by Mike Chen on 09/24/08 at 04:08 PM ET
(Note: This is the unedited version of my original column for FoxSports.com posted here. As you can see, they cut a bit for length purposes, but I’m posting the original here. Also, I will be posting a compiled Q&A with Gretzky, Maloney, and blogger Paul Becker either later today or tomorrow.)
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise has had both jets and coyotes as their mascot. After all, the Winnipeg Jets flew down to Arizona, springing back to life – like a phoenix, of course – with Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk as ambassadors into an untapped marketplace. During that team, the franchise survived Keith Tkachuk’s contract demands, Brett Hull’s blink-and-you-miss-it tenure, an arena where part of the upper deck couldn’t see the whole ice, and a team logo that appeared to be half coyote and half Predator (the kind Schwarzenegger fought, not the Nashville kind).
Through it all, the Phoenix faithful (and captain Shane Doan) has been through a rollercoaster ride, complete with ups, downs, and corkscrew loops. Today, they enjoy the beautiful Jobing.com arena, the irreplaceable presence of head coach Wayne Gretzky, and, perhaps for the first time in Phoenix Coyote history, a bright future and sense of stability. In fact, with the off-season maneuverings of GM Don Maloney, the Coyotes are a sleeper pick to make some noise in the highly competitive Western Conference.
Paul Becker, a Coyotes blogger at One Fan’s Perspective, is part of that Phoenix faithful. Like many Coyotes fans, he feels that this is the beginning of a sustained surge, both on the ice and off the ice, even if it’s taking a little while to get noticed by the mainstream. “Many of the casual fans view the current roster as nothing more than an AHL team not worthy of any support,” says Becker. “The passionate, die-hard fans want the team to grow in the right way and are patient to let that happen. They saw that the model of hiring players at the tail end of their careers didn’t work so well.”
Funny how it all started with a waiver wire pickup.
Ilya Bryzgalov, the former backup to Jean-Sebastian Giguere in Anaheim, is now the undisputed crease defender in the desert, giving the Coyotes their first true #1 goaltender since Sean Burke’s last hurrah. “Ilya had shown flashes of brilliance with the Ducks yet was saddled behind a top goaltender (Giguere) and never had his chance to be the number one goaltender in Anaheim,” says GM Don Maloney over email. Since acquiring Bryzgalov from the Ducks off waivers, the Coyotes also found a renewed confidence in knowing that their netminder would bail them out should they make any mistakes. “He is big, quick and athletic in the net. Coming off a Stanley Cup victory with Anaheim, Ilya brought an upbeat, confident, positive attitude to our team.”
That positive attitude trickled through the locker room, providing a necessary psychological boost to the players. It helped that Bryzgalov played brilliantly in his first game (a 1-0 shutout win) and didn’t look back. “With the acquisition of Bryzgalov, we didn’t really change our defensive philosophy,” says coach Wayne Gretzky. “But his play certainly gave his teammates confidence to play at the best of their abilities.”
A quick look at Phoenix’s stats from last season showed that the team gave up 231 goals – in the bottom-third for the competitive Western Conference, but in the middle of the pack for the overall league. Considering how the team played differently from the B.I. (Before Ilya) period to the A.I. (After Ilya) period, that proved to be the foundation for a Coyote resurgence. But other areas still needed help.
When your team only scores 214 goals in a season (fourth-worst in the conference) and your second-leading point getter has 58 points, there’s a problem. Potential franchise defensemen are a hefty commodity, and scoring doesn’t come cheap. Exit highly touted defenseman Keith Ballard (and fellow blueliner Nick Boynton), enter an in-his-prime center capable of 90+ points a season. Maloney is straightforward about his motivation for trading ballard for Florida center Olli Jokinen. “In order to acquire a first line, all-star caliber player in Olli Jokinen, you have to give up something.”
How good can Jokinen be in the desert? Consider this: in four of his last five seasons for the Florida Panthers, Jokinen scored between 34 and 39 goals. Those teams didn’t provide much support for Jokinen, either from a playmaking or goal-scoring perspective, so the notion of playing with power forward Shane Doan and a budding young scorer like Peter Mueller must make the big Finn pretty excited. But is he the missing piece of the Phoenix Coyotes puzzle? More importantly, how does Gretzky integrate an all-star into a young core that emphasizes speed, tenacity, and a nasty forecheck?
Easy. He lets that all-star play to his strengths. And in Gretzky’s eyes, Jokinen has plenty of those to focus on: work ethic, skill, size, hockey sense, and defensive responsibility. “Olli Jokinen brings a big, strong presence to the middle of the ice for us,” says Gretzky. “He works hard and is very skilled, and I’m really looking forward to what he can bring to us at both ends of the ice.”
As excited as Gretzky is to putting Jokinen and Shane Doan together, he knows that a consistent group effort will be needed to push the Coyotes into the playoffs. Much of that will come from Phoenix’s core group of young players.
Hockey fans outside of the Phoenix area may be unfamiliar with Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris, and Zbynek Michalek, but those three names are key reasons why Coyote fans feel their team is – pardon the pun – a phoenix rising from the icy ashes of the Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick era. “You could add Daniel Briere along with Roenick and Tkachuk,” says Becker. “To me, it feels better as it’s not just limited to two or three guys, the nucleus is larger with Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, and Viktor Tikhonov.”
With Ballard’s trade, all eyes will be on Michalek in particular; as a duo, Michalek and Ballard were to be the cornerstones of the Phoenix blueline for years to come. With Ballard gone, does young Michalek shoulder more responsibility as a leading defenseman? Gretzky doesnt see it that way. His philosophy sticks with equal responsibility across the defense, a group of blueliners that lives and dies as a team. “With the departure of Ballard and Boynton, no one player’s role will change,” says Gretzky. “We will need solid contributions from all six defensemen to continue our solid play defensively.”
Maloney knows that you can’t just replace a player like Keith Ballard. Instead, he’s looking at free-agent pickups and maturing prospects to help take the ice-time left by Ballard and Boynton. “I am very confident new defenseman Kurt Sauer and David Hale will replace Keith’s minutes. In addition, I expect Keith Yandle will play an important role for us this season and he needs more ice-time to develop.”
Up front, Mueller (a Calder candidate last season) and Turris (one of the league’s top prospects and an early frontrunner for the Calder trophy) will set out to prove that the Coyotes’ offense isn’t just the Olli-and-Shane Show. Mueller will be given a top-line opportunity, moving from his traditional center position to flank Jokinen and Doan while Turris will be given every opportunity to live up to his potential.
Turris, who dipped his toe in the NHL waters last season, is currently slated for second-line duty. With a total package of offensive skills, it’ll only take time and experience to bring it all together. Gretzky maintains, though, that there will be no pressure for Turris to replicate the instant-star rookie campaigns of Patrick Kane or Alexander Ovechkin. “For all of our young players – Kyle included – we will just try to not put too much pressure on them too soon,” says Gretzky, a man who knows a little bit about pressure as a young hockey player. “The game is hard enough to play without pressure, and we will simply try to bring them along at their own pace.”
In addition to Jokinen, Doan, Mueller, and Turris, the Coyotes offense will be supported by Steve Reinprecht, who’s quietly amassed respectable point totals in the desert, and young Martin Hanzal. Hanzal started his NHL career quietly but came on as the season progressed. Just 21, his crafty skill set is part of why the Coyotes are looking to win both now and in the future.
Perhaps this blend of blue-chip prospects and proven veterans is the biggest difference between the previous Coyote regime and Don Maloney’s desert dogs. In the Roenick/Tkachuk era, many acquisitions were focused on the here and now (Robert Reichel, Mikeal Renberg, etc.) with little in the pipeline. The current Coyotes group has the strongest prospect core since arriving in Phoenix, and Maloney doesn’t hide his excitement about the team’s direction. “I am tremendously excited about the future of this franchise,” Maloney says. “We have a top goaltender in Bryzgalov and improved depth in that position throughout our organization. We have exciting young players on the way: Mueller, Boedker, Tikhonov, (Kevin) Porter, Hanzal, (Daniel) Carcillo, etc.”
From the goaltending to the forwards, the Phoenix Coyotes look stronger than they have in years – and things look like they’ll only get better. But are people paying attention? The die-hards are, and Becker counts himself as one of the many Coyotes fans who appreciate the Maloney’s philosophy. “I’ve been truly impressed with Maloney’s commitment to growing the team the right way,” Becker says. “He will not mortgage the future for short-term success. It’s what he said he would do when he came here, and he’s lived up to his promise.”
Off the ice, things are far different from when the team arrived in 1996. While actual attendance has fluctuated with the team’s performance, the Coyotes have worked hard to build a grass-roots hockey movement. “The Coyotes are doing their best to focus their efforts on Youth Hockey. The marketing team won awards for their work last year in advertising the programs and the product,” Becker says. “They and their Media Partner FSN Arizona have partnered up with local community programs like the Boys and Girls clubs to introduce hockey to the next generation.”
Despite all those efforts, Maloney knows that one thing can boost hockey in the desert more than anything else: a Stanley Cup. “Phoenix is like any other ‘non-traditional’ hockey market. In order to attract big crowds on a consistent basis, your team needs to get to the playoffs and win in the playoffs. Recent Stanley Cup winners – Tampa, Carolina and Anaheim – are true testaments to this.”
If you build it, they will come: it’s time-tested formula for accelerating any team’s popularity in the marketplace. Die-hards like Becker will always exist and support the team, but the casual fan in any market almost always depends on performance. “If you build a winner, people will support your team,” Maloney says. “We have a very loyal fan base here in Phoenix, our season ticket base is ahead of where we were last year so we are trending in a positive direction.”
A better performance on the ice, a stronger prospect system, and a growing grass-roots program that attracts builds the die-hard and casual fans – is this what Don Maloney envisioned when he took over a down-on-its-luck Phoenix franchise? Maloney sums it up much in a much simpler way: “Great things are coming to the desert!”
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