Originally Published: September 27, 2013

Phoenix Coyotes: Finally stability at the top

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

For the time being, these are still the Phoenix Coyotes. (They'll switch to the Arizona Coyotes next season.) But this has been an offseason of tremendous change for the NHL's unwanted orphan. In early July, Glendale municipal leaders narrowly agreed to a new lease agreement with a new ownership headed up by Canadians Anthony LeBlanc and George Gosbee, and the board of governors later approved the sale. For at least the next five years, the team will remain in Arizona and can begin the long task of repairing the damage wrought by four years of stewardship under the league and the constant threat of relocation, not to mention years of mediocrity that preceded the ownership debacle. A tremendous amount of time has been wasted for a team that enjoyed three straight trips to the playoffs before missing last spring.

But the building blocks are in place for an immediate return to contention in the Western Conference, starting with one of the smartest general managers in the game, Don Maloney, who now has the financial wherewithal to make moves he couldn't make while under the NHL's control. There's also Dave Tippett, a perennial Jack Adams favorite as coach of the year. Now we'll start to see if commissioner Gary Bettman's faith in the franchise and the market was well-placed.

"I think there's a different vibe just because no one's talking about it," Tippett said of the ownership issue.

It's not just that the team has a real ownership group now, it's what that ownership group represents. As explained by netminder Mike Smith, who signed a six-year deal worth $34 million this past summer instead of fleeing as a free agent, it's huge. Now the Coyotes can become a destination for free agents. It will, in theory, be easier to keep homegrown assets. Stability is an enticing asset, and likewise players shy away from a situation that reeks of uncertainty, and that's the most significant change in this franchise's fortunes in many years. That was reflected when the Coyotes signed arguably the most talented free agent center on the market in Mike Ribeiro, who was coming off a terrific season in Washington to a four-year $22 million deal. The Coyotes lost useful third-line center and penalty killer Boyd Gordon to Edmonton, but beyond that, the same core of players that advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2012 returns. Thomas Greiss will take Jason LaBarbera's spot as Smith's backup.

Let's start with the coach, Tippett, who is the glue that binds this team together. On paper, the Coyotes might not match up with some of the Western Conference powerhouses, but Tippett's game plan and style of coaching has allowed him to get maximum production from his lineup almost every season.

"Guys that are kind of bottom-of-the-barrel guys, it seems, like coming to Phoenix and all of a sudden they've got put on the radar, they've played huge minutes for our team and are big reasons why we got to the conference finals with character guys like that," Smith told ESPN.com. "But they weren't those players on other teams."

He certainly includes himself in that statement. "They come to Phoenix and they find their niche and Tip's a big reason why," Smith said. "He knows how to get the most out of his players whether the player needs to be ridden, Tip can do that, whether he needs to pull back the reins a little bit and have private meetings with guys, he does that."

Tippett's strength is in his defensive game plan, and thanks to Maloney, he has the pieces to execute that game plan starting with two smooth-skating defensemen in Keith Yandle, who led the team in points last year with 30, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who might be the best defenseman in the NHL no one knows about.

"You watch the guy play and you don't really understand how good he is. ... I've played with him for two years now, I didn't even really know who he was, coming from the East; unbelievable player," Smith said. "He reminds me a lot of [Sergei] Zubov when I played with Zubov in Dallas. He never seems to get hit. He always has the puck and he makes passes that you scratch your head and say I didn't even think he was open."

The blue line corps is a nice blend of the experienced in Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris and Rostislav Klesla (although Klesla was injured in a controversial play in the Coyotes' first preseason game, which resulted in a 10-game suspension for rugged forward Paul Bissonnette, who came off the bench to seek justice for the hit) and the up-and-coming David Rundblad, Michael Stone and David Schlemko. With solid goaltending and a strong, deep blue line, the Coyotes don't necessarily need to score a ton to be competitive, which is a good thing given that they finished 21st in scoring last season. They were worse, 25th, with the man advantage, but Tippett said he believes Ribeiro's skill set will help improve those numbers. At even strength, Ribeiro filling the No. 1 slot will allow Martin Hanzal to fill more naturally into a No. 2 center role, in which he will still be counted on to be a key figure in the Coyotes' penalty kill.

Tippett is also looking for more offensively from Mikkel Boedker. The Coyotes are a team that's not noted for rushing young players into the NHL fray, but they'll be keeping a close eye on young highly skilled Max Domi, son of longtime NHL tough guy Tie Domi, who was the 12th overall pick in June's draft to see if he has the good to stick with the team beyond the start of the season.

"He's certainly a dynamic player," Tippett said.

Smith is the first to tell you that after a stellar 2011-12 campaign that had people talking Vezina Trophy, he was hampered by the lockout and got off to a rocky start to the shortened 2013 campaign.

"It took me three weeks to get into the swing of things," Smith said. He finished with a 15-12-5 record, and though Greiss is a capable backup, the Coyotes are going to need Smith to play well and play a lot.

"He just couldn't get into the groove he was in the year before," Tippett said.

The addition of Ribeiro to bolster the Yotes offensive strength down the middle cannot be overstated, and Tippett is hoping the depth will translate into more periods of strong play and fewer stretches in which the team could not pull itself out of funks.

"We just couldn't sustain our level of play last year," Tippett said.

That means the offense-by-committee dynamic that was so prevalent during the Coyotes march to the West finals two years ago must be in play once again if the Coyotes are going to make it four trips to the playoffs in the past five years.

As is the case for all teams that figure to be in the middle of the hunt for a playoff berth, it's simply better to be in the West than in the East because of the math, but the Coyotes are also a team that will continue to have to contend with an onerous travel schedule. (Tippett said they will still travel in excess of 52,000 miles, second most in the NHL.)

Burnside: I like the Coyotes to have a bounce-back season and make the playoffs again, finishing third in the division. And they just might go all the way.

Custance: Fifth in the Pacific Division.

LeBrun: Third in the Pacific Division.

Melrose: Third in the Pacific Division.

Strang: Fifth in the Pacific Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer


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