Compared to some of the competitors in the Western Conference -– the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the dominant Chicago Blackhawks, the surprising Colorado Avalanche, even the talented-yet-wayward San Jose Sharks -– the Arizona Coyotes never seem to warrant much attention.
But former Coyotes forward Brad May thinks that may not be the worst thing for his old club, flying under the radar in an uber-competitive Pacific Division and Western Conference with hopes of getting back to the playoffs this season.
“Nobody really talks about them,” May told ESPN.com, “but I think they’re a much better team than people give them credit for.”
That said, the Coyotes won't earn any attention if they aren’t winning, and that likely will rest on the performance of one player in particular, according to May.
Smith is the Coyotes’ starting goaltender who had a breakout season in 2011-12, when he posted a 38-18-10 record with a 2.21 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. But in the following two seasons, Smith’s numbers have been pedestrian, and Arizona did not make the playoffs.
Smith will be the player to watch -– May credits goaltending coach Sean Burke with being a steadying influence -– but if he can be successful, May believes the Coyotes have a fighting chance in the West.
It will be a veritable cage match with the caliber of teams battling it out and only getting better after an aggressive offseason.
“I think they have to win early and gain confidence,” said May, a 19-year NHL veteran who won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks. “On defense, they have some very good offensive defensemen that are game-breakers. If they keep playing within the right system and have some guys playing a little above themselves, if Shane Doan continues to be that guy even at that age, I like Phoenix. But in the Western Conference, there will be six or seven teams in a dogfight to be in the bottom two or three [playoff spots].”
May characterized the entire West as an “arms race” after the type of talent teams added in free agency. Anaheim traded for Ryan Kesler and Paul Stastny signed a deal with the Blues. Dallas added a legitimate No. 2 center with Jason Spezza. The Kings will have Marian Gaborik for the entire season (he was acquired in a March trade from the Blue Jackets).
The Coyotes’ offseason moves were not nearly as splashy, but that doesn’t mean those players don’t have the potential to make a significant impact.
Among the team’s summer moves, general manager Don Maloney acquired Sam Gagner and B.J. Crombeen from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2014 draft. The latter could prove to be an especially shrewd signing, May predicts.
“He’s a hard-working guy and one thing he would do is instill that work ethic with his friends and players on the team,” May said of Crombeen. “He’s a guy that doesn’t take a shift off.”
But May circles back to the importance of goaltending. After all, in the year Smith earned all those accolades, the Coyotes also marched to the Western Conference finals.
“It’s a tough conference,” May said. “I see them being a good team. With St. Louis, Dallas, [and other teams], where does Phoenix fit in? They’ll have to outplay Minnesota. And the only way they do that is if Mike Smith is their best player.”