NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Since 2009, the partnership of coach Dave Tippett and general manager Don Maloney has made the Phoenix Coyotes among the NHL's most consistent teams. But in a lockout-shortened season that did not afford them much of a training camp, the Coyotes struggled out of the gate and failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since Tippett arrived.
With a full training camp to work with entering an 82-game schedule, Tippett has made it clear Phoenix has every intention of returning to the postseason.
"I've already had a good discussion with some of our players that missing the playoffs for this organization is unacceptable," Tippett told NHL.com. "Even though it was a shortened season and there were some outside factors involved, we're not a team that wants to make excuses. We want to get back into the playoffs. That will be our goal going into the start of the year."
The Coyotes will rely on the core that made them such a tough team to play against. It now includes a marquee free agent and a number of prized prospects.
Under Tippett, Phoenix has featured a unit that has lacked big names but managed to play a strong two-way game. For the first time in a while, there is hope Coyotes forwards can put up some strong offensive numbers. Considering the team has ranked no higher than 14th in offense under Tippett, expectations should be tempered. But it could be sparked by the offseason signing of center Mike Ribeiro, who starred under Tippett when they were with the Dallas Stars.
Ribeiro started training camp centering a line with captain Shane Doan and Mikkel Boedker. That trio earned early praise from Tippett and seemed to enjoy some chemistry. Considering the skill set of each player, this top line could give the Coyotes an offensive flair they haven't had in years.
"I think our first practice together as a line was pretty good," Ribeiro said in the opening days of camp. "Mikkel is pretty fast, which I need. He's a really strong kid too. Then you've got Shane, who can shoot the puck. I'm just looking forward to having that first game."
The bottom two lines appear to be mostly set with veterans Brandon Yip, Kyle Chipchura and Paul Bissonnette, who reportedly is appealing a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench during a preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings.
Tippett has made it no secret he plans on giving a long look to some of the top prospects in shoring up the second scoring line. That could mean the emergence of Chris Brown, Lucas Lessio and 2013 first-round pick Max Domi.
The addition of Ribeiro and that infusion of youth had the coach excited about this year's camp.
"I think there are some guys who are going to come in and really push for jobs," Tippett said. "This will be the most competitive training camp in my four years in Phoenix. We're really looking forward to see the levels these young players can get to."
The Phoenix defense features a talented group of veterans, most notably Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zbynek Michalek, Michael Stone and Rostislav Klesla. As with the forwards, the Coyotes have a wealth of quality prospects on the back end. That group made a strong first impression early in camp.
When Klesla and Michalek were injured in the first preseason game against L.A., 20-year-old Connor Murphy played major minutes. In the other split-squad game that night, David Rundblad and Brandon Gormley fit in nicely, with Rundblad collecting three assists.
Considering how veteran-heavy the blue line is, most of these young defensemen are likely to start the season with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Portland. But there's a good chance that at least one of them will get a shot at making the team out of training camp.
Yandle and Ekman-Larsson are established as top-tier NHL defensemen, and Stone is emerging as a potential force.
"He had a very strong last 10 games of the year last year," Maloney said. "Has a heavy shot. He's a player that is going to continue to blossom and grab a regular role on our blue line."
The Coyotes crease will again start and finish with Mike Smith. Following a breakout season in 2011-12, his first in Phoenix, Smith struggled with injuries and consistency last season. Nevertheless, they showed their dedication to their franchise goaltender by signing him to a six-year contract extension over the summer.
Smith plans on showing the Coyotes they made the right choice.
"I don't think it's more pressure. If you're a No. 1 goalie in this League, you've accepted that," Smith said. "I think I'm at a point now in my career where I've learned how to deal with that. I've grown as a player tremendously in the last couple of years. Obviously having that great year, I gained a lot of confidence in how I need to play and what I need to do to be successful."
Longtime backup Jason LaBarbera signed with the Edmonton Oilers. To shore up that position, the Coyotes signed Thomas Greiss, who spent the past three seasons with the San Jose Sharks, and will continue to develop prospect Mark Visentin, who had a strong first season with Portland last season.
OUT: Boyd Gordon, C (free agent, Oilers); Steve Sullivan, LW (free agent, unsigned); Matthew Lombardi, C (free agent, Switzerland); Nick Johnson, RW (free agent, Bruins); Chris Conner, RW (free agent, Penguins); Alexandre Bolduc, C (free agent, Blues); Jason LaBarbera, G (free agent, Oilers); Chad Johnson, G (free agent, Bruins).
ONES TO WATCH
Chris Brown, LW
Lucas Lessio, LW
Paul Bissonnette, LW (suspended 10 games)
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