2007-08 Team Preview: Phoenix Coyotes
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideLast season, the Phoenix Coyotes' ad slogan was "A Decade in the Desert." It now has morphed into "Eleven Years in the Wasteland -- and Counting." A valiant attempt last offseason to accelerate the rebuilding process of one of the NHL's longest-suffering teams quickly went off the rails and ended with a house-cleaning at the top. New GM Don Maloney, witness to overspending and unwise decisions during his years with the New York Rangers, promises to take a slow and steady approach in trying to rebuild the franchise. Such a plan promises much more short-term pain, however, and it remains to be seen whether the team can survive in the market during this period. The other main question is: What will happen to coach Wayne Gretzky along the way? Does he have the stamina or the will to see this process through? And who tells him he can't do the job, if or when it comes to that? OFFENSE
The Coyotes, who finished dead last in the Western Conference, scored just 216 goals last season, 24th overall. Given the strides taken by the teams that finished below them, it seems likely the Coyotes will finish dead last in offense this season. Harsh? Well, consider that an already-paper-thin lineup now will be without Yanic Perreault, Owen Nolan, Jeremy Roenick and Kevyn Adams from last year's group. Realistically, there are three players who have a legitimate chance of scoring 20 goals: captain Shane Doan (who led the Coyotes with 55 points last season), Steve Reinprecht and Radim Vrbata (who came from Chicago in exchange for Adams). Mike York might sneak in there, too, but only by default. After that? Well, let's just say there will be ample opportunity for pretty much anyone with a stick and a pair of skates to make an impression. Rookies who got a brief taste last season, including Bill Thomas, Daniel Carcillo and Joel Perreault, will get a chance to grow up in a hurry. There also might be room for one or more of Peter Mueller (the eighth pick in 2006), Martin Hanzal (the 17th pick in 2005) and Blake Wheeler (the fifth pick in 2004). It probably is too early for center Kyle Turris, the third pick in this past June's draft. But, with this team, the door is wide open. DEFENSE
As bad as things have gotten in Phoenix, it's hard to believe they could get any worse. But if you're a glass-half-full kind of person, it definitely applies to the team's defensive future. Start with twin defensive gems Zbynek Michalek and Keith Ballard. Then consider Brendan Bell (the former junior hockey defenseman of the year who came in the trade-deadline deal that sent Yanic Perreault to Toronto), Keith Yandle (a diamond in the rough discovered with the 105th pick in 2005) and Matt Jones (who logged 16:22 a night in 45 games as a rookie). It's an impressive group that should learn a lot if Ed Jovanovski can return to full strength after an injury-plagued first season in Phoenix limited him to 54 games. Nick Boynton's name will continue to surface in trade talks, but he needs to rediscover his hard-nosed game and stay healthy after playing in just 59 games since he came over from Boston prior to the start of last season. GOALTENDING
"What goaltending?" might be a better tagline for a team that seems to have cornered the market on floundering former goaltending prospects. With Alex Auld, Mikael Tellqvist, David LeNeveu and David Aebischer all fighting for playing time, it's pretty much a given that no other NHL team will start the season with as poor a goaltending situation as the Coyotes. Maybe one or more of these young netminders will rediscover their game and make the Coyotes the surprise team some thought they were going to be last season. But we doubt it. COACHING
Gretzky has seen his Coyotes go from 39 losses his first year to 46 last season, and there is every chance his squad will hit the 50-loss mark this season, given the bevy of talent in the conference. For the NHL's greatest player, these first two seasons have been hard lessons in the nature of NHL coaching and team-building. Veteran players who were brought in to provide stability have flamed out (Roenick, Brett Hull and Dave Scatchard). His own assistant coach, Rick Tocchet, thought it was OK to take part in an illegal gambling ring. His longtime friend, former GM Mike Barnett, was canned at the end of the season, and new owners promised this wasn't going to be Gretzky's fiefdom anymore. All of which brings us to the issue of just how much longer Gretzky will hang around. If the team can show signs of turning the tide, then watch for Gretzky to push and finish the job he started. Top priority will be in improving special teams, since the penalty kill was 28th and the power play 22nd. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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• Record: 31-46-5
• Division: Fifth in the Pacific
• Conference: 15th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
PLAYERS TO WATCH
A former Colorado backup who earned a Stanley Cup ring in 2001, he wasn't able to seize the No. 1 job in Colorado or Montreal. Will he get the job in Phoenix? Defenseman: Keith Yandle
Everywhere he's gone, the 21-year-old Boston native has turned heads. Can he continue his ascendancy at the NHL level? Forward: Alexei Kaigorodov
The talented Russian was penciled in as Ottawa's second-line center a year ago. He balked at going to the AHL and fled home to Russia. Now, he's got another chance to prove he's NHL material.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
Will fans put up with a true rebuilding project in the desert? Where will the team be when it finally gets good? Hamilton, Ontario, anyone? Where They Will Finish
The Coyotes will finish fifth in the Pacific Division and 15th in the Western Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Phoenix Coyotes will finish this time around? Who will lead the Coyotes in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!