Coyotes’ plan: ‘Youth movement and winning movement’
GLENDALE, Ariz. — For the first time in Dave Tippett’s six seasons as Coyotes coach, training camp has arrived without significant expectations from the media or the franchise’s fan base.
Tippett’s hiring in 2009 at least sparked hope of change. His three-year playoff streak sparked hopes of continued success. The Coyotes’ run to the Western Conference Final in 2012 sparked hope of something more, and the presence of an ownership group — finally — sparked hope for sustainability in the Valley.
But when the Coyotes held their annual media day on Thursday at Gila River Arena — with a second-straight non-playoff season and the Mike Ribeiro buyout as backdrop — the discussion was focused on a youth movement, recapturing the team’s lost identity and finding a way to keep up with the offensive machines of the Western Conference without Ribeiro or departed mainstay, Radim Vrbata.
"We’ll go right back to the old standby," Tippett chuckled when asked about the team’s scoring potential. "We’ll do it by committee."
That mantra will echo from every stiff upper lip in this organization. There will be talk of tighter defensive play, top-10 goaltending, sustained success on the power play and what GM Don Maloney called a "junkyard-dog, hang-around-games-and-find-a-way-to-win mentality."
Nobody knows if all those ingredients will be enough to cook up a playoff mix.
"Let’s face it," Maloney said. "We need a lot of things to go well."
Even if they do, there is still this fact: Almost every Western Conference playoff team improved itself. L.A. re-signed Marian Gaborik, Anaheim got Ryan Kesler, Dallas got Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, Chicago added Brad Richards, St. Louis added Paul Stastny, Minnesota added Thomas Vanek and Colorado added Jarome Iginla and playoff god Danny Briere.
The Coyotes replaced Ribeiro and Vrbata with Sam Gagner and Joe Vitale. Add to that Maloney’s confirmation that any trade the Coyotes make before the season or early in the season would have to be a dollar-for-dollar deal, and you don’t see how they’ll keep up with the Joneses.
"A big part of it is the development of our young players," Tippett said. "At some point, if you’re going to be successful in this league, you have to develop your young players. They have to push for lineup spots. They have to work their way into the lineup."
Forwards Lucas Lessio, Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson, Tobias Rieder and Tyler Gaudet will be given that opportunity. Defensemen Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy will almost certainly win roster spots out of camp.
But how much can the Coyotes expect from their young players this soon? What strides can forward Mikkel Boedker, Gagner and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson make to augment an already worrisome offense? How much more can be heaped on the team’s blue line and goalie Mike Smith? And even if centers Antoine Vermette, Martin Hanzal and Vitale work wonders on the defensive side of the ice, the Coyotes do not have an elite offensive center on their roster or in their system.
"You can’t win a Cup without one of those," former Coyote Ray Whitney said.
Without the financial chops to acquire those players in the free-spending world of free agency, Maloney knows he needs to draft that piece. There will be elite centers available in the next draft such as Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the consensus top two picks.
"There are a couple of them at the top of the charts that are young dynamic players, but it requires a lot of suffering to get there so on the first day of camp, that’s not what I want to be thinking about," Maloney said. "If that were the case, we’d have a whole different vibe here. We might as well get rid of Shane (Doan) and everyone else."
Instead, the Coyotes will return to their pack mentality. They will try to hold leads as they once did, win games in shootouts as they once did, and squeeze a few more points out of the season to qualify for the playoffs.
"There’s a lot of talk about our youth movement, but a youth movement and a winning movement: That’s what I want to talk about," Maloney said. "I get the perception that everyone believes these four or five young guys like Max and Lucas are automatically on the team. That’s not the case at all. If they warrant time in the minors or juniors, that’s where they’ll be. If an 18-year-old can come in and play without retarding his growth, then we’ll do that.
"Developing some of our younger players is an important part of our growth, but we don’t want our focus to get away from making the playoffs because that’s how we’re going to build our fan base and be successful financially, too."
In another year or so, maybe the team will be profitable and able to spend more in free agency. But Maloney insists he doesn’t want to sacrifice the next couple years in anticipation of that payoff.
"Go ask Shane or Mike Smith if they’re all jacked up about a youth movement," he said. "If I’m an older player, I want to win now and that’s our attitude; we owe it to them to have that attitude.
"We can’t sit here and say we match up, No. 1 line to No. 1 line, with many teams in the West. But maybe we can control the top lines and outperform the lower lines. With our goaltending, our blue line and our coaching, we’ll find a way to score some goals up front. We still believe this is a playoff team."