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Coyotes have work cut out after surprise season

by Brian Compton
The Phoenix Coyotes shocked the hockey world last season when they racked up 107 points and qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.

Now, they must prove it wasn't a fluke.

Despite the fact that their ownership situation was in limbo, the Coyotes, led by late-hire Dave Tippett, won 50 games and finished just six points behind the first-place San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Division. Ilya Bryzgalov (42-20-6, 2.29 goals-against average) was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the League's top goaltender, while Shane Doan captained a group of players who were clearly on the same page throughout the regular season.

Unfortunately for the Coyotes, Doan was injured during the team's opening-round series against the Detroit Red Wings and they were ousted in seven games.

"This is a very special group of players," Tippett said after his team suffered a 6-1 loss to the Wings in Game 7 at Arena. "The camaraderie and the way these guys interact, it's very rare. There's a lot of things that really went very well for this group this year. It's a good foundation."

That foundation suffered a couple of heavy losses this summer. For starters, defenseman Zbynek Michalek bolted the desert on the opening day of free agency to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It will be interesting to see if anyone is capable of filling the void left by Michalek, who averaged more than 22 minutes per game and is one of the League's top shot blockers.

One day later, Phoenix was hit hard again when it learned that Matthew Lombardi signed a three-year deal with the Nashville Predators. Lombardi, who was the Coyotes' top play-making center, finished third on the team in scoring with 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists).

In addition, defensemen James Vandermeer (traded to Edmonton) and Mathieu Schneider (free agent) are also no longer in the fold, while Lee Stempniak, who was dynamite down the stretch after arriving via trade from Toronto, remains a free agent.

Looking for added leadership and some offensive punch, Coyotes GM Don Maloney made a quality signing when Ray Whitney agreed to terms on the opening day of free agency. Whitney, 38, spent the past five seasons in Carolina, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2006. He has 324 goals in 1,072 NHL games.

Maloney then added some depth to his stable of forwards when he signed Andrew Ebbett on July 2. The 27-year-old had 15 points (9 goals, 6 assists) in 61 games with Anaheim, Chicago and Minnesota. Fourteen of those points came in 49 games with the Wild.

While the Coyotes were unable to bring in an established defenseman to replace Michalek, they may have landed one of the steals of the Entry Draft with the selection of Brandon Gormley at No. 13. Gormley, projected by some to be a top-five pick, had 43 points (9 goals, 34 assists) in 58 games for the Moncton Wildcats in the QMJHL last season. If he doesn’t make the Coyotes out of training camp, the 18-year-old will return to Moncton for a third season.

Given the losses of Michalek, Lombardi and Stempniak, the Coyotes will likely have a tough time repeating the success they enjoyed last season.

Wojtek Wolski, who was acquired late last season from the Colorado Avalanche, recently signed a new two-year deal with the Coyotes. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder will be relied on to provide at least the same amount of offense as 2009-10, when he had 23 goals and 42 assists.

Just as important is the return of Scottie Upshall, who was limited to just 49 games last season due to a knee injury suffered against Calgary on Jan. 28. Upshall, who turns 27 on Oct. 7, tallied 32 points (18 goals, 14 assists) prior to the season-ending injury.

Ed Jovanovski returns to anchor the defense and could possibly receive even more ice time due to Michalek's departure. Jovanovski, 34, averaged more than 21 minutes per game last season. He'll be joined by Adrian Aucoin, who rejuvenated himself in the desert last season and contributed at both ends of the ice. Also in the fold are Derek Morris -- who recently signed a four-year contract -- as well as Keith Yandle, Sami Lepisto, Kurt Sauer and David Schlemko. It will be their task to make Bryzgalov's job as easy as possible.

While the Coyotes lost some key players this summer to free agency, Bryzgalov will give them a chance to win every night.

Phoenix will also need to get more offense from Petr Prucha, who showed signs that he's capable of returning to the 30-goal form he displayed with the Rangers in 2005-06. Still only 27 years old, Prucha went 13-9-22 during the regular season and had a goal and 2 assists in the playoffs. It will also be interesting to see if Mikkel Boedker can make the full-time jump to the NHL after the 20-year-old had just 1 goal in 14 games for the Coyotes. He went 11-27-38 in 64 AHL contests.

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