At the quarter-pole of this NHL season, the Phoenix Coyotes are a tantalizing bunch.
This team can excite with world-class players and also display periods of disappointment. While coach Dave Tippett constantly reminds reporters that he expects the Western Conference to remain highly competitive the rest of the season, the Coyotes need to address some details to truly stay competitive.
“It’s about attitude,” Tippett said recently. “If you want to be an elite team, you need to play like an elite team.”
While the Coyotes flirt with Pacific Division honors, there are a few reasons to generate their excitement.
The new ownership of George Gosbee and his IceArizona group have brought stability and confidence where none previously existed. That’s translated into a comfort level for players and an elimination of the dark cloud that hung over this franchise for nearly the last half-decade.
The results were new contracts for general manager Don Maloney, goalie Mike Smith, and Tippett. This also opened the checkbook to bring in free agent Mike Ribeiro and his playmaking ability. As well, franchise stability and being free of previously nagging injuries have helped captain Shane Doan off to a strong offensive start.
To recognize a gross failure in the past, Tippett brought in assistant coach Newell Brown to address a feeble powerplay. Last season, the Coyotes were near the bottom of the NHL in powerplay efficiency and Brown, who has had previous coaching stops with Columbus, Anaheim, Chicago, and Vancouver, was tapped on the shoulder to right the ship.
“Knowing you have the man advantage, you have to execute on a higher level,” Brown said. “Because the game of hockey moves so fast, there are no set plays, like in football or basketball. Still, you have to have players who will execute.”
Coming into Friday’s game in Vancouver, the Coyotes were sixth in the NHL in power play efficiency with a 21.2 percentage. The Penguins topped the league with a 26.0 percentage and only Toronto, St. Louis, Montreal, and Washington had a greater powerplay efficiency than the Coyotes.
With one element of play essentially solved, the Coyotes need to address deficiencies in killing penalties. Entering the Vancouver game, they were 27th in killing penalties and well behind league-leader Vancouver (89.0 percent).
Still, there are elements of the Coyotes’ game to like.
The team will likely have two defensemen. Keith Yandle for the United States and Oliver Ekman-Larsson for Sweden, participating in the upcoming Olympics. Depending on roster competition and decision-making, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata have an outside chance to skate for the Czech Republic.
The quality of play from the blueline is also worth noting.
At age 36, Derek Morris is having one of his better seasons and the Coyotes are slowing bringing 20-year-old Connor Murphy into the lineup. In just a handful of games since his recall from the AHL Portland Pirates, Murphy has demonstrated intelligent vision on the ice and a skill level to excel at the NHL level.
Ribeiro’s contribution, especially on the power play, has been encouraging. And the resurgence of Doan, as a leader on and off the ice, represents another factor on why the Coyotes can play competitive hockey.
All the elements appear in place for this group to rise to an elite level. The ability execute and the drive to win remains the intangibles which will likely chart the Coyotes’ course.