By Mitch Brandner, Staff Writer
As you’ve probably heard, the NHL lockout has come to an end. Fans around the world are rejoicing and NHL employees are finally getting back to work. As everyone starts focusing on their favourite teams, questions are being raised. The Phoenix Coyotes made the Western Conference Finals last year after qualifying for the playoffs for the third straight year under Dave Tippett. With the loss of Ray Whitney, the team’s leading scorer, the question of how they’re going to replace his scoring is just one of a few questions Coyotes’ fans are asking.
The Loss of Ray Whitney
The Phoenix Coyotes finished 18th in the NHL in goals for last season. Ray Whitney led all Coyotes with 77 points, with Radim Vrbata behind him with 62. With Ray Whitney signing elsewhere the Coyotes need to find a way to get that scoring from someone else. Don Maloney signed Steve Sullivan in the offseason with the hope that he can fit in Whitney’s spot on a line with Hanzal and Vrbata. Sullivan had 48 points last year for the Pittsburgh Penguins and was only 15th on the team in ice time per game. With the Coyotes he’ll be expected to have a much larger role. Sullivan doesn’t necessarily have to put up 77 points for the Coyotes to be successful, but anything less than 50 could cause major problems.
Nobody can deny how good Mike Smith was last season. The Phoenix Coyotes were fifth in the league last season in goals against. As good as their defence was last season, Mike Smith was a huge part of that miniscule goals against. Mike Smith was third in save percentage, seventh in goals against average and fourth in wins. The numbers don’t lie when it comes to Smith. Anyone who watched the Coyotes in the playoffs last season will tell you that Smith was the best player in the series against the Blackhawks. The question is can he repeat that performance? He will get help from an improved defence core which is now one of the best in the league, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough. Mike Smith will have to be a top 10 goalie in the league once again if the Coyotes are going to be successful.
Scoring by Committee
It is well known that up front the Coyotes are pretty thin. They have no superstar forwards like other top teams in the league and in order to make the playoffs the last three seasons the Coyotes have had scoring from everyone. The will have to continue once again for the Coyotes to be successful. Players like Vrbata, Doan, Vermette and Boedker will all have to step up and pull their weight. With only two players over 60 points last season but nine over 30 points, scoring by committee is pretty evident. The Coyotes have enough depth to make up for a lack of a superstar forward if everyone contributes to their potential. Dave Tippett seems to get the best out of his players year in and year out so there is no reason to think that it won’t continue this season. Yet, it’s still a question that needs answering.
With the season less than two weeks away, the only way these questions can be answered is on the ice. The theme so far seems to be that anything can happen in a shortened season. Everything will have to go right in order to make the playoffs, and when it comes to the Coyotes they need to consistently play at a high level and simply outwork the other team every night.