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Smith, Gagner, Hanzal are keys to Coyotes' success

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 may have changed their name, but the hurdles they face in trying to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs remain the same.

The former Phoenix Coyotes haven't made the postseason since 2011-12, when they got as far as the Western Conference Final. They came up two points short last season, but general manager Don Maloney is confident his team can get back to the playoffs.

"There are lots of good teams out West," he said. "That's OK; I like where we're at. I think our mix is going to be much better. We're always looking to get better, but I don't mind where we're at right now.

"I do like our defense and I like our goaltending. We're good there. We have to figure out if we have the mix of chemistry right up front, then we'll be fine. We'll be there at the end of the day when they start awarding playoff spots."

Here are three keys to success for the Coyotes in 2014-15:

1. Mike Smith has to play the way he did in 2011-12 -- The Coyotes took a flyer on Smith in the summer of 2011 and were rewarded when he won 38 regular-season games and helped the franchise earn its first two playoff series victories.

Smith hasn't been awful in the past two seasons, but he hasn't been as good as he was in '11-12. His 2.64 goals-against average last season was 30th in the League, and his .915 save percentage was 23rd. Still, it was the season-ending knee injury he sustained on March 24 that started the Coyotes on the slide that ended up costing them a playoff berth.

Maloney knows Smith has to play at an elite level again for his team to thrive.

"The good thing is that he's back and healthy," he said. "I think we can be as good as anybody in the League [in goal], and let's face it, we need to be. The bottom line for us is that we have to be top 10 in goaltending, if not top five, for us to get into the playoffs."

2. Sam Gagner has to become an offensive force -- Gagner is the only NHL player in the past 25 years to score eight points in a game (he did it on Feb. 2, 2012, while with the Edmonton Oilers). But he's never reached 19 goals or 50 points in any of his seven seasons since the Oilers chose him with the sixth pick in the 2007 NHL Draft.

Sam Gagner
Center - ARI
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 27 | PTS: 37
SOG: 143 | +/-: -29
The Coyotes are counting on Gagner, now 25, to fill the vacancy left when Mike Ribeiro was bought out.

"We see him as still a young, developing player who fits what we were looking for in regards to a younger player with some offensive abilities," Maloney said. "He had real tough luck last year injury-wise. We think a breath of fresh air at this point in his career will be good for him and good for us."

3. Martin Hanzal has to stay healthy -- Hanzal, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound center, had a career season in 2013-14, scoring 15 goals and finishing with 40 points despite missing 17 games and seeing limited ice time in several others due to injuries. In a conference that features a host of big, talented centers, a healthy Hanzal is a must for the Coyotes.

"Marty had a terrific first half of the season. He injured his groin a little bit at the Olympics, and really pulled it three games back, and he wasn't the same player," Maloney said. "We're not the same team without him. With a healthy Marty Hanzal we can play against anybody. I thought the two biggest reasons we missed [the playoffs] last year were the injury to Mike Smith in March and Marty Hanzal's health."

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