Team is owned by the league? No problem. Poor attendance to the point where snapshots are taken nightly to pass around the internet for ridicule? No problem. Daily speculation that the team will play elsewhere next year? No problem. Star goaltender wants mega-contract that forces a trade? No problem. Promising young forward would rather sit home without pay than play for you? No problem.
The problems of the Phoenix Coyotes as an organization are many but success on the ice the past few seasons is not one of them. Ever since Dave Tippett was named head coach prior to the 2009-2010 season, the Coyotes on the ice have been the antithesis of their situation off of it. They’ve made the playoffs the past two seasons, and have started off this season with a record of 8-4-3. And the fact that the Coyotes have been eliminated from those playoffs in the first round, it doesn’t make their run to get there any less impressive.
The question is how does a team with major attendance issues that doesn’t even have an owner that operates near the cap floor have such success? Start with a general manager with the ability to put together the right mix of youth and veterans at good prices (Don Maloney). Add a coach with a proven track record of regular season success (Dave Tippett) and you’re on the right path. But one of the biggest reasons for success has been the strong play in net. That’s why when Ilya Bryzgalov was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers prior to the July 1 free agent signing period, many (including myself) figured that the Coyotes would begin a downward slide unless a strong replacement was brought in. And when Tampa Bay Lightning castoff Mike Smith brought in as that replacement, it didn’t make anyone go back on that belief.
But if you bet against Mike Smith (again, like myself and probably @FakeDanEllis), you’ve probably been busy wiping some egg off your face. Smith and his 7-2-3, 2.22 GAA and .931 save % is the biggest reason Phoenix currently sits tied for 5th in the Western Conference. Even better for the Coyotes, he came at the bargain price of $2 million over the next two seasons. Ask the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Toronto Maple Leafs if they could use his services.
Outside of the crease, they’ve received balanced scoring from a lineup of solid if not unspectacular players. Twelve players have registered at least five points in their 15 games, led by ageless veteran (and ex-Panther) Ray Whitney, whose 6 goals and 9 assists leads the team in both categories. Radim Vrbata, Martin Hanzal and Shane Doan have also chipped in double digit points. And with a younger squad of bluliners like Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and David Schlemko have helped keep the Coyotes in the top 10 in goals against. Good team architect with good coach and strong goaltending from an unexpected source with a lineup deep in scoring: Sound familiar Panthers fans?
How long things will last in the Valley of the Sun is anybody’s guess. At one point last April, this team seemed destined to be relocated (one erroneous report had the Coyotes back to Winnipeg as a ‘done deal’), but the city of Glendale can’t keep dishing out $25 million payments to keep the team. Unless, the team can find a buyer, it promises to be another tumultuous year off the ice. On the ice, who can tell the difference? They just keep winning.
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