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Coyotes look to ride defense, Smith back to playoffs

by John Kreiser / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The Arizona Coyotes will try to accomplish what the Phoenix Coyotes failed to do in each of the past two seasons: qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After advancing to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history in 2012, the renamed Coyotes have gone backward. Last season's failure was especially frustrating: They held a playoff berth for most of the season, but an injury to goaltender Mike Smith and an offensive drought left them two points behind the Dallas Stars in the race for the final wild-card position.

"Last year was sort of a funny year," Arizona general manager Don Maloney said. "We scored a little more, but we surprisingly gave up a lot of leads in the third period when in the past we were able to lock things down."

The Coyotes are counting on a healthy Smith to carry the load in goal, and Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson lead one of the NHL's best point-generating groups of defensemen. But no Coyotes forward had more than 51 points last season, and one of the two who did, Radim Vrbata, signed as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks. Maloney also bought out center Mike Ribeiro (who then signed with the Nashville Predators) after he had 47 points in 80 games.

PROJECTED LINEUP

FORWARDS
M. Boedker A. Vermette S. Doan
L. Korpikoski S. Gagner M. Erat
M. Domi M. Hanzal D. Moss
B. McMillan J. Vitale K. Chipchura
Extras:
R. Klinkhammer
B.J. Crombeen
DEFENSEMEN
O. Ekman-Larsson Z. Michalek
K. Yandle M. Stone
B. Gormley D. Schlemko
Extras: C. Summers C. Murphy
GOALIES
M. Smith
D. Dubnyk

Maloney is counting on a boost from his biggest offseason acquisition, forward Sam Gagner, to replace some of the offense that left with Vrbata and Ribeiro. He's also hoping young forwards like 2013 first-round pick Max Domi are ready for the NHL.

"The Western Conference is daunting when you look at the teams we have to compete with to get to the playoffs. But I like where we're at right now," he said. "If we can have a little surprise in the sense that Sam Gagner comes in and has a good year, maybe a couple of young guys come through. Our defense looks good and obviously we need Mike Smith and [Devan] Dubnyk to do a good job in goal."

Perhaps the biggest asset in Arizona is a coaching staff, led by Dave Tippett, which has managed to produce competitive teams despite limited resources.

"I think we get everything possible out of the group that we have. We are who we are. We're not the top spending team, not that money equates [to success], but we have to make do with what we have," Maloney said. "So much of what we do is predicated on chemistry, good goaltending and great coaching. It comes down to that, as far as I'm concerned."

With two of their top-five scorers from last season no longer with the team, the Coyotes are going to expect a lot from their biggest offseason acquisition. But Gagner has yet to score more than 18 goals or finish with more than 49 points in his seven NHL seasons.

Maloney is confident a change of scenery will help.

"I think on our team; we're not overly blessed with a ton of top-end skill, he'll have every opportunity to play in those skill situations and hopefully his game will continue to improve," he said.

COYOTES AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Arizona Coyotes players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

70. Keith Yandle, D (Metzer's 'D' ranks)

72. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D (Metzer's 'D' ranks)

94. Mike Smith, G (Overvalued)

156. Shane Doan, LW/RW (Undervalued)

165. Mikkel Boedker, LW

186. Sam Gagner, C/RW (Jensen's sleeper)

221. Antoine Vermette, LW/C

233. Martin Hanzal, C

"The good thing with Sam is that he's flexible; he can play wing or center. We don't look at him as a pure No. 1 center in the National Hockey League; it depends on who we're playing on what night and what the matchups are. We do see him playing in a top-two line role. All we know is we got a good young player with really good talent, something that we lacked."

The departure of Vrbata removes one of last season's three 20-goal scorers. Versatile center Antoine Vermette led the way with 24 goals, one more than captain Shane Doan, who missed time while battling a case of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Mikkel Boedker, the eighth player taken in the 2008 NHL Draft, had by far his best season with 19 goals and 51 points.

At 37 (he turns 38 on Oct. 10), Doan is the face of the franchise. He is the only player whose tenure predates the move from Winnipeg in 1996, has been the captain since 2003-04 and has scored 20 or more goals 12 times, including last season.

"He's so important, not only with his leadership as captain, but on the ice as well," Maloney said. "He's still a front-line player for us, and we need him to be a front-line player for us. He's invaluable to us as the face of our franchise, the model we want to set of who we are and how we want to play. Hopefully he'll set the example of how we have to play to get into the playoffs."

Doan, who's in his 20th NHL training camp, is eager to get going.

"It's still fun. I love the competition and going out there on the ice and competing on the ice," he told the media on the first day of camp. "It's a blast.”

There are jobs to be won up front, and Maloney hopes a couple of his young players will be ready. He's especially eager to see if Domi, No. 25 on NHL.com's ranking of the Top 60 prospects in the League, is capable of making the jump.

But he won't push too hard.

"Max Domi is a terrific young player. He has all the ingredients that we need right now: He's quick, he's smart, he can make plays with the puck. He's an offensive player," Maloney said. "But he's only 19, and we're not doing to do anything short-term to retard his development because we've done it in the past. We're excited to see him."

More than most teams, the Coyotes rely on their defense to drive their offense. Yandle has led the team in scoring in each of the past two seasons, and Ekman-Larsson was among the NHL's top 15 defensemen in scoring (44 points, including 15 goals) despite facing the opposition's top lines on a nightly basis.

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: C Sam Gagner (trade, Lightning); C Joe Vitale, F (free agent, Penguins); RW B.J. Crombeen (trade, Lightning); G Devan Dubnyk, (free agent, Canadiens)

SUBTRACTIONS: RW Radim Vrbata (free agent, Canucks); C Mike Ribeiro (buyout, Predators); G Thomas Greiss (free agent, Penguins); LW Tim Kennedy (free agent, Capitals); LW Paul Bissonnette (free agent, Blues); D Derek Morris (free agent); RW Brandon Yip (free agent); C Jeff Halpern (free agent)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: C Max Domi; LW Lucas Lessio; C Henrik Samuelsson; D Brandon Gormley; D Connor Murphy

"You look at Keith Yandle from transition, lugging pucks up ice, generating offense with his skating. He's been one of the top-scoring defensemen in the League for the past four or five years," Maloney said. "I think he's improved defending as well.

"Ekman-Larsson is really a treat to watch. He's one of the best defenders in the League, and he's still maturing as a player. People who don't get to watch him on a regular basis are missing something, because he's that good."

Zbynek Michalek, a stay-at-home type, usually partners with Ekman-Larsson. Mike Stone, David Schlemko and first-round draft picks Brandon Gormley (2010) and Connor Murphy (2012) are also in the mix.

"We feel like our blue line is in good shape. But the bottom line is the two horses … Yandle and Ekman-Larsson," Maloney said. "When people ask how we're going to score, they look at our forward group and say 'Do you have enough offense?' We may not look it up front, per se, but so much is driven from our back end."

Maloney struck gold three years ago when he signed Smith as a free agent after Smith had failed to grab the starting job with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He won 38 games and led the franchise to its first two playoff series victories since the move to Phoenix.

But Smith has been good, not great, in the past two seasons. His save percentage dropped from .930 in 2011-12 to .910 in 2012-13 and improved only slightly last season, to .915. His goals-against average has climbed from 2.21 to 2.58 to 2.64.

Smith was a member of Canada's gold medal-winning team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and looked sharper after he returned, only to see his season end on March 24 when he sustained a knee injury in a game against the New York Rangers. Without Smith, the Coyotes went 3-4-3 and wound up missing the playoffs.

"I thought that from the Olympic break on, Mike was back to being the goaltender that we hoped we were getting when we signed him to that [long-term] contract," Maloney said. "He was dominating. He was running at about a .935 save percentage and a 1.60 goals-against average; his numbers were great. All of a sudden he was dialed in. I felt fairly confident that he would help us get there.

"[Losing him] is no different than when Carey Price or Henrik Lundqvist get hurt; that's how important Mike is to us."

Backup Thomas Greiss signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent, so Maloney brought in Dubnyk, who ended last season in the American Hockey League after going from the Edmonton Oilers to the Nashville Predators to the Montreal Canadiens. Dubnyk has never had a winning record or a goals-against average of better than 2.57 in five NHL seasons spent mostly with the Oilers, but Maloney is optimistic the 28-year-old will improve in his new home.

"I really like the Dubnyk-Smith combination," he said. "I think it will be great because when we need a guy like Dubnyk -- he needs to regain his game and he's still young enough to do that."

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