The Phoenix Coyotes have surprised many hockey experts by making the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. If head coach Dave Tippett can get his boys to a third straight postseason, it will be the biggest shock of all.
The club is in such dire financial straits that the NHL has taken over ownership of the team, and the Coyotes felt the crunch this summer when they lost a handful of key contributors to free agency.
The biggest loss seems to be the departure of No. 1 goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who won 78 games for Phoenix over the past two seasons. With the Coyotes not in a position to splurge on expensive long-term contracts, the Russian netminder signed a nine-year, $51 million contract with Philadelphia instead.
The Coyotes still have stars in right winger Shane Doan and defenseman Keith Yandle, but there are too many questions about depth at every position. Tippett has already proven that he doesn't need much firepower to get a club to the postseason, but he may have to work a miracle to make that happen in 2011-12.
FORWARDS - Doan has spent his entire career with one franchise, being selected by the Winnipeg Jets in 1995 and eventually moving with the club when it relocated to Phoenix. Now there's a new incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets, but Doan is still the captain in the desert.
Doan has led Phoenix in points in each of the last seven seasons and has had the club's highest goal total in six of those years. The 34-year-old missed 10 games in 2010-11, but still paced the Coyotes with 20 goals and 60 points.
Hanzal, a first-round pick of the Coyotes in 2005, recorded a career best with 16 goals in just 61 games last season. At 24 years of age, the big Czech pivot is an excellent defensive forward, but needs to step up his overall offensive game after posting just 10 assists in 2010-11.
Whitney signed a two-year deal with Phoenix last summer and had a strong first season with the Coyotes, recording 17 goals and 40 assists over 75 contests. The veteran could also be one of the better contributors on a Phoenix power- play that was ranked 24th in the league last year.
Langkow, who previously skated for Phoenix in three seasons from 2001-04, missed the first 78 games of last season with a spinal cord injury, but the 34-year-old made his return to the ice for the Flames in April. Langkow should fit in nicely in Phoenix, where two-way players are rewarded with more playing time in Tippett's system.
Phoenix was hoping this would be the year that centerman Kyle Turris finally broke out, but the 22-year-old is holding out instead. Turris, who was selected by the Coyotes with the third overall pick of the 2007 draft, is still an unsigned restricted free agent and has recorded a disappointing 46 points (19 goals, 27 assists) in 131 career games at the NHL level.
If Turris continues his holdout into the season, the Coyotes could use either Boyd Gordon or Alexandre Bolduc at the third center spot, although clearly this is where still having Belanger would help.
Gordon is a veteran with 363 NHL games under his belt, while Bolduc has split time between the Vancouver Canucks and the AHL's Manitoba Moose for the last few years. Gordon inked a two-year deal with Phoenix and Bolduc agreed to a one-year, two-way contract.
The Coyotes also signed winger Raffi Torres to a two-year, $3.5 million deal this summer. Torres is coming off a 14-goal, 29-point season with Vancouver and he could push Taylor Pyatt (18g, 13a in 2010-11) for playing time on the third line.
Torres could also be called on to kill penalties along with Gordon. Fiddler was the team's top PK man before signing with Dallas this summer.
DEFENSE - Even with the loss of Jovanovski, who signed a four-year deal with Florida, the Coyotes have the makings of a pretty solid blue line.
Yandle is the clear No. 1 with Jovanovski gone and Phoenix rewarded him with a five-year, $26 million contract this summer. The 25-year-old put together a Norris-caliber season in 2010-11 with 59 points (11g, 48a) and a plus-12 rating in 82 games. He also managed five assists during Phoenix's four-game playoff sweep at the hands of Detroit.
Derek Morris usually serves as Yandle's partner and is coming off a mediocre five-goal, 16-point season with the Coyotes.
Tippett also has a strong shutdown pairing at his disposal in veterans Adrian Aucoin and Rostislav Klesla. The 38-year-old Aucoin had a team-leading plus-18 rating in 2010-11 and finished second to Yandle among Phoenix blueliners in points (22) and ice time.
Klesla, 29, came over in a trade with Columbus at last year's deadline and is a low-offense guy who provides steady defensive play. He had four goals and seven assists in 61 combined games with the Coyotes and Blue Jackets, but he had a minus-six rating over his 16 games with Phoenix.
Michal Rozsival, another defenseman picked up in a trade last season, notched six goals and 15 assists in 65 combined games with Phoenix and the New York Rangers.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft, had a solid debut as an NHLer in 2010-11, posting one goal and 10 assists in 48 games. The 20-year-old Swede is mobile and a good passer, skills that could potentially help improve a power-play that was ranked 23rd in the league last year.
GOALTENDING - The biggest issue for this year's Coyotes is expected to be in net, where Bryzgalov's exodus leaves a big hole.
Smith was signed to a two-year, $4 million contract this summer and figures to have the inside track on the starting job. The 29-year-old Smith spent the last few seasons in Tampa Bay and has started 146 games over 162 career appearances in the NHL.
Last year, Smith went 13-6-1 with a 2.89 goals-against average in 22 games with Tampa Bay last season. That was before the Lightning struck gold with their trade for Dwayne Roloson, who helped Tampa make a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals.
Meanwhile, LaBarbera did not fare well in 17 games (15 starts) for Phoenix last year. He was 7-6-3 with a 3.26 GAA and .909 save percentage with the Coyotes
The Coyotes also have Curtis McElhinney in the organization after signing the 28-year-old journeyman to a two-way contract this summer.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - In the Tippett-era, the Coyotes have managed to play better than the sum of their parts, but that could be difficult this year without Bryzgalov cleaning up mistakes at the back end. Expect Phoenix to challenge for a playoff spot early before faltering short down the stretch.