Not much has gone right for the Phoenix Coyotes
in their 12 years since moving to the desert from Winnipeg in 1996. They haven't won a playoff series and have made the postseason just four times -- and not at all since 2002.
But they showed signs of progress last season. Thanks to the better-than-expected play of several rookies, the leadership and scoring of captain Shane Doan
and the early season addition of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov
off waivers from Anaheim, the Coyotes were in the playoff race until the final few games of the season while becoming one of the NHL's surprise stories.
Not until a lack of scoring finally took its toll in the last couple weeks of the season were the Coyotes finally eliminated from the playoff race -- and not until Phoenix had shown that better days were ahead.
And offensive help is on the way. General Manager Don Maloney
dealt a pair of talented, young defensemen to Florida to get the No. 1 center his team needed -- Olli Jokinen
, who had 34 goals in 2007-08 and has reached the 30-goal mark in four of the past five seasons.
Jokinen's arrival figures to take some pressure off Kyle Turris
, the Coyotes' No. 1 pick (No. 3) in the 2007 Entry Draft. With Jokinen as the first-line center, Turris should be able to get used to the NHL without being thrown to the wolves.
"We needed that No. 1 center, to get more credibility -- even with our fans," Maloney said. "Getting Jokinen also means we don't have to rush Turris."
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(12th West/23rd NHL)
|Change from 2006-07
(14th West/29th NHL)
(4th East/9th NHL)
"To me this is a playoff team," Maloney said. "We expect to make it this year. And that's not just a wish or a dream."
The Coyotes appeared headed for the Western Conference basement last season until they landed Bryzgalov off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks
a few days before Thanksgiving. Bryzgalov pitched a shutout in his debut with Phoenix and wound up going 28-25-6 with a 2.44 goals-against average, a .920 save percentage and three shutouts.
Bryzgalov had helped the Ducks to the Stanley Cup the previous spring, stepping in during the early rounds when Jean-Sebastien Giguere
was injured. Having a goaltender with a ring who wanted more than anything to be an NHL starter made a huge difference to the Coyotes.
"He gave us identity and a belief that we could win," Maloney said. "His attitude coming over here after winning the Cup in Anaheim last year was, 'Hey guys, we have a good team, let's get to the playoffs.' He made a huge difference."
Bryzgalov wasn't flawless. There were times when he seemed to lose some focus, allowing weak goals near the start or end of a period. But he never lacks confidence, and when his concentration is sharp, he's as good as any goaltender in the NHL.
Bryzgalov's arrival pushed Mikael Tellqvist
(9-8-2, 2.75 GAA, .908 save percentage) into the role of backup, where he seemed much more comfortable. Look for Gretzky to try to keep Bryzgalov fresh by spotting Tellqvist more often and not forcing Bryzgalov to go too long without a night off.
If Tellqvist struggles, the Coyotes could call up Al Montoya
, the No. 6 pick in the 2004 Draft who came from the Rangers in a trade in February.
Jokinen's arrival likely means that last season's top rookie, 2006 first-rounder Peter Mueller
, will move from center to left wing. Mueller, the No. 7 pick two years ago, had 22 goals and 54 points in his first NHL season and showed signs that he can be a big scorer.
The Coyotes also drafted a pair of promising kids who may be able to step in and produce right away by taking Mikkel Boedker
with the No. 8 pick and taking Russian Viktor Tikhonov
at No. 28. Maloney says it's not impossible that both players could make the team. Having a chance to learn from a coach like Wayne Gretzky
isn't the worst thing in the world, either.
The Coyotes lost Radim Vrbata
, who had a career season with 27 goals and 56 points despite a late-season slump and signed with Tampa Bay. Mueller is expected to take his spot on the top line along with Doan, who did about everything the Coyotes could have asked of him.
Doan led the Coyotes in goals (28), assists (50), points (78), power-play goals (9) and game-winners (5, tied with two others). He did everything but sell popcorn, and the arrival of Jokinen should make him a 30-goal man.
Turris spent a year getting bigger and smarter at the University of Wisconsin before signing with the Coyotes and playing his first three NHL games. He's a good skater with an excellent release, and the Coyotes have big expectations for him.
"Kyle can be a special player," said Keith Gretzky
, the Coyotes' director of amateur scouting. "He has speed and skill and a great work ethic. He really wants to win. He can be very special."
Turris is glad to have Jokinen to take some of the pressure off.
"He'll add a lot and make this a really competitive team," Turris said. "I can't wait to see how he does things and learn from him."
But the Coyotes have other good young talent as well. Center Martin Hanzal
had eight goals and 35 points as a rookie and showed signs that he's capable of much more with a strong showing down the stretch. Daniel Carcillo
piled up 324 penalty minutes as a rookie last season and suffered at times from a lack of discipline, but also scored 13 goals. Another first-year player, Daniel Winnik
, had 11 goals.
And there's more talent coming. Besides Boedker and Tikhonov, Hobey Baker Award winner Kevin Porter
has a chance to make the team. So does Brett MacLean
, a terrific junior scorer who might have to spend some time in the minors to improve his skating.
The addition of Jokinen should give a boost to the offense, but he came at a cost -- the Coyotes had to part with two good young defensemen, Keith Ballard
and Nick Boynton
. Both were regulars last season, and one of Wayne Gretzky
's biggest tasks will be finding replacements.
The Coyotes finally got a healthy season from former No. 1 pick Ed Jovanovski
, who had 12 goals and 51 points in 80 games. Eight of those goals came on the power play, helping to negate his minus-13 rating.
, the other returning veteran on the blue line, had eight goals, 25 points and a plus-8 rating but may have to produce more. The Coyotes brought in Kurt Sauer
(from Colorado) and David Hale
(from Calgary) to provide some muscle on the blue line, and have high hopes for 2005 draft pick Keith Yandle
and 2007 first-rounder Nick Ross
Ross, who is not a big scorer, has a real chance to earn a job in his first season as a pro.
"He's got to pick up his intensity and play with emotion every shift," Keith Gretzky
said. "If he does that, he has a chance to make the club. We have some openings on defense."
Three reasons for optimism
* It's hard to understate what the addition of Jokinen means. The Coyotes haven't had a true No. 1 center in years, and Jokinen will have something to prove -- he's never taken part in a playoff game and wants very badly to shake that stigma.
* The Coyotes will have Bryzgalov for the entire season. By the time he came aboard in 2007-08, the Coyotes were already buried in last place in the Pacific Division and spent the rest of the season trying to catch up.
* There's plenty of talent on the way. Turris is one of hockey's top prospects, and the Coyotes had an excellent draft -- Boedker and Tikhonov both could be on the roster in October, and there are other youngsters coming fast who will push the veterans, something any team always wants to see. There's a perception that after years of being lost in the desert, this is a team on the upswing.
Contact John Kreiser at email@example.com.