By the time the Desert Dogs made their impressive surge to the Western Conference Final, a new breed of fan was firmly entrenched around the Valley, ready for more. And the turning point was locking up the Pacific Division title. So yes, I want to see them raise the banner. What a moment for the franchise, the fans, the players, hockey in Arizona and anyone who enjoys happiness.
MIKE SMITH, ACT II
It's always fun to silence the critics, but what do you do when they're already quiet? Last summer, it seemed like everyone who hadn’t bothered to watch Mike Smith play was suddenly somehow an expert on why he couldn't be a serviceable starting goalie in the NHL. And I guess in a way they were right; he wasn't serviceable, he was borderline dominant. So what does he do under the scrutiny of heightened expectations?
Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t bet against him. Talk to Smith for five minutes and you'll realize just how serious he is about being the best hockey player he can be. His career path doesn't allow him to take anything for granted, so he'll never get complacent in net. He's always out to prove something, and rises to the occasion in the biggest games. What more can you ask from your goalie?
TALENT ON THE RISE
The Coyotes have a number of potential stars in the system, but there are two in particular I’ll be keeping an eye on this season.
The first is Mikkel Boedker. Confidence means everything in hockey - especially when you're trying to make your mark in the NHL. Boedker has the skills to be special in this league and, after last year's postseason heroics, he has to be brimming with confidence as well. Two overtime game-winners against Chicago to push your team past Round 1 for the first time ever will do that for you.
But it’s not just Boedker. I want to see what Oliver Ekman-Larsson has in store for us. He seems to get better every time he hits the ice and people around the league are taking notice of just how easy he makes it look. If he keeps this up, they’ll be writing one of those Chuck Norris fact books about OEL someday.
THE NEW GUYS
When you come within a couple of games of the Stanley Cup Final, other teams are going to want your players. It only makes sense. But General Manager Don Maloney did an excellent job of keeping the main pieces, while managing to re-load the roster as well. Crafty playmaker Steve Sullivan has 730 NHL points; David Moss is a versatile player and former 20 goal scorer with something to prove and also has the size to do some damage. In addition, solid and steady blueliner Zbynek Michalek is back to make an already strong defense corps that much more ridiculous.
The Coyotes will welcome some of the marquee names in hockey to Jobing.com Arena this season. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Claude Giroux - to name just a few - will be visiting Glendale for games in 2012-13. And then, of course, there's the Los Angeles Kings. In case you hadn’t noticed, there seems to be a bit of a rivalry brewing between Phoenix and L.A. And last year only ramped the intensity up. They'll meet six times this season – at least – and that's not enough. I already want more.
It just felt weird writing an 800-word blog on the Coyotes without using the words "Dave Tippett.” His work behind the bench gets more impressive every year. And part of me is still waiting for the game where he just grabs a stick off the rack and jumps out on the ice to take care of business himself.