The improvement from 2008-09 to 2009-10 couldn't have been any more start for the Phoenix Coyotes. A lackluster 36-39-7 that resulted in a 13th-place finish in the Western Conference gave way to a 50-25-7 gem that saw the Coyotes finish as the west's fourth seed and earned Phoenix plenty of admiration and respect.
So here is the conundrum. What the heck can the Coyotes do for an encore in 2010-11?
More of the same would be a good start, but perhaps a bit more problematic since no one will be overlooking the Coyotes this time around.
At this time last season, the Coyotes were in the news for an unsettled ownership situation and Wayne Gretzky stepping down as coach. A year later, talks continue on a new ownership group but not amidst the distraction of bankruptcy court. And Dave Tippett, the winner of the Jack Adams Trophy as the League's top coach in 2009-10, is firmly entrenched behind the bench.
But can the Coyotes continue to stand among the Western Conference's elite? Well, several key pieces are in place to make it happen. First, Ilya Bryzgalov remains the top man in goal, so that is a big advantage. The top four defensemen – Ed Jovanovski, Keith Yandle, Adrian Aucoin and Derek Morris are solid and the forward ranks will be an intriguing mix of kids and veterans. So the short answer is yes, but Phoenix won't be sneaking up on anyone again for a very long time.
Veteran Ray Whitney, 38, was the big summer addition for the Coyotes, bring his 21 goals and 37 assists from the Carolina Hurricanes with him as well as a mountain of experience. Whitney, with over 1,000 NHL games to his credit, spent the past five seasons in Carolina, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2006. Also coming aboard is veteran center Eric Belanger who had 15 goals and 27 assists in 77 games split between Minnesota and Washington last season. They are the replacements the departed Matthew Lombardi and Robert Lang.
GM Don Maloney made a score of moves at the '10 trade deadline and now will get to see the likes of Lee Stempniak (14 goals, 4 assists in 18 games) and Wojtek Wolski (6 goals, 12 assists in 18 games) in action from the start of the season. Both are expected to be big parts of the plan this season.
The Coyotes lacked a big-time scorer last season, with veteran captain Shane Doan topping all Phoenix scorers with 55 points, but what the Coyotes may have lacked in terms of individual production was made up for by the group. A total of eight forwards had 10 or more goals last season, with Radim Vrbata's 24 leading the team. The departed Lombardi had 19, Doan 18, Scottie Upshall 18, Stempniak 14, Petr Prucha 13, Taylor Pyatt 12 and Martin Hanzal 11.
There also are a handful of former top draft picks who may be ready to make the NHL their fulltime home this season led by Kyle Turris, the third selection of the '07 draft, Mikkel Boedker, the eighth pick of the '08 draft, Brett MacLean, 32nd in '07, and Viktor Tikhonov, 28th in '08.
Now add in Vern Fiddler, Andrew Ebbett and Lauri Korpikoski to the mix and there will be plenty of combinations for Tippett to play with.
The Coyotes will need to make up for the free-agent departure of Zbynek Michalek to the Penguins and the trade of James Vandermeer to the Oilers, but Phoenix figures to have a solid top four and enough depth to remain vibrant on the blue line.
Keith Yandle topped all Coyotes defensemen in scoring last season with 12 goals and 29 assists in 82 games.
The ageless Ed Jovanovski (he's actually only 34) also hit double digits in goals last season with 10 and also had 24 assists. "Jovo Cop" is a leader and along with Adrian Aucoin (8 goals and 20 assists in 82 games) and Derek Morris (4 goals, 25 assists split between Boston and Phoenix) provide the veteran leadership the Coyotes need, especially at a critical position like defense.
Sami Lepisto appeared in 66 games for Phoenix last season and also figures to be in the mix on a third combination.
Veteran Hnidy and Kurt Sauer may find some minutes too, but the most interesting name is Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the sixth pick of the '09 draft, who could be ready to step up at some point this season.
There was no Coyote more valuable that Ilya Bryzgalov last season. He posted a 42-20-6 record with eight shutouts, a 2.29 goals-against average and .920 save percentage that got the Coyotes into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In a word, he was huge for the Coyotes and must be once again this season for Phoenix to remain among the Western elite.
Former LA King Jason LaBarbera was 8-5-1 in limited time behind Bryzgalov and that figures to be the formula again this season.