There is plenty of optimism in Coyoteland as we approach the 2008-09 NHL season and with good reason. But, it’s important to take an objective look at the challenge that lies ahead for the Coyotes as well as all teams in the highly competitive Western Conference.
I’m not alone in thinking that five of the eight playoff spots in the West are virtual locks. There are no guarantees in professional sports, injuries being one key unknown factor, but I think we will see Detroit, San Jose, Dallas and Anaheim in the 2009 playoffs. Obviously, the winner of the Northwest Division is automatic (as far as the Coyotes are concerned, it really doesn’t matter which team you pencil in, but for argument sake I’m going with the improved Edmonton Oilers). So, that leaves three spots for the other 10 teams to go after.
If we assume Edmonton wins the Northwest, four of the remaining teams made the playoffs last season: Minnesota, Calgary, Colorado and Nashville. These are the teams that Phoenix, Chicago, Vancouver, Columbus, St. Louis and Los Angeles must leapfrog in the standings this season.
The Coyotes face the harsh realities of being in the NHL’s toughest division. The Pacific has three teams that aren’t just playoff contenders, but expect to compete for the Stanley Cup: Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas. The schedule this season reduces the number of division games by eight. On the surface, that would seem to be a good thing for the Coyotes…fewer games against those Cup contenders. But, the Coyotes were tied for the second most division wins (19) in the NHL last season. The other thing to consider is that the new schedule means fewer games for those teams to “beat each other up”. With more games outside the division this season, it may take more than the 91 points that the eighth-place squad (Nashville) got in with last season.
So, what are some the keys for this Phoenix team to make the playoffs?
- Ilya Bryzgalov. As Darren Pang said on a recent interview program, Bryz has to play like an All-Star.
- Have a winning record against the other conference teams that are battling for a playoff spot (it begins opening night against the new-look Columbus Blue Jackets)
- Don’t put all the pressure on the rookies (Panger mentioned this on the Fox Sports Arizona Preview Show). Players like Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker will need time to grow into life in the NHL. It’s up to Shane Doan, Olli Jokinen, Ed Jovanovski, derek Morris, etc., to carry load until the rookies are ready.
- Improve home record. Only the LA Kings won as few home games (17) as the Coyotes did last season. Not only will an improved home record improve playoff chances, but it will mean bigger crowds and the type of atmosphere at Jobing.com Arena that will inspire the team.
- Stay healthy. Every team has to deal with injuries at some point during the long grind of the regular season, but the Coyotes need certain key players to be at the top of their game for as many games as possible.
All this adds up to a real challenge for the 2008-09 Phoenix Coyotes. But, when you look at this team on paper compared with the other Western Conference teams that are vying for a playoff spot, the Coyotes look like a playoff team. I’m not sure that could be said objectively about some recent editions of the Phoenix Coyotes.