It’s been said countless times that things are always darkest just before the dawn.
Well, for a professional sports franchise, things were never much darker for the Phoenix Coyotes the past four years.
Constantly plagued with ownership fiascoes and relocation rumors, the team was never out of the spotlight — and for all of the wrong reasons. Despite succeeding fairly well on the ice, it was always their off-the-ice turmoil that threatened to destroy all that general manager Don Maloney, head coach Dave Tippett and the players had worked so hard to build and escape.
But now, those days are done. There’s a legitimate ownership group at the helm in IceArizona, a group proud of what they do and how they go about things. And now, they get to show the world what they can do in a market hungry to prove itself, with a team that is ready to show it does belong, that it does matter, and that it won’t go quietly.
But, just because this story had a happy ending does not mean that there aren’t any lingering questions about the team on the ice. In fact, there’s still quite a few things that need to be determined and analyzed. With that, let’s take a look at some key questions that this year’s Coyotes team faces as it prepares to hit the ice…
1. Have the Coyotes finally found their long sought after top center in Mike Ribeiro?
When Ribeiro signed with the Coyotes over the summer, inking a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal in the process, Twitter nearly exploded from the joyous cries of Coyotes fans across the medium. They had a legitimate No. 1 center. No more trotting out Martin Hanzal as the top guy. No more trying to turn players like Antoine Vermette and Kyle Turris into premiere centers.
Ribeiro was a point-per-game player last year for the Washington Capitals, though playing in a system that encouraged creativity and had an offense-minded approach certainly didn’t hurt. He’s never scored more than 27 goals in a season as a professional, but he’s crossed the 50 assist barrier more than a few times (and would have last year, if it wasn’t for that pesky lockout-shortened season) — and that is what he was brought in here to do.
The 33-year-old, who will turn 34 in February, has plenty left in the tank and with a new team, a new attitude, and a familiar face behind the bench in Tippett (Ribeiro played under Tippett when both were in Dallas), there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic that Ribeiro will be that true top-line center and set-up man.
2. How will the other new additions fair and are they adequate replacements?
When I say new additions, I take that term very loosely with this team. There was only one other free agent acquisition — goaltender Thomas Greiss — so talking about new roster members, it’s all about some of the young guns who were able to rise up the ranks and snag a spot to start the year.
First off, can’t escape this discussion without talking about left winger Lucas Lessio, who was awarded a spot despite playing only five games — FIVE — at the AHL level. There’s no denying Lessio’s ability offensively. He was a beast in the junior ranks, raking in the points for the Oshawa Generals and providing a balanced stat line with a good mix of play-making ability and goal scoring. The only thing I fear about him right now is his inexperience and the fact that he appears to be slotted into a third line role, which could hinder some of his development at the professional level.
Now let’s talk about Chris Brown…no, not that one. Get that thought out of your head. This one is a tough, gritty winger with a knack for goal scoring and a love for physicality. A perfect candidate to take a spot on that fourth line, Brown was able to impress the coaches enough to make the squad and should provide a youthful exuberance and energy. He may take some stupid penalties here and there, with the proof being in his brief stint with the Coyotes last year, but he looks to have matured enough in Tippett’s eyes. I’m a believer in this kid, and was delighted to see him make the team, even if it was at the expense of some other guys who were also deserving.
Coming back to Greiss, the netminder has been stuck in a logjam throughout his career, only playing for the division rival San Jose Sharks in his short career so far. He’s never had the true opportunity to prove himself in a starting role and even though he won’t get that here again with Mike Smith in the way, he seems to have been caught in the good graces of the staff with his preseason play. If he continues to impress, we could see Greiss get up to 30 starts as a very capable back-up and to help keep Smith healthy and rested through the year and potentially into the playoffs.
3. What are the trouble spots for the Coyotes entering this year?
On paper, every spot is technically filled in terms of forward lines and defense pairings. But, there are still holes, and none bigger than the left winger spot on the second line. Right now, that spot is filled by Lauri Korpikoski, a now familiar Coyote who has been a reliable defensive stopper the past few years but has never showed any true sign of offensive brilliance minus a few moments here and there. As of now, he’s expected to be the set-up man for that line as the center for that line, that being Hanzal, is a defensive specialist and is not there to make plays regularly.
And then of course we can’t count out the experience of the young guys like Lessio and Brown, and numerous other ones who could see ample playing time this year such as David Rundblad, Chris Summers, and perhaps Andy Miele, who came close to grabbing that second line left wing slot but fell just short.
4. Who is the biggest ‘x-factor’ for the Coyotes this year and as a team, what is the biggest x-factor?
Player: Mikkel Boedker — The young, speedy, and talented winger finally has somebody to set him up in Ribeiro and after seemingly ready to breakout last season after a hot start, Boedker cooled off considerably. Right now, if he can produce at a high level and get up to that 60 or 70 point plateau, that would be a huge blessing for the Coyotes in their hunt for the playoffs. If he struggles, then that’s another potential source of much-needed offense down the drain.
Other candidates: Smith, Keith Yandle
Team: Power play — Not bucking trends here with this call. And it may seem like beating a dead horse, but until this team starts to show consistent production with the man advantage, that will always be a top story. If they had just scored about four or more power play goals last year, they would’ve made the playoffs. But, failure to execute consistently cost them a berth. But, with Ribeiro on board and new assistant coach Newell Brown being hailed as a power play specialist, maybe things are looking up.
Other candidates: Chemistry, injuries
5. What is the outlook for Phoenix this season?
Make no mistake about it, the Coyotes are going to be in for one heck of a ride. Playing in a very tough division (minus the Flames), Phoenix is going to be hard-pressed to squeeze into the playoff picture. But, they do have enough grit to do it and look to have filled some of their voids from last year. Sure, they’ll need some things to go their way and for some pucks to take some lucky bounces, but what team doesn’t? When all is said and done, look for this team to most likely grab a playoff berth, but probably one of the lower seeds, but will be in a great position to pull a surprise and maybe make a deep run.
PROJECTED LINES AND PAIRINGS
Mikkel Boedker-Mike Ribeiro-Shane Doan (C)
Lauri Korpikoski-Martin Hanzal (A)-Radim Vrbata
Lucas Lessio-Antoine Vermette-David Moss
Rob Klinkhammer-Kyle Chipchura-Chris Brown
Paul Bissonnette (suspended for first three games)
Oliver Ekman-Larsson-Zbynek Michalek
Keith Yandle (A)-Derek Morris
David Schlemko-David Rundblad
Injury Report: Rusty Klesla (concussion) – IR to start season
The Coyotes open their season October 3 when they host the New York Rangers at 7 p.m. at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Ariz. The game is expected to be a sellout.
Photo credit; (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)