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Coyotes' success hinges on new goaltending duo

by Tal Pinchevsky
Despite the turmoil surrounding their arena and ownership, the Phoenix Coyotes managed another strong season under coach Dave Tippett.


Record: 43-26-13, 99 points, sixth in West

Dave Tippett (3rd season)

Interesting fact: Captain Shane Doan is the Coyotes' career leader in games played (1,119), game-winning goals (54) and shots (2,920). The 34-year-old right wing also has a chance to move up in a few different categories: Doan is currently in third place in franchise history for goals, assists and points.
The team did not appear in the top 10 in any major League categories and featured just a single player among the League's top 50 scorers -- Shane Doan ranked 49th with 60 points -- but the Coyotes still posted an impressive 99 points. That showing was enough to earn them the Western Conference's sixth seed for the postseason, which didn't do them any good when the Detroit Red Wings swept them out of the playoffs in the first round.

While the Coyotes sent Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto to Columbus for Rostislav Klesla and Dane Byers at the trade deadline, the running subtext surrounding Phoenix's roster mostly involved the man in their crease. Franchise goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov posted another strong season in net for the Coyotes, finishing in the League's top 10 in wins, shutouts, and time on ice. But as their offseason began, and it became increasingly evident that Bryzgalov would not be re-signing with the team, the Coyotes quickly sent the franchise goaltender's negotiating rights to Philadelphia for future considerations and a third-round pick in 2012.


1. Can the Coyotes make the playoffs yet again?
Phoenix made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11 after not appearing in the postseason since 2002. Can they make it three times in a row? It will certainly be hard without Bryzgalov in net, but the Coyotes might just have the right mix of veterans and youngsters to make it happen.

2. How much will the Coyotes miss Ilya Bryzgalov?
Bryzgalov is one of the top goaltenders in the League, and the Coyotes knew that he couldn't be replaced completely. They did, however, find someone who gives the team a chance to win every night. That's Mike Smith, who, at 29, brings the Coyotes a lot of upside and playoff experience.

3. How big is Keith Yandle's return?
It's huge. Yandle, who tallied 59 points last season, inked a new, five-year deal with the Coyotes this summer. The signing was huge for Phoenix, which will use Yandle's talent and leadership in quest for its third consecutive playoff berth.

-- Emily Kaplan
After signing a mammoth nine-year deal with the Flyers, Bryzgalov will no doubt be casting a long shadow over the Coyotes much of this season. But while they slowly came to terms with life after Bryzgalov, last season also saw the emergence of Keith Yandle. The young defenseman finished third in scoring among defenseman and earned an All-Star nod in a breakout season in which he played all 82 games. While Bryzgalov went to Philadelphia, the Coyotes demonstrated their dedication to Yandle by signing the 24-year-old to a five-year extension.

Tippett has never posted a losing season as an NHL coach and he's always been able to translate veteran depth into a competitive team. But considering the offseason roster moves and all the peripheral drama surrounding the team, this could prove to be a pivotal NHL season in the desert.

The departure of Bryzgalov will be the glaring hole in the lineup for much of the season. In his four seasons with the Coyotes, Bryzgalov established a franchise record in wins and tied Nikolai Khabibublin for the franchise shutout record despite playing 37 fewer games. Dane Byers left to re-sign with Columbus while center Eric Belanger joined the Oilers, winger Vernon Fiddler went to Dallas, and defenseman Nolan Yonkman signed with Florida. But there will be one other big name noticeably absent from the Coyotes blue line.

If Yandle represents the future of the Coyotes' blue line, then veteran Ed Jovanovski represents the past. For five seasons, Jovanovski was a stalwart on the Coyotes' defense, but injuries limited him to 50 games last season and Phoenix opted not to re-sign him. Jovanovski instead signed a four-year contract with Florida and leaves another glaring void on the back end.

As Bryzgalov's departure became inevitable, the Coyotes worked to bolster their hard-edged roster that had already benefited from the presence of Doan and veterans Ray Whitney, Adrian Aucoin, and Radim Vrbata. That meant signing free-agent forwards Boyd Gordon, Raffi Torres, and Kyle Chipchura, all of whom are known for providing conspicuous physicality in their play.


Kyle Turris, C – The third pick in 2007, Turris showed some improvement in his second NHL season, posting 25 points in 65 games and improving from a minus-15 to an even rating. But Turris' real breakthrough came in the playoffs, where he registered three points in four games and led the team in plus-minus. In his third season, the Coyotes are hoping to see a true breakout campaign from the 21-year old.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D – After showing tremendous poise for a 19-year-old defenseman last season, the young Swede will likely secure a place among Phoenix's defensemen. Ekman-Larsson didn't finish the season in Phoenix after being reassigned to San Antonio of the AHL, but the 48 games in which he did appear showed he was capable of staying with the big team for an entire season.

Andy Miele, C – He won't be the youngest prospect coming into Coyotes' camp and he certainly won't be the biggest. But 23-year-old Andy Miele should be the most decorated. The defending Hobey Baker Award winner rode an epic season at Miami (Ohio) into the Coyotes' development camp, where he caught the eye of coach Dave Tippett. With a noticeable lack of playmaking centers in the Coyotes' lineup, the door could be open for the fleet-footed Miele to make an impact.
In an effort to find a replacement for Bryzgalov, the Coyotes signed Mike Smith to a two-year contract and brought in Curtis McElhinney for depth. While Jason LaBarbera proved up to the task of backing up Bryzgalov last season, he won't be earning a promotion just yet. Within weeks of signing with Phoenix, Smith was named the team's starting goaltender for the upcoming season by Tippett.

Considering Smith's numbers pale in comparison to Bryzgalov, it's surprising that the Coyotes didn't make more of an effort to find a goaltender in this year's Entry Draft. Phoenix didn't draft a single netminder, but they did find some players with impressive hockey pedigrees. Their first two picks, Connor Murphy and Alexander Ruuttu, are both the sons of former NHL players but are not expected to make a mark on the team this season.

Regardless of what transpires with the team's ownership and arena situations, this season could ultimately indicate in which direction the team is headed. With a strong veteran presence both on offense and defense, the Coyotes will likely need to see younger players like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris continue to develop.

But the season will more than likely hinge on the play of Phoenix's goaltending. No one is comparing Smith to Bryzgalov, and veteran leadership and coaching can only carry the Coyotes so far in an ultra-competitive Pacific Division that nearly saw all five teams qualify for the playoffs. In a season expected to generate a number of different on-ice and off-ice headlines, the effectiveness of Phoenix's goaltending could have a big hand in how its 2011-12 season is ultimately remembered. .

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