Phoenix looks to rise to ranks of Western elite
A remarkable 2009-10 season for the Phoenix Coyotes started in the ultimate state of flux.
With questions about ownership and talk of possible relocation swirling around the team, Wayne Gretzky stepped down as coach just nine days before Phoenix was set to open up in Los Angeles.
Enter Dave Tippett, who by the time the summer rolled around had won the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year after guiding the Coyotes to a franchise-record 50 wins, their first playoff berth since 2002 and all the way to a Game 7 against the then two-time defending Western Conference champion Red Wings before they were ousted in the quarterfinals.
For someone who led the Dallas Stars to the postseason in five of his six years there and topped 100 points three times, it was arguably the greatest coaching performance of Tippett's career. Now he actually gets to experience what it's like to go through an entire training camp with the Coyotes instead of having to adjust on the fly.
"It's a huge benefit to be around every day and see the things going on, make sure they're being done the way the coaching staff envisions," Tippett told NHL.com.
But the challenge awaiting him and the Phoenix organization may be even greater this time around. While the atmosphere around the team this preseason is a much calmer one, there are now expectations placed on the Coyotes that weren't there in years past. That's part of the reward for going from 79 to 107 points in the span of 12 months and pushing one of the League's elite to the brink of playoff elimination.
Phoenix established itself early last season by winning nine of 13 games in October -- some of them, undoubtedly, against teams that took the Coyotes lightly due to all the off-ice turbulence they were enduring and their prolonged absence from the playoff picture. Tippett understands that won't be the case any longer.
"We won't sneak up on anybody," he said, a statement underscored by the fact Phoenix will open the regular season on an international stage, playing a pair of games against Boston in Prague as part of the Compuware NHL Premiere.
"Early on last season there were people who I don't think gave us a lot of respect, or there was disrespect toward the situation we were in. As the year went on we gained that respect and later in the year it went from where we hoped to win to where we expected to win."
Phoenix GM Don Maloney wants to keep the franchise pointed in the right direction, but with finances tight he was unable to retain the services of young defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who left via free agency for Pittsburgh, and center Matthew Lombardi, who signed with Nashville.
On the flip side, the Coyotes signed veteran Ray Whitney to a two-year contract and were able to re-sign trade deadline acquisition Lee Stempniak to a two-year deal. Whitney figures to provide a major boost to the power play, while Stempniak scored 14 goals in 18 regular-season games in Phoenix, matching his output in 62 games for Toronto prior to being moved.
The Coyotes didn't sign a defenseman off the free-agent market to replace Michalek, but they have a significant amount of young talent Tippett feels can step in to compensate for his loss.
"So far they look good in camp. We have Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a young Swedish defenseman who is dynamic, a good all-round player," Tippett said, describing the No. 6 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. "We have David Schlemko, who played a little for us last year and is ready now for a full-time job. And Maxim Goncharov (a 2007 fifth-round pick), who has played well in camp.
"We don't have one player who will fill Michalek's minutes, but as a group we think we can do it."
Even without him, Phoenix still returns the nucleus of a group that yielded just 2.39 goals per game last season -- third-best in the League -- and is backstopped by Vezina Trophy finalist Ilya Bryzgalov (42 wins, 2.29 goals-against average, .920 save percentage, 8 shutouts).
Preventing goals wasn't the problem so much as scoring them, and in order for the Coyotes to ensure they don't take a step back this season they must find a means of addressing some of their offensive issues. They finished 24th in goals per game (2.57) and 28th in power-play percentage (14.6).
"Our offensive output as a whole has to be better," Tippett said. "We were top-five last year in goals against, and we knew we had to be strong in that area when you're in the bottom third in goals for. There's definitely room for improvement. We want to improve our scoring without giving up our accountability on defense."
Coaches like Tippett who preach accountability both on the ice and in their locker rooms need strong leadership, and Phoenix is well-fortified there with a group that includes Shane Doan as captain and now boasts the services of Whitney, a veteran of over 1,000 games and a Stanley Cup-winner from his days in Carolina.
"Our leadership is a strong part of the team. We were able to use last season's adversity as a motivating factor, and a lot of that goes to the leadership group, not using it to make excuses," Tippett said. "Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski, the reason I love those guys is because no matter what, they play and they practice all-out, all the time. They're a great example for the younger players."
While the Coyotes aren't facing the same kind of adversity they were at this time last year, there's still an air of uncertainty hanging over the franchise's future in Phoenix as the NHL continues to retain ownership of the club while attempting to complete a deal with a group that will keep the team in its current place.
The ongoing situation didn't deter a guy like Whitney from joining the fold -- he told NHL.com "the NHL may be the most stable owner" -- but the question remains as to how it will affect attendance. As the Coyotes surged toward the top of the conference, the fans began to flock to Jobing.com Arena. Tippett hopes the team will enjoy similar support this season.
"My message to the fans is that we're going to continue to build on last year," he said. "During the last two months of the regular season and the playoffs, our building was as loud as any in the League. The support and the energy were fantastic. The players recognized it and the organization recognized it. We want to continue to give the fans something to cheer about."