Stranded out in the uber-competitive Pacific Division of the National Hockey League’s Western Conference, the Phoenix Coyotes are muddling through in fifth place with 49 standings points. Incredibly, 49 standings points would put the Desert Doggies in second place in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division.
The Yotes’ story is reasonably well-known, so I’ll just gloss over the high points as best I know and get to the current day as quickly as possible. The original Wkinnipeg Jets team, looking for more cash and helping fulfill Commissioner Gary Bettman’s manifest destiny plan of sunbelt expansion, relocated from Manitoba to the Valley of the Sun in time for the 1996-97 season. While ice hockey started as a reasonably foreign concept in Arizona, it took root (presumably with the considerable number of snowbirds that Phoenix houses) – especially in the eastern suburbs like Scottsdale.
In a slight digression, the Coyotes also had some of the most incredible sweaters in recent hockey history, including
They played their games in a downtown arena, one I gather with lousy sightlines and more suited toward the arena’s other tenant, the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. Combine that with the dot-com bubble-fueled ambition of western suburb Glendale to become Arizona’s entertainment, retail and sports mecca, and the Coyotes signed a deal to become the anchor tenant at the then-new Jobing.com Arena in Glendale.
I’ve never been to Jobing.com Arena, but a few folks that I know have and attest that it, and its surrounding arena district, is as fine a setup as any team has in the entire NHL. The problem appeared soon thereafter, however, that of the fact that the Coyotes moved about as far away from its core hockey base as humanly possible while still proclaiming to play in greater Phoenix. As I understand, it’s a good hour-plus drive to get across town – something that you’re just not going to see happen night-in, night-out over a nine-month, 82-game season.
The ticket base dwindled, which didn’t help the already rough ownership group. The team filed bankruptcy and had to be rescued by the league to avoid being sold to a more predatory (and not in a Nashville way) ownership group that presumably would have tried to pack the team up and move to more favorable economic climes. The league owned the Coyotes from 2009-2013 before selling it to a Canadian group of investors.
The current arrangement with Glendale (and, I believe, the league) is that the new ownership has given itself five years to make the Coyotes financially viable before being in the clear to relocate. I’m as much of an optimist as the next person, and I hope the best for the Coyotes in Phoenix, but I think that means, "We’ll be here for five years and then will be heading back up north."
With the business operations mess behind us, let’s talk about the rather incredible hockey operations story that the Doggies have become. The pre-bankruptcy ownership brought in Wayne Gretzky to run things – coach and general manager – and The Great One proved that he wasn’t up to the task. He bailed out when the NHL took over the team, and the league hired Don Maloney as general manager. Maloney, in turn, hired former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett as his bench boss.
Together, those two have literally made lemonade out of the most foul lemons you can imagine. Despite ridiculous franchise instability and a crippling league-imposed salary budget, Maloney and Tippett have taken the Yotes to the Western Conference playoffs in three out of their four years – getting all the way to the conference finals in 2011-12.
I am in awe of how Phoenix has turned themselves around. They took all the young talent from Gretzky’s days and immediately shipped them off to the American Hockey League, telling the kids that they’ll return to Phoenix when they are NHL-ready. They then backfilled with a bunch of veterans on their last legs and garage sale pickups. They also, through either great hockey sense or out-of-this-world scouting, pulled players out of ill-fitting environments and plugged them into the defensively stout Tippett model with a healthy degree of success. Among the players that Maloney acquired were former Columbus Blue Jackets Antoine Vermette, Raffi Torres and Rusty Klesla.
We’re into the fifth year of Maloney-Tippett, and some of the kids are finally returning to Arizona and are emerging as legitimate NHL talents – defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson chief among them. The greyest of the grey-beards are retiring, and the team is now in a closer-to-standard development model using homegrown talent.
Despite everything going on around them, Maloney and Tippett are doing it right.
The Tippett model also doesn’t emphasize a single star, and it shows in the team’s top scorers. While the team is sixth in the league in scoring, no single player has more than 12 goals. The Coyotes’ current top scorers are:
– Forward Mike Ribiero (10 goals, 19 assists, 29 points)
– Forward Radim Vrbata (11 G, 18 A, 29 pts)
– Forward Martin Hanzal (11 G, 16 A, 27 pts)
– Defenseman Keith Yandle (6 G, 21 A, 27 pts)
– Forward Mikkel Boedker (11 G, 14 A, 25 pts)
In net, Mike Smith holds court. He has started 33 of the team’s 39 games thus far, with a 15-8-8 record and a .912 save percentage. He also fell victim to one of the greatest trick goals I’ve ever seen:
Smith’s backup is Thomas Greiss, who has a 5-2-1 record in six starts to accompany his .930 save percentage.
THE REAL IMPORTANT STUFF TO KNOW
There’s no getting by the fact that despite the Coyotes’ low placement in the Pacific Division, they’re a very, very good team that will present a terrific challenge to the Columbus Blue Jackets to kick off the new year.
Beyond that, however, the big story is that of the healing of the roster. All indications have goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, defenseman Dalton Prout and forward Nathan Horton entering the lineup tonight – each after an extended absence.
WHAT I’LL BE WATCHING FOR
As great as the return of Bobrovsky (which is probably the most meaningful, seeing as he’s the goaltender and is most responsible for swings between wins and losses) and Prout, my eyes will be squarely on the Blue Jackets number eight, Nathan Horton. Horton had shoulder surgery back in July to tighten up a chronically loose shoulder joint, and tonight would represent his Blue Jackets debut.
I’ll be watching to see both how effective he is out of the gate, and how much rust needs to be shaken off from the extended absence. Horton has been practicing with the team for a few weeks now, but nothing beats game conditions to test your readiness for the grind of the NHL season.
Horton’s appearance couldn’t come at a better time. The Blue Jackets are 17-19-4 – a couple games below .500 and precariously close to falling out of the playoff chase barring a 19-5-5 burst like we saw last season. I don’t think that Horton alone will make the difference in success and failure, but his presence will help rationalize the roster. His eventual insertion in the mix for the top six forwards means that someone will be pushed down from the top six to the bottom six…making the bottom six that much more potent. Beyond that, a bottom six player will be sent off to AHL Springfield, giving the player much needed development time. Trickle-down roster management, if you will.
Lastly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, I’m not looking for Nathan Horton to be a savior for this club. Hockey is a team sport, and one player alone – even the best player in the world, of which Horton doesn’t appear to be – needs complementary players to win.
It reminds me of a conversation I had a few years back as I pulled into a parking garage in Cleveland. LeBron James (back when we still loved him) was coming back from injury, and the garage attendant was wearing a Cavaliers hat. I made a kind comment about how the Cavs would be happy to have James back in the lineup. The attendant replied, "Yeah, it’ll be good. But LeBron ain’t Jesus. The rest of the team needs to play, too."
So true. LeBron ain’t Jesus…and neither is Nathan Horton.
YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION
The puck drops at 9PM in the Valley of the Sun, which means…
– Your dose of "Blue Jackets Slap Shots" with Brian Giesenschlag at 8PM
– "Blue Jackets Live" with Brian and Dan Kamal at 8:30PM
– The Yotes and and the Blue Jackets face off at 9PM with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge on the call
– "Blue Jackets Live Postgame" with Brian and Dan starts immediately following
Big night tonight in the desert – worth putting on that extra pot of coffee for. Go Jackets!