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Offense remains a huge question mark for Coyotes

by Corey Masisak

It probably wouldn't feel like a normal offseason for Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett if his team didn't have plenty of questions to answer for the forthcoming campaign.

Since taking over in 2009, Tippett has kept the Coyotes focused despite distractions away from the ice with the ownership situation and on it with key defections, leading them to three consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearances. He lost his No. 1 goaltender last summer -- the Coyotes dealt impending free agent Ilya Bryzgalov to the Philadelphia Flyers, where he signed a nine-year, $51 million contract -- and the Coyotes responded with the franchise's first division title and first trip to the conference finals.

30 in 30: Phoenix Coyotes

Coyotes face uncertainty despite success

By Corey Masisak - staff writer
The Coyotes are coming off the best season in franchise history, but ownership questions still hover over the team. READ MORE ›

The White Out was back in in the desert and Arena was rocking until Phoenix ran into the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings after dispatching the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators in the first two rounds. Their $4 million goalie is back for the second year of his deal, but Mike Smith replicating his breakout campaign, and where the offense will come from, are among the top six questions for the Coyotes as 2012-13 approaches.

1. Who is going to score?

Ray Whitney is gone to the Dallas Stars and captain Shane Doan remains unsigned -- meaning a below-average offense may have to replace 46 goals and 127 points.

Steve Sullivan and David Moss are free-agent signings who could end up in those top-six forward positions, but they alone aren't going to replace Whitney and possibly Doan. Sullivan had 17 goals last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Moss had 17 the year before for the Calgary Flames, so somewhere around 35 goals from them is a reasonable expectation if they receive premium minutes.

Having Antoine Vermette for a full season should help, and Martin Hanzal should improve on his eight goals and 34 points if he's centering the top line. The Coyotes boost their scoring by committee approach with an above-average amount of offense from the blue line.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle are one of the best young offensive defenseman duos in the League, and Ekman-Larsson in particular has room to increase his output. There are other offensively inclined rearguards on the way as well.

2. Can Mike Smith prove he wasn't a one-hit wonder?

Smith's contract was seven years and $47 million less than Bryzgalov, the man he replaced. Not only did Smith produce a regular season worthy of a fourth-place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting, he got stronger in the postseason -- something Bryzgalov did not do in his two seasons with Phoenix.

Smith posted a .944 save percentage in the postseason -- and he put up at least a .920 save percentage in 14 of the Coyotes' 16 playoff games. Now Smith will have to prove he can do it again, and his workload from last season is worth noting.

Smith played in 83 games in 2011-12 including the postseason. His previous highs at any major level were 58 as an 18-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League and 57 in the American Hockey League at 23. He turned 30 in March, and this will be his first season where greatness is not only expected for him at the NHL level, but quite possibly needed if the Coyotes do struggle to score goals.

3. Will Antoine Vermette and Mikkel Boedker produce like they did in the playoffs?

Vermette joined the club before the trade deadline and ended up as Phoenix's leading scorer in the postseason with five goals and 10 points. Boedker had a nice rookie season, then spent two years shuttling back and forth to the AHL. Last season he had 11 goals and 24 points in 82 regular-season contests for the Coyotes, but ended up with four goals and eight points in the playoffs. They teamed with Doan to form Phoenix's most productive line in the postseason.

Vermette and Boedker are likely to be paired again on the second line; whether Doan returns to join them remains to be determined. Something north of 40 goals and 80 points combined from Vermette and Boedker would certainly help ease the loss of Whitney.

4. How much can Sullivan help the power play?

One sure-fire way to produce more offense for the Coyotes would be to fix the power play. Phoenix finished 29th in the League last season at 13.6 percent with the man advantage. Ceding control of the possession battle in a defense-first style also leads to fewer chances to draw penalties. Toss in six shorthanded goals against, and the Coyotes’ net gain on the power play was the worst in the NHL.

Enter Sullivan, who has a well-earned reputation as a man-advantage maestro. He could be deployed at one of the points next to Yandle or Ekman-Larsson, or on the half-wall below those two. Either way, expect to see a lot of him holding the puck and dictating Phoenix's power play -- and the results will improve provided guys are able to finish on the opportunities he creates.

5. Is the next wave of defensemen ready to make an impact?

Yandle and Ekman-Larsson could be joined by some quality defenseman prospects in the Phoenix system this season. (Getty Images)

Yandle (26 years old next month) and Ekman-Larsson (21) are still young and evolving, but there is also another group of quality prospects vying to join them.

Brandon Gormley and David Rundblad have significant offensive potential, and Michael Stone had nine goals in 51 AHL games last season. Even Maxim Goncharov put up strong numbers in the KHL before two seasons in the AHL.

There is probably only room for one of those four to start this season with the Coyotes (Stone got some spot duty in the postseason), but any or all of them could see time with Phoenix at some point. The other stalwarts besides Yandle and Ekman-Larsson aren't likely to be impact guys at the offensive end, but one of the kids could be. Even another minor boost from the back end could help offset the losses.

6. Will Zbynek Michalek fit in well during his second tour of duty?

Michalek played his first five full NHL seasons with the Coyotes after arriving in a trade, but he signed a five-year, $20 million pact with Pittsburgh in the summer of 2009. He scuffled at bit at times with the Penguins and struggled to fit into coach Dan Bylsma's uptempo system, drawing criticism along with fellow free-agent signee Paul Martin.

The Penguins wanted to clear salary-cap space in an attempt to lure Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, so the Coyotes were happy to take Michalek back with three years and $12 million left on his contract. Michalek is a defense-first guy and a shot-blocker. Combine that with his familiarity in Phoenix and he could provide an already strong defense corps with a nice boost.

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22

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