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Coyotes hope to put attention where it belongs

by Eric Stephens /
These days, the Phoenix Coyotes would love to just talk about the upcoming season and whether the changes they made in the off-season and their maturing crop of youngsters will result in their first postseason appearance since 2002.

Alas, if only this season were just about hockey.

The current ownership battle has left the Coyotes uncertain about their future in Arizona. Wayne Gretzky, who coached the team for the past four seasons, never arrived for training camp and then resigned as coach and director of hockey operations on Sept. 24. Associate coach Ulf Samuelsson had been running training camp in Gretzky's absence; former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett was hired as coach the same day Gretzky quit.

The tug-of-war also has left the team's fan base disillusioned, with many wondering if the franchise will eventually move from the Valley of the Sun. But there are those who would love to stop that from happening.

Ultimately, there's one way to get people excited about driving to Arena in suburban Glendale. The Coyotes must win.

"We do have fans," Phoenix GM Don Maloney said. "It really is a great fan base. We have very loyal fans and we have to show them that we can put out a winning product. I think if we do that, all of these other issues will take care of themselves."

The on-ice product is intriguing. A young group of homegrown products -- Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker -- represent the core Phoenix would like to build around, but they suffered some growing pains at times last season, particularly when the team fell out of playoff contention following a disastrous stretch after the All-Star break.

Maloney has admitted that too much responsibility was placed on his youngsters and worked to ease the load placed on them and venerable captain Shane Doan by acquiring several pieces for more depth up front.

The Coyotes also shuffled the deck within the defense corps as they focused on being a tougher team to play against. But if they are to bring playoff hockey back to Arizona, they'll need one or more of their burgeoning talents to break through.

If that happens, the headlines in Phoenix will be about more than what's occurring off the ice.

Since the trade deadline last March, Maloney has made a number of moves to re-shape his grouping outside of Doan, their longtime captain and franchise face.

It will take some time to sort out the roles and determine who will play with whom. Deadline acquisitions Matthew Lombardi, Scottie Upshall and Petr Prucha will be with the Coyotes from the start, with Lombardi likely centering the top line alongside Doan.

Phoenix is hoping familiar surroundings will get veteran right wing Radim Vrbata back on track. Vrbata parlayed a career-high 27 goals with the Coyotes in 2007-08 into a big free-agent contract with Tampa Bay, but his stay lasted just 18 games after returning to his native Czech Republic due to personal issues.

Vrbata should be on the second line, which Peter Mueller will center after being moved to the wing last season. The return to his natural position should help Mueller, who slumped last season after a terrific rookie season in 2007-08.

As for the left side, Upshall played well following his acquisition from Philadelphia and could flourish in a bigger role after being stuck among a deep group of forwards with the Flyers. Prucha fell out of favor with the Rangers but did have back-to-back seasons of 30 and 22 goals in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Taylor Pyatt had 23 goals in 2006-07 and is trying to find his game again after an emotionally-trying season in Vancouver.             

Vernon Fiddler was brought in on a two-year contract to kill penalties and win faceoffs, something the Coyotes were the worst at in the NHL. Fiddler, 29, won 54.1 percent of his draws for Nashville last season.

In short, Maloney has augmented his lineup with second- and third-tier players that he hopes will thrive in Phoenix as he works with a tight budget while the ownership situation is worked out.

"We're kind of conscious about who we can go after," Maloney said. "We filled some needs with some of the players we got. We know we're not in the market in going after high-end guys."

Beyond the top six, the Coyotes have some forwards that will work and play sound hockey in the defensive end. Hanzal is establishing himself as a shut-down center while Boedker plays a strong two-way games. Both can tap further into their offensive game.

Look for Daniel Winnik to resume his energy role and try to return to his 2007-08 form when he had 11 goals and 26 points in 79 games. Left wing David Spina is a long shot, but the Boston College product could become the first Arizona-born and -trained player to make the NHL.

The wild card is Kyle Turris, who arrived with a lot of hype as the third pick in the 2007 Entry Draft. He struggled through his rookie season with a back injury that he hopes is cleared up through off-season surgery. Turris will start the season in the American Hockey League, but if he plays the same way in San Antonio as he did last season -- 7 points in eight games -- he could be back in the NHL soon.

The Coyotes also could keep center Kevin Porter on their opening-night lineup. The 2008 Hobey Baker Award winner as the top NCAA player while at the University of Michigan has had a terrific camp thus far after splitting time in Phoenix and San Antonio last season. Porter, 23, had 5 goals and 5 assists in 34 games with Phoenix. He had 13 and 22 assists in 42 games with the Rampage.

"By the end of the year, I really thought he figured it out," Maloney said.

On paper, it appears as if the Coyotes are lacking in premier offensive talent. Doan, a nine-time 20-goal scorer who is getting better over time, makes them go, but whether players like Lombardi, Mueller and Turris are ready to become featured players will determine if Phoenix can compete in the rough Pacific Division.

Maloney has had to re-tool his blue line after dealing away Keith Ballard and Derek Morris in recent seasons. Two of their biggest moves this summer were the acquisitions of veterans Adrian Aucoin and Jim Vandermeer, and both are expected to have large roles on the back end.

Aucoin, 36, still possesses a big shot from point and should help the Coyotes' power play as he has posted 34 or more points in five of his last seven NHL seasons. Vandermeer, 29, provides the bite and is willing to drop the gloves when needed.

"Adding Adrian Aucoin gives us a big shot at the blue line and a proven guy that can move the puck," Maloney said. "Jim Vandermeer is a tough son of a gun to play against. Both give us a bit more grit on the back end."

The two should provide support for veteran Ed Jovanovski and young Keith Yandle. Jovanovski, 33, played in all 82 games last season but his numbers (9-27-36) dropped across the board from 2007-08, when he had 12 goals and 51 points. Yandle, 23, began to show the promise the organization has long held for him and should top the 30 points he posted last season.

Zbynek Michalek and Kurt Sauer developed into a shut-down duo last season. Michalek is particularly adept at blocking shots, leading the League last season with 271, while Sauer's absence for 14 games due to a foot injury was particularly felt during the club's swoon following the All-Star break.

Sami Lepisto could crack the opening-night roster after getting seven-game looks by the Washington Capitals in each of the last two seasons. The 24-year-old Finnish native, acquired in June for a 2010 fifth-round pick, has shown the ability to move the puck at the AHL level.

The Coyotes selected Oliver Ekman-Larsson with the sixth pick of the 2009 Entry Draft and the Swedish rearguard joins Jonas Ahlenov, Chris Summers and Maxim Goncharov as upcoming blue-line prospects. But don't count on any of them to arrive until 2010-11 at the earliest.

When Maloney plucked Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers from Anaheim two years ago, it was considered a steal for the franchise. Bryzgalov was seen as a potential No. 1 goalie that was caught in a numbers game and needed an opportunity elsewhere.

Bryzgalov has been given that chance in Phoenix but the results have been mixed. The affable 29-year-old Russian has put up decent numbers, but consistency issues and a leaky defense have kept him from the joining the ranks of the elite.

Signed for two more seasons, Bryzgalov will need to improve his 2008-09 numbers (26-31-6, 2.98 goals-against average) if the Coyotes have any serious designs on making the playoffs.

Jason LaBarbera, who started on occasion in Los Angeles and backed up Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, was brought in as a potential backup.

"We need them to be at the top of our conference in their numbers and their play," Maloney said. "We need to push them to be better."

Al Montoya, the sixth pick of the 2004 Entry Draft, is waiting for an opportunity to arise. He had a miserable 2008-09 season in the minors, but redeemed himself in a five-game stint with the Coyotes, as he went 3-1-0 with one shutout.

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