Wayne Gretzky will be charged with leading the Coyotes into the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
As an avid follower of all things hockey, I have to admit even I’ve grown tired of the Coyotes’ ownership fiasco. The one angle that hasn’t been beaten to death, however, is how the team will fare on the ice.
After seven seasons on the playoff sidelines, is this particular pack primed to sneak into the West’s Elite Eight?
The Hockey News’ official predictions, discussions I was not party to, have the Yotes landing dead-last, a prognostication I'm told didn’t cause a lot of heated internal debate.
Call me an optimist if you must, but personally I see promise in this young Phoenix squad and a playoff berth is more than just a mirage.
Goaltending can cover up a lot of deficiencies (just ask the New York Rangers) and Ilya Bryzgalov, when he’s on his game, is in the league's upper echelon. ‘Cool Bryz’ struggled last season (26-31-6, 2.98 GAA, .906 SP) after performing well in his first year with the Coyotes (26-22-5, 2.43 GAA, .921 SP), but with a potential No. 1 Olympic spot up for grabs, you can assume his focus will be that much greater.
When Bryzgalov needs a rest – or if he falters – summer signee Jason LaBarbera is a capable backup. Even 2004 No. 6 overall pick Al Montoya appears to have finally found his way, playing stellar in his five appearances with the team late in 2009 (despite terrible numbers in the American League).
Both the defense and forward corps are improved, too. The repatriation of Radim Vrbata, who had his career season (27 goals, 56 points) in Phoenix in 2007-08 before bolting for the Bolts, provides additional scoring depth. Youngsters Peter Mueller, Lauri Korpikoski, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov and Kyle Turris can be expected to positively progress.
On the back end, GM Don Maloney made a pair of acquisitions in Adrian Aucoin, who will help the league’s third-worst power play, and Jim Vandermeer, who will help the league’s third-worst penalty kill. Both will also add to overall team toughness.
This one’s a shot in the dark, but I’m also betting hockey’s greatest player of all time will elevate his game behind the bench knowing it’ll be his last if the Coyotes end up an epic fail. Wayne Gretzky has progressed as a coach in each of his four seasons as bench boss and had his club in a playoff position until the all-star break last year, after which they completely fell apart.
The Great One will have something to prove and I wouldn’t bet against him (no pun intended). The key will be for him keep his troops focused and motivated and stop them from suffering the long losing streaks that killed them last season (they twice lost six in a row).
Whether or not the club makes the playoffs this season won’t impact its future home, but at the very least it’d be nice to give the good hockey fans in Arizona one more white-out.
Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog appears Thursdays.
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