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Young Coyotes endure growing pains

by Doug Ward

The Phoenix Coyotes improved their record 16 points over 2006-07 and came within eight points of a playoff spot. Watch Coyotes video
The end of the hockey season in Arizona again pretty much coincided with the end of baseball's Cactus League schedule, with the Phoenix Coyotes missing out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth-straight year. Still, if NHL respectability comes one step at a time, the Coyotes took a giant leap forward in 2007-08.

After a woeful 67-point season in 2006-07, the Coyotes seemed destined to be bottom feeders once again. But coach Wayne Gretzky's club finished with a 38-37-7 record for an impressive improvement of 16 points. The Coyotes missed the playoffs by a mere eight points. Only a late-season slide that saw the Coyotes win just two of their final 11 contests kept them out of the postseason.

If the Coyotes are to make up those eight points and climb into the playoffs next season, the first order of business will be to remedy their offensive shortcomings. Phoenix took a big step in solving that dilemma at the Entry Draft, trading for Olli Jokinen in a deal with the Florida Panthers.

GM Don Maloney also signed Hobey Baker Award winner Kevin Porter, whose 33 goals and 30 assists for the University of Michigan last season ranked second among NCAA scorers. The 22-year-old center began his professional career immediately by playing for the San Antonio Rampage, Phoenix's AHL affiliate, in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Should Porter play his way onto the Coyotes' roster next fall, his presence could help to make the team's offense more balanced. Last season, the Coyotes relied heavily on Shane Doan, who had a career year with 78 points (28 goals, 50 assists). In addition to Doan, the Coyotes also got good offensive production from defenseman Ed Jovanovski, whose 51 points were a career high. Radim Vrbata, 26, also had a career year offensively with 56 points, while the career of Peter Mueller, who had 22 goals and 54 points as a 19-year-old rookie, got off to a promising start.

There were other upward trends from which to draw encouragement in Phoenix. The Coyotes' power play ranked 11th in the NHL, converting on 18.6 percent of its opportunities, up from 22nd in the League (16.5 percent) a year ago. There was also improvement on the penalty kill, where the Coyotes went from 29th in the league (78.4 percent) a year ago to 24th (80.7 percent). Perhaps more important, Phoenix continues to learn how to win close games, finishing .500 in one-goal contests, up from .471 in 2006-07.

While the search for more goals figures to occupy much of Maloney’s time this summer, he’s already taken care of business between the pipes. The Coyotes' fortunes took a turn for the better after they claimed netminder Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers from Anaheim on Nov. 17. In 55 games with Phoenix, Bryzgalov went 26-22-5 with a 2.42 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. Maloney wasted no time in locking up Bryzgalov, signing the 27-year-old Russian to a three-year contract extension on Jan. 22.

With Daniel Carcillo leading the way, the Coyotes showed they were not afraid to play with an edge. Carcillo's League-leading 324 penalty minutes were almost 100 more than any other player accumulated last season, while the Coyotes' 1,193 PIMs were the fifth-most in the league. With 13 goals, including five in his last two games, Carcillo also showed he can score – but he has to become more disciplined to get the most out of his talent.

The Coyotes posted the best record within the tough Pacific Division, going 19-11-2 in games against Anaheim, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Jose. But while the Coyotes fared well against their own division, they were awful at home: Phoenix's 17-20-4 record at Arena represented the NHL's second-worst home mark.

While the Coyotes struggled to find offense in Gretzky's third season behind the bench, the team finished a respectable 17th overall defensively, allowing 2.74 goals per contest.

"We're probably still a ways away," Gretzky told the East Valley Tribune at the end of the season, "but we see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that's exciting for our organization. A year ago at this point in time, it was pretty doom and gloom"

After hanging in as a playoff contender until the season's final few weeks last season, the Coyotes feel they're close. If they can find another finisher, that might be enough to finish the deal.

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