The Phoenix Coyotes did not accomplish their Olympic-break goal of finishing in one of the Western Conference’s top eight spots, but that hasn’t changed their goals or strategy for when the team resumes play on Feb. 27.
"I’m still a believer that this is a playoff team, so we’re going to use this break to do a thorough evaluation of who we are, how we need to play and the people we have here," general manager Don Maloney said Monday. "At that point, we can see what tweaks need to be made."
Maloney confirmed that the Coyotes will be buyers, not sellers, before the March 5 trade deadline. There is some internal disagreement over the team’s needs — not a surprising occurrence considering several men have opinions and input on the team’s strengths, weaknesses and needs.
While some within the organization believe the team needs to add another defenseman to the mix, Maloney said Monday he likes what he’s seen from the defensive corps since Zbynek Michalek’s return to the lineup.
"I think we can work with the pieces we have here," he said. "I think the focus will be on adding one or two forwards to the mix."
The managers, scouts and coaches will have several discussions over the break to voice their opinions and iron out any differences, including one group’s belief that the team needs a veteran presence to stabilize the defensive group beyond the top pairing of Michalek and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
The obvious, season-long need has been for a wing to play on the Martin Hanzal-Radim Vrbata line, but the Coyotes don’t want a strictly finesse player who doesn’t fit with their style, so they could be looking for a combination of offensive ability, size and grit.
And there are restrictions on what they’re willing to offer, although those could change as the deadline approaches, the numbers of teams (and pool of players) increases, and the Coyotes’ needs starts screaming for resolution.
"Ideally, we need to add something to the mix — tweak this group without giving up anything out of the group," Maloney said. "I don’t want to trade any of our top nine forwards, but we’ll see how that goes."
Maloney will travel to watch minor league players such as Max Domi, Laurent Dauphin and Tyler Gaudet to gain a better understanding of what the Coyotes have in their system. He also noted that defenseman Brandon Gormley will likely earn a call-up after the break to give him a look on the left side, which could make it even harder for veteran Rusty Klesla to earn his way back to Glendale in a numbers game where David Schlemko is also a factor.
While the staff conducts its evaluations, the break affords us a chance to look back on what went right and what went wrong over the season’s first 58 games. Here are our top 10 lists in each category.
Antoine Vermette’s all-around contributions earns him our vote as the Team MVP so far.
1. Antoine Vermette: He gets our vote for the pre-break MVP. He’s 10th in the NHL in faceoff percentage (55.8), he leads the team in goals (21), he’s a responsible defensive player, penalty-killer and he’s helped the power play take a quantum leap with six power-play goals. He also wears the A on a part-time basis, although you could argue that he and Zbynek Michalek deserve full-time consideration.
2. Mikkel Boedker is emerging: Boedker’s contract impasse lasted longer than expected this offseason, and he eventually agreed to a two-year, $5.1 million deal that was a lot less than he was asking. But Boedker hasn’t sulked; he’s done what the Coyotes have asked. He’s become more of a consistent scoring threat — he’s tied for third on the team with 38 points and tied for second with 15 goals — and he’s improved his defensive game. Boedker still needs to show greater consistency on a nightly basis, but you can go up and down the Coyotes’ lineup this season and say that about virtually every other player. The Coyotes desperately need to start developing elite offensive forwards through their own system. Boedker could be the watershed player if he can build on his stats after the break and avoid the slump that defined the second half of the lockout season.
3. They have a legitimate power-play unit: Assistant Newell Brown arrived in Glendale with one simple idea for the Coyotes’ perennially impotent power play: Shoot more. Of course, the Coyotes still want to win puck battles along the boards and they still want traffic in front of the net, which Martin Hanzal has done more consistently than anyone, but they wanted to get more pucks through to the net, specifically from their offensively capable blue line. That has happened. And the addition of Mike Ribeiro has added a playmaker down low that defenses have to honor. The Coyotes are tied for sixth in the NHL with the man advantage, converting at a 20.4 percent clip.
4. The Thomas Greiss signing: The coaching staff got to a point last season where it didn’t trust backup Jason LaBarbera. Enter Greiss, who has had a couple off-nights, but for the most part, he has delivered what the management and coaches wanted: Superlative backup play. Greiss has a 2.09 goals against average and a sparkling .932 save percentage. He fits his role perfectly — and that is the only role the staff wants him to fill.
5. Mike Ribeiro has delivered offense: Fans want Ribeiro to shoot a little more, and that’s sometimes warranted when he’s in high-percentage areas, but Ribeiro is a playmaker and leads all Coyotes forwards with 26 helpers. With that creativity comes some puck mismanagement and some defensive lapses, but the Coyotes made this signing with their eyes wide open. Now if they can just get him to produce on a more consistent basis.
6. The blue line spearheaded the offense: The offense took a dip in December and January that coincided with the inconsistent efforts the Coyotes were getting throughout the lineup. But the puck-moving abilities of Keith Yandle, Ekman-Larsson, Michael Stone and even Derek Morris and Connor Murphy give the Coyotes a jump start on offense from their blue line that few teams can match. Coyotes defensemen have accounted for 32 of the team’s 163 goals (19.6 percent) and 92 assists.
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson has continued his maturation toward stardom.
7. Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s maturation: He’s seventh in the NHL in average ice time per game at 25 minutes, 41 seconds. There are still times when he makes mistakes with the puck, a reality for any player who logs so much time, regularly faces the other team’s top offensive line and plays in every situation (even strength, power play, penalty kill). At some point, his offensive numbers will probably take a another step forward, but there is no doubting Ekman-Larsson is the most complete player on this roster. His fluid skating and stick-handling, his uncanny ability to get his stick in passing and shooting lanes and a recently added toughness make that long-term deal the Coyotes signed their franchise defenseman to last season look like a bargain.
8. Maloney didn’t panic: There have been cries for trades for the past two months (maybe since the season started), but there were very few deals to be had this season with so many teams still in the playoff hunt and so many teams bumping up against the artificially lowered salary cap. The price for available players who could help this team is still too high. It doesn’t make sense to mortgage the future for the present when you’re simply battling for a playoff spot and your organization is still trying to build depth in its system. Maloney was right to stay the course, but when the Olympic trade freeze ends on Feb. 23, it will be time for Dealer Don to pull the trigger.
9. The ability to compete at an elite level: The stretch right before the Olympic break was the classic example of the Coyotes’ maddening inconsistency and enticing potential. Phoenix beat Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Chicago, three teams who, despite LA’s recent struggles, are considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. When there are no passengers, the Coyotes are a dangerous club.
10. The Jeff Halpern addition: The Coyotes still miss Boyd Gordon, but without Halpern, they might never have achieved stability with their fourth line, which has had some very good stretches when Kyle Chipchura and Paul Bissonnette were also clicking. Halpern is an aging veteran whose time is drawing to a close. He can’t provide what Gordon did at this stage of his career, but he’s responsible defensively, he’s a good faceoff man and he’s a good teammate. Coach Dave Tippett is a big fan.
1. Mike Smith wasn’t himself: Smith’s final four starts before the break (he stopped 121 of 126 shots for a .960 save percentage) are the biggest reason Maloney has confidence this is a playoff team. "If we can get goaltending like that when we already have the best coaching in the league, I like that combination," Maloney said. It can’t be emphasized enough how much Smith’s struggles earlier this season were related to the defensive shortcomings in front of him — both on the blue line and in the forward group. Still, Smith’s overall numbers are stark evidence that the goaltending was not where it needed to be. Smith ranks 27th in save percentage (.913) and 33rd in goals against average (2.77). He admitted he put too much pressure on himself to live up to that big contract he signed and carry this team. When Smith is on his game, the saves look easy because he is in position and there is little wasted motion. Those four starts before the break would be a welcome trend for the Coyotes’ playoff hopes, provided he doesn’t lose the momentum sitting on Team Canada’s bench during the Olympics.
Two weeks of R&R could be just what the doctor ordered for ailing Shane Doan.
2. Shane Doan caught Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: Seriously, can the captain get a break? He stayed the course with a franchise that didn’t have an owner for four years and was teetering on the edge of relocation. He’s endured years of playoff futility, or no playoffs at all. And when the team was finally sold, he contracted a rare disease from origins still unknown. Doan missed a month and the Coyotes lost their mojo while he was away, falling from playoff position. If anybody needed this Olympic break, Doan did. We won’t know how much he has struggled to overcome the disease until after the season, but the black semicircles under his eyes and the sagging face are not signs of age. They weren’t there before this ordeal. Here’s hoping he’s being served breakfast in bed for two straight weeks.
3. Injuries to defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Derek Morris: Injuries are a part of the game, but if the Coyotes were to lose man games to injury on their deep blue line, it would have been much easier to absorb them to some of their young, interchangeable parts. Michalek missed 22 games, but his value has been all the more apparent since his return (remember that shutdown job on Sidney Crosby?). Morris missed 13 games and is vital to protecting Keith Yandle’s offensive forays and defensive lapses. Outside of this pair, the Coyotes really don’t have anyone else on their blue line who is hard to play against from a physical battles standpoint.
4. That young defensive corps wasn’t quite ready for prime time: The Coyotes still believe they have enviable depth on their blue line — in the NHL and in the AHL — but the players they counted on to fill greater roles this season weren’t quite ready. Michael Stone has a cannon of a shot, he has eight goals and he finished strong before the break, but he has struggled in his own end and really struggled on the penalty-killing unit, leaving the Coyotes without enough capable bodies to man the back end on that vital unit. David Rundblad makes a lot of mistakes with the puck, he isn’t positionally or physically strong, and he can’t find ice time because the coaching staff doesn’t trust him on the penalty kill. Beyond these points, the youth on the Coyotes blue line (Schlemko and Connor Murphy included) is often noticeable when they are pressured. Phoenix misses the steadying presence of veterans Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival. It’s a presence the coaching staff would like to see added at the trade deadline, but one the GM isn’t certain the team needs.
5. The penalty kill was poor: This goes hand in hand with the Coyotes’ shortage of defensemen who can capably fill this unit and a lack of grit up front. Entering the break, the Coyotes PK had improved to 80.3 percent, a necessary trend, but it still ranks 24th in the NHL. A recent trend toward pressuring the puck more has helped.
6. Jordan Nolan’s hit on Rusty Klesla: Nobody can say for certain whether that unpenalized and unpunished head shot Nolan laid on Klesla in the preseason changed his game, but Klesla has lacked the grit and toughness that defined him the past few seasons and made him such a critical component on the Coyotes defensive corps. He’s playing a lot of defense with his hands and stick instead of his body, and he’s been tentative and error-prone in his decision-making. The Coyotes are trying to get his game right in the American Hockey League. If he can return to form, the team may not need another option on the blue line, but time is running out for Klesla in Portland. The trade deadline is 23 days away, Schlemko is showing signs of nailing down that third spot on the left side, and the Coyotes also want to give Brandon Gormley a look. It’s possible that Klesla’s time in Glendale is over. If a hit we still believe was illegal is the culprit, that’s a shame and an embarrassment for the league.
7. Raffi Torres isn’t here: Torres made some bad decisions when he was on the ice and clearly needed to play with more restraint, but ask yourself this: Who do opponents’ fear when they go into corners against the Coyotes? Doan can mix it up, but he’s still battling the aforementioned illness. Martin Hanzal plays with an edge at times, but does anybody really force opponents to keep their head on a swivel like Torres did? Does any forward on this club consistently deliver big hits? Does any forward on this club make opponents worry as much about getting laid out as they do about the game?
8. Boyd Gordon left unexpectedly: Edmonton paid him too much money for a third-line center, but the Coyotes sure do miss him on the penalty-killing unit. He won defensive zone face-offs and he threw his body in the way of every shot he could, setting the tempo for a team that used to sacrifice far more for the greater good than it does now.
9. The offense dried up: Remember when the Coyotes were running neck and neck with Chicago, St. Louis and Pittsburgh for the league’s goal-scoring lead? Yeah, that was great. As it arrived at the Olympic break, Phoenix had slipped to the bottom half of the league (16th) in goals for — a dramatic drop from two months ago.
10. Leadership: Doan does what he can, but given his illness and his still-limited ability to impact the game, the Coyotes need their other veteran leaders to show up on a consistent basis. While he mostly likes what he’s seeing from Vermette, Michalek and Jeff Halpern, Maloney would like to see more leadership and consistency from Yandle, Hanzal, Morris, Ribeiro and Radim Vrbata.