Was it just four seasons ago that the Arizona Coyotes made the conference finals? It's been all downhill since they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2012 Western Conference finals: three straight playoff misses and rock bottom with last season's 29th-place finish. Well, their fans hope it was rock bottom. "The only good thing about having a season like that is that you never want to have it again,'' star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. "I've never had a season like that before. That's something we can learn from.'' General manager Don Maloney believes he beefed up the blue line and center, but he also isn't kidding anyone: Scoring goals won't be easy. The future looks bright, but this season will be painful, too (although not as painful as last).
BEST NEW FACES
There are plenty of new faces, most notably veteran defensemen Nicklas Grossmann and Zbynek Michalek, forwards Antoine Vermette (back after going to the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline and winning a Stanley Cup), Boyd Gordon, Brad Richardson, Steve Downie, Dustin Jeffrey and tough guy John Scott. In Vermette, Martin Hanzal, Gordon and Richardson, it's a 1-4 lineup at center that Maloney is comfortable with. "They may not be the most creative centers in the league with the puck, but from a matchup standpoint, we think it'll give us more stability,'' he said. The fresh faces also include youngsters Max Domi and Anthony Duclair (acquired from the New York Rangers in the Keith Yandle trade). Domi appears ready to begin what should be a special NHL career. The Coyotes selected Dylan Strome third in the draft this past June, and he'll be a stud when he's ready. Throw in Henrik Samuelsson (21) and Brendan Perlini (19), two other former first-round picks, among other prospects, and you understand what's coming for Arizona.
Which Mike Smith will we see this season? The goalie struggled again last season but obviously didn't get much help from the players in front of him. Smith gained momentum, though, with a strong performance in helping Canada win gold at the world championships. "If you look at his numbers after the trade deadline, through the end of the year and into the world championships, they were really strong," Maloney said. "I thought the mistake we made last year is that we put so much emphasis on Mike. That's not our approach this year. Mike and Anders Lindback give us some stability back there. But we have to play better in front of Mike. If we play better, he'll play better.'' Offense will be an issue again. A healthy Mikkel Boedker should help, but the goals will be hard to come by.
Start with Ekman-Larsson, the all-world blueliner who continues to improve and last season led the team with 23 goals. He continues to make himself a better player, leading the team with 23 goals last season. "I want to be that guy that has a big role on the team," Ekman-Larsson said. "I want to be a leader for that team." Another sure thing is Dave Tippett, one of the better coaches in the NHL. What used to be a sure thing with the Coyotes was that you knew what you'd get from them: the hardest-working team in the league, a rugged squad that would make you pay the price to earn every inch of the ice. "A couple of years ago we had an identity, people knew who we were, we were a hard out," Maloney said. "That's what we're shooting for this year. Let's get back to who we are and how we play."
WORLD CUP CANDIDATES
Ekman-Larsson was glued to the Swedish bench in Sochi. Saner minds will surely prevail in the World Cup, and he'll actually get on the ice. He's part of a potential Sweden blue line that could include Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Niklas Hjalmarsson, John Klingberg and Alexander Edler.
"I think the future is looking bright. I think we're going to have a good team for many years to come," Ekman-Larsson said.
Asked what it would feel like to part of a Swedish side winning in hockey-mad Toronto next September, Ekman-Larsson smiled and said: "That would be unreal. I would love to do that. I think the World Cup is good for hockey overall. It's going to be huge in Toronto, but also in Europe. It's going to be good for hockey."
Boedker (Denmark) should have a good chance of cracking Team Europe, and Hanzal looks good to make the Czech squad.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
Boedker, 25, is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in July, and getting the team's most gifted forward re-signed is a big priority. "He's a pretty important player for us, and it's a pretty important time for us and for him," Maloney said. "We'll have to have some dialogue and see where that leads us.'' From an emotional standpoint, there's no bigger pending UFA than captain Shane Doan, the face of the franchise dating back to when the team moved south from Winnipeg. It's hard to imagine Doan in another uniform, but with the Coyotes unlikely to be close to a playoff spot when the trade deadline arrives, the decision for Doan will be whether to sign an extension and retire a Coyote in the next year or two, or chase that elusive first Stanley Cup with a contender.
The future looks bright, but Arizona will finish last in its division (and the conference a whole) this season. Seventh in the Pacific Division.