Coyotes plot strategy for condensed schedule

Condensed NHL schedule presents unique challenges for coaching staff, front office, players.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Here’s what we already know about the Coyotes’ 48-game schedule.:

One-third of their games (16) will be played in back-to-back sets. The season will end about three weeks later than last season, and there aren’t many minor-league players in training camp because the coaching staff and general manager Don Maloney don’t have time to evaluate up-and-coming talent or alter the roster with the season starting Saturday.

The Coyotes must have their systems installed and their game plan ready when they travel to face the Dallas Stars.

“You’re going to hear a lot about how you have to have a great start, but I look at it as you have to have a great start, a great middle and a great finish,” coach Dave Tippett said. “You’ve got to be ready to play when the puck drops next Saturday, but you’re going to have to play well all the way through because I think it’s going to come down to a point or two at the end, and that consistency might be the difference in being on the right side of that.”

Will the Coyotes have an advantage because so many of their players have been skating together during the offseason? Some think so.

“When you talk to guys from different teams, different cities, they only had a few guys skating (together),” defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. “Here, we had 10 or more guys all the time. You get to bond with the guys, get together, go for lunch, skate together, play golf — that’s very important.”

Others are not so sure.

“Advantage? We’ll wait and see,” captain Shane Doan said. “It’s not going to hurt you. Hopefully it gets you three extra points. I’d be happy with three extra points.”

The condensed schedule will certainly put a premium on points, but here are five other factors to consider in this all-out sprint to the postseason.

1. All games will be played within the Western Conference: Why is that significant? Because every game will be played against an opponent jockeying with Phoenix for postseason position. If the Coyotes beat Dallas on Saturday, not only will they earn two points, they will have denied Dallas two points, making the game a four-point swing.

“It’s very much like a playoff situation,” Tippett said.

2. The trade and assimilation windows are condensed: Maloney said Monday that conversations between general managers during the lockout were almost nonexistent. That means any possible deals that normally would have occurred during the offseason were tabled.

Maloney had hoped to have a trade done by last Monday; now he’s not sure anything will happen before the season starts, with one deal still possible in which the Coyotes take on a portion (perhaps the minimum allowable percentage of 50 percent) of another player’s salary to get him off another team’s books.

There is another concern, however. How well will that player blend and how quickly can he blend?

“In all candor, we look at mix and chemistry as much as we look at talent, so as much as we might like the player on the ice, we’re still concerned with what he’s like off it. Does he fit with our culture?” Maloney said. “Plus, it’s a short season. There’s not a big learning curve of games or in training camp to sort things out.”

3. The loss of practice time: The NHL reports that the condensed schedule will increase teams’ weekly schedules from 3.1 to 3.4 games. There’s also a significant loss in practice time.

The Coyotes get four days off between games on Feb. 18 (Calgary at home) and Feb. 23 (Edmonton on the road) and three days between games on March 21 (Vancouver) and March 25 (Detroit). Other than that, there are no greater gaps than two days between games, and the Coyotes will play eight sets of back-to-back games.

How will that affect practices?

“We’re going to have to be creative with that. We want to make sure that our players, for every game, have as much energy as possible,” said Tippett, admitting there could be less practice time than even the schedule permits. “There could be some stuff we do through video, some with meetings and some on the ice -- maybe some real short practices, more like morning skates than anything else.”

4. Depth will be at a premium: Injuries always have an impact on a roster, but in a shortened season they could have a greater impact. A severely separated shoulder doesn’t care that the schedule has been shortened. It will take the same amount of time to heal, and that will equal a greater percentage of a 48-game slate.

There’s also fatigue to consider. Some teams may want to rest veterans or slightly injured players on the back end of back-to-backs or during a grueling road stretch. The clubs that have better depth to call on could enjoy an even greater advantage than normal in these situations.

5. Mike Smith: Smith jokingly said he wants to play every game, but he knows that won’t happen.

“We’re going to need both our goaltenders,” Tippett said. “We’ve got seven games the first 12 days, so there will be some crunch. We’ll monitor, make sure the guy we’re putting in there is physically at his best to give us the best he can.”

How much the Coyotes will turn to backup Jason LaBarbera remains to be seen, but how much will the condensed schedule impact Smith’s play, fatigue level and mental sharpness?

“We’ll see,” Smith said. “Rest is going to be just as important as practices to stay sharp, but we haven’t been playing for four months now, so we should be well rested from not having to play all those games.”

Clearly, the Coyotes' season hinges on another elite performance from Smith.

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