After a hectic and worrisome summer, the Phoenix Coyotes came into the 2009-2010 season completely revamped. With a new coach, Dave Tippett, and a new owner, the Coyotes have remodeled their roster, acquiring fourteen of its 25 players in the year 2009.
The new roster has proven to be a successful change, as the Coyotes with 45 games played sit fourth in the Western Conference with 26 wins, and 56 points. They are on pace to shatter the Phoenix Coyotes franchise record, of 95 points (achieved in the 2001-2002 season)*, with a total of 106 points. If the Coyotes want to establish the Coyotes fan support in Arizona, they will need to make the playoffs—and ideally, win the first round. Through half the season, the Coyotes have proven they are a new, rejuvenated team (average age of team is 27.8 years) that can win.
Though attendance has not been outstanding this season at Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes have posted a great home record (16-6-1), and fared decently on the road (10-8-3). Hopefully the days of 5,000 fans in attendance are gone, as they will need the support to continue winning.
Though the Coyotes dropped their home opener to the Columbus Blue Jackets (2-0), bringing back the White-Out showed how great the momentum and energy can feel when the Coyotes play in front of a nearly sell-out crowd.
The recently larger crowds however are not the only reason behind their success.
Tippett, an ex-Dallas Stars head coach, brought a new look to the way the Coyotes play hockey. Wayne Gretzky, though an amazing player, was not the man to help the Coyotes make the playoffs. In Gretzky’s four years coaching since the lockout, the Coyotes finished 12th, 15th, 12th, and 13th in the Western Conference.
Their highest point totals reached 83 points in 2007-2008, but Gretzky was never able to bump the Coyotes into the playoffs. Tippett brings a defensive game to the Coyotes, backed by strong goaltending. He has proven thus far that his defense-first, offense-second strategy has been successful. The goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov and Jason LaBarbera help Tippett’s defensive team philosophy, while the offense has not slowed down.
The Coyotes claimed Bryzgalov, a goaltender who previously won a Cup with the Anaheim Ducks, off waivers in 2007. He instantly succeeded with the Coyotes, playing in 55 games (and winning 26) in his first season.
This year is proving to be an even better season for Russian. He has 23 wins in 38 games with five of those coming by shutouts, typing him for first in the league for with Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller. His goals against average, 2.08, has him in third out of forty-seven goaltenders. Goaltending has been one of the biggest issues for the Coyotes over the years, but Bryzgalov looks to change that.
Recently Shane Doan played in his 1000th NHL game, all with the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes franchise. The youth of the team has rejuvenated the thirty-three year old, and his leadership ability has soared. His experience speaks for itself, his point totals haven’t been outstanding in the past, but he has become the reliable, clutch player the Coyotes were hoping he would develop into when they drafted him in 1995.
The veteran sits currently tied with Scottie Upshall with 3 game winning goals. After posting a career high in goals last season (31 goals), it looks like Doan will finish with less goals than that, but fortunately, the Coyotes are no longer relying solely on him for production.
In March of 2009, the team traded Daniel Carcillo to Philadelphia for Upshall and a 2011 draft pick. Carcillo was a fan-favorite in Phoenix for his grit, energy, and dedication he gave to the franchise. The trade seemed ridiculous to both fan bases in Philadelphia and Phoenix; neither have played in a full NHL season as of now, but Upshall had never scored more than 14 goals in a year (in 61 games), whereas Carcillo, an enforcer, had scored 13 goals in 57 games in 2007-2008.
Nevertheless, the trade has proven to be a smart move for the Coyotes. Having played in 41 games this season, Upshall has already tied his career-high in goals, and is six points behind his career-high of 30. He is having a career year and seems to be finally playing to his ability under Tippett**. At only26-years-old, Upshall should have many great seasons left in him, however the left wing will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
Another addition in the past year, Matthew Lombardi, has been producing and adding another punch to the offense. He is on pace to finish six goals short of his career high, but his total point total (26 at the half-way point) is on track to become a new career high. Lombardi is an unrestricted free agent next season however, and the Coyotes must look to resign him.
Fortunately for the Coyotes, they have not been hurt by too many injuries this season. Some big name players have been injured this season, but not for long periods of time (Petr Prucha and Ed Jovanovski each missed 4 games). Avoiding injury has been helpful in the Coyotes’ quest for a playoff berth, and remaining healthy will be essential to continue with their current pace.
The Coyotes will have three players — Sami Lepisto, Zbynek Michalek and Bryzgalov — participate in the Olympics in February. Though these men are lucky to compete for their country, the Coyotes left off their respective country’s rosters will have a chance to recuperate, heal any nagging injuries, and relax in the middle of the season.
The first few games after the break will be critical in how each team finishes at the end of the season, but the smaller number of representatives may help the Coyotes in the end. Only three teams have less members participating in the Winter Olympics, and this may prove to be the advantage the Coyotes need.
Ten players will be free agents after this season, and the Coyotes will look to resign as many as possible. Unrestricted free agents include: Lombardi, Robert Lang, Adrian Aucoin, Michalek, and restricted free agents include: Peter Mueller, Upshall, Martin Hanzal, Daniel Winnik, Paul Bissonnette, and Lepisto.
Michalek appears to be a player that will need to be signed first. He is one of the two alternate captains, one of the top two defenseman (Jovanovski the other). In 378 games with the Coyotes he produced 26 goals and 81 assists for a total of 107 points. His experience, defensive-ability, leadership, and production cannot be replaced for less money, but his resigning may cost the Coyotes other players. On offense the biggest resigning will be Upshall, who has proven himself to be a successful Coyote. Mueller and Hanzal, both drafted by the Coyotes, have been successful in the past, but seem to be still adjusting to a new system, though the Coyotes should try to resign these two young players if possible.
Playoffs and Future:
If the Coyotes do make the playoffs, their experience may hinder them from going all the way. Between the 45 players (on the Coyotes’ roster with more than five games played this season) only 462 playoff games have been played, however fifteen have some playoff experience.
The Chicago Blackhawks proved last year playoff experience isn’t always necessary as they had 309 combined playoff games, and only ten players had previous playoff experience before making it the Western Conference Finals. The Coyotes must follow in the Hawks’ footsteps.
Ice Edge, a Canadian group that has signed a letter of intent to buy the Coyotes from the NHL, stated they are willing to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, Arizona for the long haul, but success is the only factor that will put fans in seats. Without a playoff win this year, the Coyotes may be looking at another tough attendance season next year.
*Winnipeg Jets finished with 96 points in the 1984-1985 season.
**On January 7, 2010, Scottie Upshall was placed on Injured Reserve.