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Coyotes confident young, veteran players will mesh

by Jerry Brown

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One Arizona Coyotes fan from Canada wanted to know if the team would consider adding more tasty sweets from home to augment the hugely popular Tim Hortons kiosk at Gila River Arena.

Then there was the yoga instructor who instructed coach Dave Tippett to have his players sit up straight on the bench between shifts so they could take in more oxygen and store more energy.

But after more than an hour of questions from the hundreds of fans who attended the Coyotes' annual Town Hall meeting Tuesday, the final questioner seemed to sum up the sentiments of the room.

No one was interested in sitting through another season like 2014-15, when the Coyotes had the second-worst record in the NHL, shipped off at the NHL Trade Deadline, and played out the schedule with spare parts who will not return this season.

"It's time to play the kids," the fan said. "Let them play."

That is the plan for the Coyotes in 2015-16. A farm system stocked with highly regarded talent is expected to blend with some seasoned veterans, learn on the job and build a foundation for better days.

Rather than inviting the normal 40-50 prospects to their annual rookie camp, 28 players took the ice Tuesday. Instead of watching from the stands with general manager Don Maloney, Tippett and the entire Coyotes coaching staff was on the ice (10 coaches) running the prospects through a high-tempo, drill-packed practice that did not have a single shift of scrimmages.

Forwards Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are the leading candidates to grab two of the three or four  roster spots Maloney and Tippett hope to fill with fresh faces. Forwards Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak, Ryan MacInnis and 2015 No. 3 pick Dylan Strome have a chance to prove themselves.

"We wanted this camp to have more individual attention to the people that we think matter right now," Tippett said. "We're trying to fast-track people to the NHL and we have to give them as much attention as possible.

"This roster has the most possibilities for spots that I've ever seen in my time in the NHL. We've got spots that we purposely left for young players to come and take and need players to step up and take them."

But Maloney said the Coyotes aren't going the way of the Edmonton Oilers; they won't play all the kids at once. Arizona was very active when free agency opened July 1, bringing back three players (forwards Boyd Gordon and Antoine Vermette and defenseman Zbynek Michalek) from their 2012 run to the Western Conference Final and four more veterans (forward Steve Downie, defenseman Nicklas Grossman, goalie Anders Lindback and center Brad Richardson) in hopes of mixing young and old with the core of defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, forwards Mikkel Boedker and Shane Doan and goalie Mike Smith.

"We filled holes that were important to us. Now we can sleep a little better at night knowing we have a team with that core group and the young people we have coming in," Maloney said. "I like where we are. We solidified our center ice, our blue line is more stable, we got a backup for Mike in goal, and we have lots of room for young players, four or five of them if they show they belong.

"Could we add another skilled forward before the season? A puck-moving defenseman? It wouldn't hurt. There are a lot of players still looking for work and a lot of teams have either spent what they have to spend or they are trying to move money around. So we're actually in a pretty good spot. We can pick and choose. If the price comes to where we feel it's appropriate, we'll do that."

But first, the kids will get their chance to impress. Tippett said his coaches marveled at the amount of skill that was on the ice compared to last year's camp.

"You look at Max Domi two years ago and then today, now he's ready to take the step," Tippett said. "The difference in a guy like Perlini and Dvorak in just one year, and the addition of people like Duclair and Strome … it's a good group of young talent."

Off the ice, the Coyotes' ongoing saga with the city of Glendale and their lease at Gila River Arena is winding its way through the courts. Coyotes co-owner Anthony LeBlanc reinforced that the team isn't leaving Arizona, and though the idea of returning to Talking Stick Arena in downtown Phoenix or pursuing a new arena with the NBA's Phoenix Suns is intriguing, the Coyotes' goal is to remain at Gila River Arena and resolve the issues with Glendale.

But the uncertainty continues to hinder the Coyotes. Maloney was unable to come to a long-term contract with Boedker and settled for a one-year contract Tuesday, one that could allow Boedker to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.

"The [Glendale situation] had a direct impact on the deal. I think it had the most impact, to be honest," Maloney said. "There was concern over what's going to happen here so [Boedker] took a short deal."

There was talk at the Town Hall of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the Coyotes lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the conference final three years ago. But in a conference that keeps getting tougher and with a group of players who will learn on the job, taking steps forward from last season's 24-win team is the immediate goal.

Tippett, who wasn't shy about saying he needed to see improvement and commitment from the organization after his most difficult season as a coach, is invigorated by the additions of Downie and Grossmann and the crop of kids he is putting through their paces. He pointed to the 13-goal output of Tobias Rieder, 22, last season and knows more help is on the way.

"We've been patchwork for a long time. It was bound to catch up with us and it did," Tippett said. "But when you're on the ice with these kids and you see that skill level and the speed, it gives us all hope that now we're going in the right direction."

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