GLENDALE -- Hockey season is finally here. If colors appear brighter, the air seems fresher and/or food tastes better, that's why. Basically, the world is just a happier place from the middle of September until early June. It's undeniable.
With rookie camp complete, training camp in full swing and Opening Night right around the corner, we're starting to get a clearer picture of what's in store for your Arizona Coyotes this season. And there's plenty to be excited about. The same core leadership group that guided this club to the Conference Finals in 2012 is still in place, and some key pieces have evolved around them. Of course, the Pacific Division is insanely competitive as usual, so we'll get to see how the Desert Dogs stack up against the best of the best. With that in mind, this seems like the perfect time to share the four things I'm looking forward to most in 2014-15...
|Sam Gagner. Photo by Norm Hall. |
1. The New Guys: Sam Gagner, B.J. Crombeen, Joe Vitale and Devan Dubnyk all came to Arizona in the off-season and the Coyotes didn't even really have to give up anything to get them.
Gagner was the No. 6 overall pick in 2007, once tallied four goals and four assists in a single game (against Chicago, by the way) and brings some very nice upside to the forward position. He already has 295 career points (101 goals and 194 assists) on his NHL resume, and he just turned 25. The gifted center joined the Coyotes via a trade with Tampa Bay that also brought Crombeen over - all in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick. So, in essence, they each cost half of a sixth-round pick. Good luck beating that deal.
Meanwhile, Vitale brings reliable grittiness and a relentless work ethic - qualities that were on display with Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season and are basically the exact characteristics Dave Tippett covets in a player.
And Dubnyk? Well, lets' see. He's had success in this league before, he's a big goalie and he has something to prove. Now he gets to work with netminding guru Sean Burke. I feel like I've seen this scenario play out before...
2. Healthy Stars: Injuries happen in the NHL; that's just the way it is sometimes. And the Coyotes certainly had their fair share in 2013-14. No one in the locker room ever used it as an excuse, and guys stepped in admirably when some big names went down.
But let's be realistic here - having Shane Doan healthy for a full 82 games would have been huge for this group last year. He's only the heart and soul of the team and just happened to be off to one of the best statistical starts of his career. Having Mike Smith at 100 percent during the biggest games of the stretch run - when he's traditionally at his absolute best - could have been a difference maker as well. Not to mention the value of an additional 17 games out of Martin Hanzal and 23 more from shot-blocking machine Zbynek Michalek. Here's the thing though: they're all back now, and good to go. And that's what matters.
|Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Photo by Norm Hall. |
3. What's Next For OEL: it almost seems unfair to ask more of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but I'm going to anyway. More importantly, he asks it of himself.
The 23-year old blueliner is now widely regarded around the league as one of the very brightest young stars at his position, and he's even bigger in his home country of Sweden. How big? He has his own clothing line. You know who else has his own clothing line? Calvin Klein. But Mr. Klein can't toe drag through an entire opposing team while leading an end-to-end rush. OEL can. And he hasn't let success go to his head. Talk to him for two minutes and you'll be struck by how focused he is on improving every day. He added muscle over the offseason, plays with more of an edge each year and has shut down some of the top scorers in the world (see: Ovechkin, Alex) - all while emerging as one of the top offensive threats among defensemen in the game today.
4. A Bright Future: Max Domi headlines a group of young Coyotes rising through the system that has fans buzzing about the future. His playmaking ability is special, and the fact that he grew up around the game thanks to his NHL bloodlines only makes his potential that much more intriguing.
He's not the only name to know though. Lucas Lessio got a taste of the NHL out of camp last season, then proceeded to lead the Portland Pirates with 29 goals. Meanwhile, Scottsdale's own Henrik Samuelsson has the hands to do some damage in front of the net, Tobias Rieder blends quickness and a high compete level to churn out points, and Tyler Gaudet is a hard worker who always seems to know where to be on the ice. And we haven't even gotten to 2014 first-rounder Brendan Perlini, who used rookie camp to remind everyone that Arizona may have gotten an absolute steal by scooping him up at No. 12 in the draft.
These guys are still developing, and we may not see some of them at the NHL level for a while. But it's certainly something to look forward to - so much so that Tippett himself noted this is "by far, the most depth" the Coyotes have had in the system since he got here in 2009. Now that's reason for excitement.