GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The NHL’s abbreviated schedule makes it even more important to get off to a fast start this season. With just 48 games, there won’t be much time to make up ground for anyone who falls into an early hole.
With little roster turnover after the best season in franchise history, a discipline-based system and more depth than they’ve ever had, the Phoenix Coyotes appear to be one of the teams in good position to put together a fast start.
Consistency will be a key, and the Coyotes have plenty of it.
“You’re going to hear lots about how you’re going to have to have a great start and come out ready to go, but you’ve got to have a great start, a great middle and a great finish,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Sunday from Jobing.com Arena.
“That’s what we’ll strive for. One of the identities of our team is how well we can play for long stretches of time. Consistency is a big part of it and I think that’s going to be a factor for us.”
Consistency has been the trademark of Tippett’s teams.
The Dallas Stars had it when he was behind the bench, positing a winning record in each of his six seasons.
The Coyotes have certainly had it with “Tip” running the team, reaching the playoffs in each of his three seasons in the desert despite having no owner and the financial limitations of being run by the NHL.
Phoenix reached its peak as a franchise last season, winning its first NHL division title, ending a 25-year drought by getting into the second round of the playoffs and reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time.
All those firsts have set up a solid foundation for this season, even if it took 113 days for it to start because of the NHL lockout.
“It’s a great dressing room,” said left wing Steve Sullivan, who signed with the Coyotes before the lockout started. “There seems to be a really good attitude and a winning attitude coming off last season.”
Phoenix also has a system that shouldn’t take long to get rolling. Tippett has preached a defense-first style wherever he’s been, and it’s been no different in the desert.
Though they’re not exactly a prolific scoring team, the Coyotes have been successful with a stay-at-home style based on good goaltending, limiting scoring chances and counterattacking on offense. Unlike high-scoring teams that rely on speed and precision, Phoenix should be able to get into its system right away, particularly since so many of its players have been in it for so long.
Over the offseason, the Coyotes lost forwards Ray Whitney and Taylor Pyatt, but added Sullivan and re-acquired defenseman Zbynek Michalek. The rest of the roster is pretty much the same from a year ago, from coming-into-his-own goalie Mike Smith and two-time All-Star defenseman Keith Yandle to 35-goal scorer Radim Vrbata and captain Shane Doan.
Phoenix has more depth than it’s ever had, and most of its players know the system because they’ve been around so long, which sets up well for a good start to the season, not to mention sustained success the rest of the way.
“Tip just does such a good job of getting us prepared for games, so I think that gives us an advantage,” Yandle said.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the Coyotes were active during the lockout.
Phoenix had five players who went overseas to play and a few more, including young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who played for North American minor league teams.
The Coyotes also had one of the league’s largest informal workouts at their practice facility in Scottsdale, with over a dozen players skating daily with players from around the NHL who came to the desert for the warm weather outside and the competitive atmosphere on the ice.
“We had a great bunch of guys here,” Sullivan said. “I think on average we had 12, 13 guys skating, which is probably more than most teams, so we might have a little bit of an advantage there getting used to the guys. Once we found out this (the season) was pretty much a done deal, our workouts started picking up pretty quick and did a lot of good things the last week.”
After going through physicals and an optional skate on Sunday, the Coyotes will have less than a week to get ready for the start of the season on Saturday.
More so than some other teams, they’re in pretty good shape with little time to get ready for what will be a very short season.