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Coyotes confident improvement on the way

by David Satriano continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

The Arizona Coyotes had two big problems last season.

"Not only couldn't we score last year, we couldn't defend," general manager Don Maloney said.

This season, Maloney expects at least a revamped defense to be much improved.

"Bringing back Zbynek Michalek, who's a core guy for us, you know what you're getting out of him," Maloney said in late July. "Nick Grossman, we are adding him to our mix; two guys who just give us stability on our blue line. Klas Dahlbeck came in and had a pretty impressive year … as did Connor Murphy. Brandon Gormley comes in and establishes a name for himself.

"Long story short, I know we are going to be a better team next year."

Last season, the Coyotes had the worst record in the Western Conference and were 11-25-5 at Gila River Arena, their worst home record since they moved to Arizona 19 years ago. It included three home losing streaks of at least eight games.

They allowed 267 goals (third most in the NHL), and goalie Mike Smith had his worst season: 14-42-5, a 3.16 goals-against average, and no shutouts for the first time in his nine-year career. Smith allowed four goals or more in 21 of 62 games.

"I think we'll play better defense in front of [Smith], which is important," Maloney said. "I think we'll have a better structure in front of Mike so he doesn't feel like he has to be all-world every night and he can just do his thing. And we still would like to continue to search for a little more puck movement on our blue line."

Oliver Ekman-Larsson (23 goals, 43 points) is the cornerstone of the defensemen. Michalek returns after he was traded to the St. Louis Blues at the NHL Trade Deadline last season.

The Coyotes signed goalie Anders Lindback, the fourth backup they've had to start the past four seasons. Devan Dubnyk began last season as the backup before he was traded to the Minnesota Wild and became a Vezina Trophy finalist. Lindback split last season between the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars and was 6-16-2 with a 3.11 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.

"We could always use more scoring talent," Maloney said, "but those are all things I feel very comfortable with … we're going into training camp exactly with what we have and then let things evolve."

Offseason moves up front included bringing back free agent forward Antoine Vermette, who had 38 points last season, 35 with the Coyotes before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks and winning the Stanley Cup. Arizona also signed Steve Downie (14 goals, 28 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Brad Richardson (eight goals in 45 games with the Vancouver Canucks).

"Obviously, at center ice at the end of the year, there was no Martin Hanzal, who was hurt," Maloney said. "If you look at our center ice now, we start with Antoine Vermette who really had a tough second half, but it was all the drama pending the surrounding trade. But he's got a Stanley Cup on the resume and that never hurts. …

"We have a healthy Hanzal; we signed a guy I really like in Brad Richardson. Boyd Gordon, who we know and really love as a player. [Kyle] Chipchura can move to the wing, and Joe Vitale can play the wing as well, so that centerman position that was such a weakness last year, I think that becomes rock solid.

"It may not be the most puck-creative, but it's a group you can match up with any team here in the West on any night. It will give [coach Dave] Tippett some options in how he plays people. You can afford to have some youth on your wings as long as your center ice is solid."

Prospects Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Dylan Strome, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, could provide that youth.

The Coyotes had 56 points last season, 41 behind the Calgary Flames for third place in the Pacific Division. Despite finishing that far out of a Stanley Cup Playoff berth, Maloney said the Coyotes are much improved and he expects them to compete for a postseason spot.

"Our thing going into the season, we're still growing as a team, but we are entering the season to be a playoff team, and we've seen it in the past," he said. "I look at our roster and say, OK, we may not have the most pure talent as some of the teams in the West, but with a great coach and a great game plan and a stable center ice and a better blue line and solid goaltending, we should be able to compete every night, whether it's the Chicago Blackhawks or the Stanley Cup champions or the bottom of the Western Conference."


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