This 2014-15 NHL Season Preview features the Arizona Coyotes.
What was Stanley Cup worthy in 2013-14?
Not typically known for putting up offensive numbers, the Coyotes finished last season with a 19.9% powerplay, largely thanks to defenseman Keith Yandle who finished 7th in the entire league in powerplay points (31) and 3rd in assists (28) with the man advantage.
Centre Antoine Vermette has quietly turned into one of the more underrated two-way players in the game. He led the Coyotes with 24 goals last season, and also was their leader in ice time among forwards with just over 19 minutes per game. In addition, only Sidney Crosby took more faceoffs than Vermette’s 1,783. He won 56.4% of them.
At 37 years old, Shane Doan shows no signs of slowing down. He finished second on the team with 23 goals in just 69 games, and his 0.33 goals-per-game average was his best since 2008-09. He also played nearly 19 minutes per game. Doan has signed a two-year contract extension with a no-movement clause, which will insure he finishes his career with the organization that it started.
When the Coyotes drafted Mikkel Boedker 8th overall in 2008, a lot was expected of the smooth skating Dane. In 2013-14, he finally showed some of the ability that had so many high on the now 24-year-old winger. He finished second on the team in assists (32), and led the team in even-strength goals (14) & points (35).
What was draft lottery worthy in 2013-14?
While the Coyotes were very strong with the man-advantage, their penalty kill was in the bottom five of the NHL at just 79%.
After posting over a point per game for the second time in his career the year before, Mike Ribeiro was signed as an unrestricted free agent to come to Phoenix and be their number one centre, while injecting some offensive skill into the lineup. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the Coyotes, as Ribeiro had a difficult year off the ice, which led to decreased production on it as he finished with just 47 points, his lowest total since 2002-03. He was subsequently bought out by the team during the summer.
Since posting a Vezina calibre season in 2011-12, goaltender Mike Smith has been rather ordinary. 2013-14 was just a tad better than the year before statistically as he improved his save percentage to .915 (from .910), but it’s still a far cry from the .930 he was able to put up in 2012 or the sparkling .944 he managed in the playoffs that same year. For a team that doesn’t score much (20th in the NHL in goals per game last season), they need him to be a lot better.
So what did they do to get better?
After buying out Ribeiro, there was a big hole the Coyotes needed to fill at centre, and they hope that former Oiler Sam Gagner is the answer. Since breaking into the NHL at just 18 years old, Gagner has not managed to equal the 49 points he posted in his rookie season. He certainly has the skill and skating ability to be more productive, as evidenced by his incredible 8-point night against the Blackhawks in 2012. Perhaps a fresh start is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Joining Gagner at centre will be former Pittsburgh Penguin Joe Vitale. He brings some energy to the fourth line, and he’s a decent faceoff man in limited use (62.5% last season), but this isn’t anything more than a depth move.
Other than that, the Coyotes hope that continued growth from within will provide better results in the upcoming season.
Player to watch
Young defenseman Brandon Gormley finally made his NHL debut last season and didn’t look out-of-place, managing a +4 in his first 5 games. Gormley is a dynamic defenseman who will provide strong puck-moving ability to a defense that already includes Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. After finishing his career in the QMJHL with 150 points in 202 games, he’s posted 66 points in 126 games over the last two seasons in the AHL.
I have a feeling the clock strikes midnight this season and we finally see this team drop into that mix for the first overall pick…
They will make the playoffs if…
Smith needs to return to his Vezina form in order for the Coyotes to go anywhere this season. It would also help if their young players all took big steps forward this season, especially Ekman-Larsson, Gormley and Connor Murphy on defense.
They will miss the playoffs if…
Sam Gagner and company cannot fill the offensive holes created by the departures of Radim Vrbata and Ribeiro. That’s a lot of skill gone among a forward group that is already short on it. In the cut-throat Western Conference, the Coyotes may be the only team without a player who has elite-level offensive talent on their roster.
What should we expect this season?
It seems that every season, the Arizona Coyotes are expected to be a lottery team, and every year they surprise with how competitive they are.
I have a feeling the clock strikes midnight this season and we finally see this team drop into that mix for the first overall pick, and changing their name from “Phoenix” to “Arizona” will not prevent that.
There are some nice young pieces in place, especially on defense, but the reality is that having to contend with the Blackhawks, Ducks, Kings, Blues and other true Stanley Cup contenders in the West on a nightly basis will prove too much for this edition of the Coyotes.
The question is: will a fall in the standings re-ignite some of the relocation talk and uncertainty that plagued the franchise for years?
34-39-9 77 points, 6th in the Pacific Division, 11th in the Western Conference