NHL: Arizona Coyotes Season Preview
We continue our very early look around the NHL by taking a gander at the Arizona Coyotes.
Now this preview will be mainly regarding the Coyotes on-ice product and from a hockey standpoint, versus all the crap going on behind the scenes regarding the City of Glendale, etc.
Young Forward Core
In terms of forward prospects, the Coyotes rank near the top of the league, as they have many talented forwards in the system. Some of these players like 2013-first-round pick Max Domi appear poised and ready to join the big club. While it does take more than talent to win, the Coyotes would have to considered one of the least talented clubs up front. The help is on the way with Domi, Anthony Duclair, Henrik Samuelsson, Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini. It’s very likely we’ll see Domi, Duclair and Samuelsson on the opening night roster, although the Coyotes have been doing things properly lately by making sure the prospects pay their dues in Juniors/AHL instead of rushing them to the NHL. The best of the prospect bunch might very well be 2015-first-rounder (3rd overall) Dylan Strome. While the 18-year-old center is likely still a year or two away from seeing NHL action, he possesses great size at 6’3″ and skill that will likely make him a legitimate number 1 center once he fully develops. That will be key not only for the franchise to finally have a legit number 1 center with size, but also the fact he would be able to matchup against some of the big-talented centers in the Western Conference. We can’t leave out the clubs other first rounder this past draft in talented playmaker Nick Merkley. The Calgary, Alberta born Merkley was expected by many (including myself) to be a top 20 pick. He fell to the Coyotes at #30. While he is still a few years away from seeing NHL action, Merkley has an extremely high hockey I.Q. as well as an outstanding skill level and an off the charts compete level. We’ve seen more examples the past few seasons of smallish players making huge impacts with their clubs like Tyler Johnson and Johnny Gaudreau. For Coyote fans, think back a couple seasons to shifty winger and fan favorite Ray Whitney. Already a full time NHLer, speedy winger Tobias Reider had a very successful rookie campaign adding 13 goals on the season. Big things are expected from the German born winger as with his speed and skill he has the ability to be a 20-goal scorer at the NHL level.
New Veteran Forwards
The Coyotes made some nice moves this offseason re-acquiring penalty killing extraordinaire Boyd Gordon via trade and signing fan favorite Antoine Vermette after the veteran forward was moved to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline last season. While in an ideal world Vermette is a 2nd-3rd line tweener, with the Coyotes he fits his role well centering either the 1st or 2nd line providing offense, strong defensive play and face-off ability. The Coyotes also signed free agent depth forwards like Brad Richardson and Steve Downie. While none of these players light the world on fire, these moves provide some depth, will improve the clubs penalty killing as well as with Downie, provide a toughness element. These players also will not block the path for younger players competing for spots. The club made a bit of surprise move bringing in heavyweight John Scott. The 6’8″ winger offers very little on the ice other than his excellent fighting ability, however when he is in the lineup, his presence will likely provide a confidence boost for the Coyotes younger forwards and will make opponents think a bit before taking runs at Scott’s teammates.
Returning Veteran Forwards
Despite the fact that he’ll be 39-years-old on October 10th and is more of a third liner at this point in his career, there are few leaders in any sport like Captain Shane Doan. His loyalty to the franchise and the fans is second to none. Mikkel Boedker has the skill to be an all-star level winger and while he got off to a great start last season and finished with 14 goals and 28 total points in just 45 games before his season ending injury, more is expected from the 25-year-old Danish winger. Boedker signed a 1-year deal this summer, which sets him up to be an Unrestricted Free Agent next summer. While the Coyotes would love to get something done long term before he reaches free agency, good news in the short term at least is while Boedker shouldn’t need any extra motivation, with this being a contract year leading into UFA status, expect big things if he can stay healthy. The Coyotes do have one of the best and most underrated defensive centers in the game in Martin Hanzal. The big center can never seem to stay off the injured reserve though. If he can somehow stay on the ice his overall two-way game is outstanding and a big boost to the club. Depth forwards Joe Vitale and Kyle Chipchura wave high.
The Coyotes defensive core is led by one of the best defenseman in the entire NHL in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The 24-year-old Swede provided 23 goals last season, which of course is quite an accomplishment for a defenseman. He also added 20 assists which should also raise even higher once he has more skilled forwards to move the puck up to. Ekman-Larsson is not a one trick pony either as he is an outstanding all around defenseman that can play in any situation. His smarts are off the charts. The club re-signed his former defensive partner Zbynek Michalek after dealing him to the St. Louis Blues at last season’s trade deadline. While the 32-year-old Michalek is a shot blocking machine and solid defensively, he has suffered the injury bug for the last number of years. If he can somehow stay healthy he fits very well into head coach Dave Tippett’s system as well as provide a quiet veteran-leadership presence into the Coyotes young defensive core. The club acquired veteran defensive-defenseman Nicklas Grossmann from the Philadelphia Flyers this past June. The 30-year-old Swedish defenseman will add a veteran presence and an element of moving bodies out from in front of the Coyotes net. Rounding out the Coyotes backend are the talented young Connor Murphy, Michael Stone, Brandon Gormley and big defensive-defenseman Klaus Dahlbeck. All four of those defensemen are aged 25 or younger which gives the Coyotes a solid young defensive core when you add in the star in Ekman-Larsson. This might be the final opportunity for Gormley with the Coyotes. He has top pairing talent and smarts but has yet to put it together at the NHL level in limited action. If Murphy can put it altogether he also has potential top paring ability and solid offensive instincts.
The Men Who Mind The Net
If it came down to average height, the Coyotes would probably be number one in the NHL with 6’4″ Mike Smith and 6’6″ new addition Anders Lindback in net. With Sean Burke leaving the organization, the club potentially takes a big hit. Burke was very instrumental in Smith’s improvement in the netminder’s first season with the club leading them to a Western Conference Final berth in 2012. Then last season,Burke transformed the big and talented yet inconsistent Devon Dubnyk from an average backup to a vezina trophy finalist after he was traded to the Minnesota Wild. Burke has worked very well with the big netminders as he was a big goaltender himself so his loss again is a big blow.
Now that being said, the 33-year-old Smith is on a terrible contract, yet he still has the physical tools when healthy to hold down the fort. While he’ll never have a season like he did in 2011-12, if he can keep his head on straight and add some consistency back then he can still handle number one duties. The 27-year-old Lindback has always had a high ceiling but he has never reached that and it’s unlikely he ever will be anything more than a backup goaltender. He did finish last season strong with the last place Buffalo Sabers, although there was no pressure on so with the same situation this season with the Coyotes, perhaps he can provide solid goaltending when called upon.
In the short-term it’s still cloudy for the Coyotes as they will likely finish near the bottom of the league standing once again. That being said, brighter sky’s are ahead for the on-ice product and it wouldn’t be a huge shock to even see the club be more competitive in the 2nd half of this coming season as some of their young players keep improving. No playoffs this season, however in 2016-17 they’ll contend for a spot and likely earn a spot in 2017-18 if everything goes as planned and they can stabilize the goaltending by that time.