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Off The Post: Only One More Month Without Hockey

by Luke Lapinski / Arizona Coyotes
GLENDALE -- We’re finally closing in on the 2011-12 season and, quite frankly, it’s about time.

Luke Lapinski
You’d be surprised how many TV shows deviously use their title to mislead people into thinking they’re about hockey. Then you switch over to them and you’re immediately disappointed. Shark Week? Has very little to do with Joe Thornton or his teammates in San Jose. March of the Penguins? I didn’t see Sidney Crosby anywhere. And I was pretty sure John Tortorella wasn’t one of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but the upside was there so I had to at least take a look.

And that’s just TV - don’t even get me started on arguably the worst summer in the history of movies. There’s been essentially no entertainment out there since the Bruins hoisted the Stanley Cup so I’m in lockdown until they drop the puck again. The good news? Training camp opens in just over a month. The Coyotes will look a little different heading into the new season, so here’s a quick glance at a few storylines to ponder as you get thinking about icing and stick tape again…

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Head Coach Dave Tippett’s system, a strong group of defensemen, and Sean Burke’s ability to take netminders to the next level make Phoenix one of the best destinations for a goaltender in today’s NHL. Enter Mike Smith.

Mike Smith. Photo by Getty Images.
This is a tremendous opportunity for him and he knows it. And the last time I checked, players with something to prove tend to perform at a higher level. He brings that potentially explosive mix of untapped ability combined with a little bit of quality experience to the table. We haven't seen his best yet, but it's not like he's 18 years old and four years away from being able to contribute either. More importantly, he's familiar with Tippett. In fact, his years in Tip's system with the Stars were his best so far. He posted a GAA of 2.23 in 23 games in the 2006-07 season and a 2.46 GAA over 21 games in 07-08. On top of all that, he's big. At 6-foot-3 he has the sort of size that can make him that much more of a weapon in net... once he learns to harness it.

That's where Burke comes in. He put together quite a successful career playing at 6--foot-4 and has excelled at passing his insight on to a new generation of netminders. Last year, both Jason LaBarbera and Ilya Bryzgalov mentioned how Burke’s ability to relate to playing the game as a taller goalie helped them immensely in taking their games to the next level. Just having size doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to make the most of it. That's why teams don’t just stuff sumo wrestlers in net. The bottom line? Smith has upside and he’s in one of the best situations to help him fulfill his potential. And don’t forget about LaBarbera, who quietly goes about his business stepping in and routinely coming up big when the Coyotes need him.

GRIT: It’s not as if this team didn’t have it before, but signing a player like Raffi Torres pushes it to a new level. Aside from finally adding the first guy named Raffi in franchise history, Don Maloney picked up a guy who can score (47 goals over a two-season span in Edmonton a few years back), has had playoff success (he’s been to the Cup Final twice… including two months ago), and won’t hesitate to get under an opponent’s skin – or simply run them over. He’s a former No. 5 overall pick and, honestly, if you’re still not sold, just picture him on a line with Paul Bissonnette. Done.

THE HOME OPENER: Just for fun, it’s against the Winnipeg Jets. I feel like there’s some sort of rivalry there. Can’t quite seem to put my finger on it though…

Keith Yandle and Shane Doan. Photo by Getty Images.
THE BEST OF THE WEST: The Coyotes took steps to get better. Naturally, the rest of the division did as well - as if last year’s strong showing wasn’t enough. Four out of five teams from the Pacific made the playoffs in 2010-11 and the only one that missed out (Dallas) actually led the way for much of the first half of the season. There’s no margin for error and that seems to be precisely when Phoenix plays its best hockey. Tippett consistently gets the most from his guys, Shane Doan and the strong leadership core are back, and Keith Yandle and the defense are healthy and ready to be the backbone of the franchise once more. We’re not that far from opening night – I can practically hear the skate sharpener.
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