10 questions as the Coyotes open training camp

With ownership issues resolved, Coyotes have no more excuses but plenty of questions as camp opens.

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Dave Tippett doesn’t want the Phoenix Coyotes’ identity to change following a remarkable off-season when all the dominoes fell in the right direction. But he does have a new message for his coaching staff and players.

“For four years, we’ve talked about (how) we could be a good organization if we got stability. There’s been lot of wishful thinking, a lot of people saying this could go the right direction if we got ownership,” the Coyotes coach said. “We have all that in place now so we have to take the next step -- and the next step can be very hard.”

Phoenix fans got their first taste of playoff success when the team advanced to the Western Conference Final in 2012, but a lockout, the loss of Ray Whitney and a drop in production from key players kept the Coyotes from building on that momentum last season.

Thanks to the sale of the team and the signings of GM Don Maloney, Tippett, goalie Mike Smith and center Mike Ribeiro, fate has awarded the Coyotes a mulligan. But in a Western Conference stacked with talented teams, progress will take more than a few completed transactions.

Here are our top 10 questions as the Coyotes open training camp:

10. Can Mikkel Boedker become an elite NHL forward? Over the first half of the 2013 lockout season, Boedker was arguably the team’s best forward. GM Don Maloney even called him the team’s MVP. But Boedker slumped badly (like many Coyotes) over the second half, notching just two goals in his final 22 games to finish with seven goals and 26 points in 48 games. That contributed to his inability to land the long-term contract he was seeking this off-season as a restricted free agent. He signed for two years and $5.1 million. The presence of Ribeiro could be the missing piece that helps the speedy Boedker elevate to the next level.  "This is the first time we can say a very creative centerman is there to greet him," Maloney said. Boedker is at an age, 23, where it’s about time to realize the immense promise the Coyotes saw when they selected him eighth overall in the 2008 draft.

9. Will attendance improve? There is plenty of positive buzz around the Coyotes these days, and attendance took a jump last season despite the momentum-killing lockout. Still, Phoenix finished second-to-last in the NHL in average attendance (13,923). October, November and December are always tough times for the Coyotes while football is still going, but the team only plays 17 of its 41 home dates in those months, and there are some marquee or traditionally strong-drawing Canadian matchups among those, including the season opener against the New York Rangers (Oct. 3), Detroit (Oct. 19), Calgary (Oct. 22), Edmonton (Oct. 26), the rival L.A. Kings (Oct. 29), Vancouver (Nov. 5), the Alex Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals (Nov. 9) and the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 30. If the team can get out of the gate early, it would certainly help feed the fire. 

8. How will realignment affect the Coyotes? The only division opponent the Coyotes lost in the league’s new, four-division, time-zone friendly format was a non-playoff team, Dallas. In the Stars’ place, the Coyotes gained the perennially powerful Canucks, as well as the up-and-coming Oilers and rebuilding Calgary. The Coyotes will travel the second-most miles in the NHL this season (52,633), but they will play just 12 back-to-back games. Only San Jose, Winnipeg and Colorado play fewer. From an attendance standpoint, more games against western Canadian teams should help, since so many fans from those regions have winter homes in Arizona. As for rivalries and competitive balance, we’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out.

7. Which of the prospects will make the biggest impact this season? Three forwards are going to get a long look in camp: top-pick Max Domi, Chris Brown and Lucas Lessio, while Mark Louis could be pushing for the enforcer role – or “protector,” as Maloney calls it. Defenseman Brandon Gormley figures to get a long look and some NHL time as well. If he shows enough progression, he could push another blue liner out the door in the form of a trade. Prospects like forwards Henrik Samuelsson, Laurent Dauphin and goalie Mark Visentin appear to need at least another year of seasoning.

6. Are there enough spots on the blue line to satisfy everyone? Not if David Rundlbad or Gormley push for spots. The Coyotes have excellent depth, which is why so many expect them to deal for a top-six forward to complete that mix. Whether that becomes a package of players or Keith Yandle for an elite talent remains to be seen. Much will depend on how the younger forwards perform in camp. If Domi wins a roster spot, the Coyotes could hold their cards until later in the season, when teams become a little more desperate for help at the trade deadline. But there are plenty of NHL caliber defensemen on this roster when you add in Zbynek Michalek, Rusty Klesla, Derek Morris, Michael Stone and David Schlemko. 

5. How good can Oliver Ekman-Larsson be? He’s already the Coyotes best defenseman. He plays in every situation, he’s smart and skilled with the puck, he’s a fluid, fast skater, and he just turned 22! The one thing missing is significant, however. He hasn’t yet put up big offensive numbers to solidify his place as a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. But it’s a good bet those are coming. The Coyotes certainly thought so when they awarded him a six-year, $33 million contract in March.

4. How will the Coyotes add the final piece to their top six forwards? There are numerous options, and assistant GM Brad Treliving said recently that all of them will be considered. One of their prospects (Domi, Brown, Lessio) could grab the spot, the Coyotes could deal from their position of strength (defense), or they could lure another free agent, which could mean moving other salaries. There’s a good chance this will be decided in training camp. 

3. Will Mike Ribeiro fill the playmaking center void? Well, he’s posted at least 34 assists in his past nine NHL seasons, and he played for Tippett in Dallas.  You can question the wisdom of giving a 33-year-old center a four-year deal, but it’s really hard to argue with Ribeiro’s consistency, and it’s even tougher when you understand his relationship with Tippett and the coach’s faith in him. He might be the key piece to push Boedker over the top. He could also see time with Radim Vrbata, and he should really help the Coyotes’ anemic power play.

2. Were the Coyotes smart to re-sign goalie Mike Smith? You have to wonder if giving Smith a six-year, $34 million deal was wise when he only has one strong NHL season on his resume. That’s a big contract to carry if Smith looks like last year’s model and not the 2011-12 model. Maybe the condensed schedule of the lockout impacted his game. Maybe his impending contract negotiations did. Maybe an overall team malaise did. But the Coyotes are counting on goalie coach Sean Burke, an ever-improving defensive corps and Tippett’s demanding approach to help Smith regain his former form. It’s a big gamble and big contract, but there weren’t a lot of options.

1. What tangible effects will ownership provide? They are already evident everywhere you look. The team has ramped up its marketing in the Valley, suite sales are on the rise, the GM, coach, goalie and a top-tier free agent have been added and more will likely join the fray down the line because Phoenix is widely considered one of the favorite destinations for players in this league, many of whom plan their retirement here. The main question on everyone’s mind is: Can IceArizona break even or even become profitable with a franchise that has annually bled money?

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