Long a picture of consistency, the Phoenix Coyotes took an unexpected step backward last season. A year after advancing to the Western Conference Final, the Coyotes missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 after posting a 21-18-9 record.
They started 2-4-2, and a seven-game losing streak in March effectively undid their season. Throw in nagging injuries to goaltender Mike Smith and a serious second-half scoring drought from young forward Mikkel Boedker, and the Coyotes were unable to find their stride.
The summer was highlighted by the addition offensive-minded forwards, Mike Ribeiro through free agency and Max Domi at the 2013 NHL Draft. But the 2013-14 Coyotes likely will display the solid two-way play that has been a team signature since coach Dave Tippett took over in 2009.
If the Coyotes hope to return to the postseason, they'll need to answer these six questions:
1. Can Mike Ribeiro shine under coach Dave Tippett? -- Ribeiro enjoyed the best run of his career when he played for Tippett with the Dallas Stars. In their two seasons before Tippett was fired by the Stars in 2009, Ribeiro had 83 points and 78 points, collecting a career-high 56 assists each seasons.
It's part of the reason Tippett sold general manager Don Maloney on signing the 33-year-old as a free agent after he had 49 points in 48 games last season with the Washington Capitals.
"The big move was signing Mike Ribeiro. He gives us a legitimate top center," Tippett said. "He understands the game very well. I think his skill level is something we didn't have and needed to add to our group. I've had some real good experience with him. I think he'll be a great fit for our team."
If Ribeiro is able to recapture the flair he had playing under Tippett in Dallas, the Coyotes could have a legitimate playmaking center for the first time since the high-flying teams of the mid-1990s that featured Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick.
2. Will Mike Smith rebound? -- In 2011-12, Smith's first season with the Coyotes, the goaltender posted career highs in wins, shutouts, save percentage and minutes. Last season he took a step back, struggling with some nagging injuries and failing to make the plays that established him as a franchise goaltender. His wins dropped from 38 to 15 and his goals-against average increased from 2.21 to 2.58.
Despite a difficult 2012-13 season, the Coyotes showed their commitment to Smith by signing him to a six-year, $34 million contract.
"Mike Smith over the past two years has shown us he can play at an elite level," Maloney told NHL.com. "Last year we believe there were a lot of factors that led to him having what we would consider an average season. Between the short season, his injuries, his contract, we just felt that year was hard on a lot of goaltenders. We believe Mike can be one of the best goaltenders in the game. We believe we have the style and infrastructure that can put him in that category. That includes our style of play and [goaltending coach] Sean Burke's tutelage."
3. Who will step up offensively? -- With their franchise goaltender signed to a long-term extension and a veteran blue line, the Coyotes' defense should continue to be a strong suit -- especially under Tippett's coaching system, which preaches defensive responsibility. But the offense continues to be a point of concern.
In previous seasons, Phoenix's offense ranked around the middle of the League, providing just enough scoring to keep a defensively sound squad moving along. But that offense took a dip in 2012-13 to 21st in the League, a troubling statistic magnified by the worst power play in the Western Conference. Ribeiro will help with the power play and overall scoring, but it's clear someone else will have to step up to provide additional punch.
Maloney and Tippett have mentioned they will look to a strong incoming rookie class to help, but it's clear some veterans will have to ramp up their offensive contributions. Which leads perfectly into the next big question for the Coyotes ...
4. Will Mikkel Boedker break out? -- Since being drafted No. 8 by Phoenix in 2008, Boedker has been looked to as a potential source of scoring from the wing. His 2011-12 season gave the impression the Dane was poised to break out. Boedker tied a career high with 11 goals before getting eight points and two game-winning goals in the Coyotes' run to the conference final.
With five points in his first five games last season, Boedker looked as if he would take the next step. Boedker had 16 points through 21 games but struggled in the second half; in his final 27 games he had three goals and 10 points, including a final 10 games that saw him get two assists with a minus-3 rating.
5. How much younger will the Coyotes get? -- For the past few seasons the Coyotes have relied on a smart, veteran core headed by Shane Doan, who over the years has established himself as one of the best captains in hockey. During that time, Phoenix was able to stockpile a collection of prospects that ranks among the best in the game. After the team missed the playoffs last season, the time of waiting for those prospects to develop appears to be over.
"I think there are some guys who are going to come in and really push for jobs," Tippett said. "We've got some young players there who are ready to push. This will be the most competitive training camp in my four years in Phoenix. We're really looking forward to see the levels these young players can get to."
The team firmly has established which players will make up the third and fourth forward lines, so it's likely that a number of prospects will get a long look toward getting time on one of the top two scoring lines. Despite being 18, Domi will get a good look in training camp, along with a number of top-flight prospects, including Lucas Lessio and Chris Brown, each coming off an outstanding season.
The Phoenix back end is firmly established, but Tippett and Maloney said they are open to adding a rookie or two to that mix.
6. How much will the loss of Boyd Gordon hurt? -- In the summer of 2012, Phoenix's leading scorer, Ray Whitney, left to sign a two-year contract with the Dallas Stars. At the time, that was a glaring loss for a Coyotes team that struggled to score goals without the veteran forward. This summer the Coyotes again lost an important piece, although it wasn't nearly as big a name.
Forward Boyd Gordon's three-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers didn't make major news across the hockey world, but he could prove to be a costly loss in Phoenix, where he spent the previous two seasons.
Gordon never put up huge offensive numbers for the Coyotes, although he did score a career-high eight goals in 2011-12. However, he was the embodiment of Tippett's system, a responsible defensive forward who consistently could win faceoffs and battles while displaying a very strong hockey IQ. He also was a key contributor on the penalty kill. The Coyotes were sad to see Gordon go, and they'll need to see if another veteran (Kyle Chipchura) or perhaps a newer player (Rob Klinkhammer) can fill the void.
"Gordon is a player we didn't want to lose," Tippett said. "But Chipchura had a very good season for us last year so we feel he can fit that role on the fourth line."
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