In 2011-12, the Arizona Coyotes enjoyed the most successful postseason run in franchise history, reaching the Western Conference Final before losing to the Los Angeles Kings.
Each of the past two seasons since then has followed a similar script. Coach Dave Tippett has kept the Coyotes competitive, but they've ultimately finished just shy of another playoff berth. In 2013-14, they were three points shy of the final wildcard spot after finishing two points behind the Dallas Stars, who would have owned the tiebreaker. Finishing the season with one victory in their final eight games marked the Coyotes' undoing. The year before that, the Coyotes lost eight of nine near the end of the season to fall out of contention.
The name is new, switching from Phoenix to Arizona, but the team will again rely on defense and goaltending to try and carve out a spot in the top eight of the West.
Their top-scoring right wing, Radim Vrbata, is gone. Their top-scoring center, Mike Ribeiro, was bought out because of off-ice issues. Sam Gagner has arrived, but this team was already short on offense up front.
Arizona's defense corps is among the best in the League at supplementing the offense, and if an exciting prospect or two makes the roster, maybe the Coyotes will be able to score enough to help Mike Smith in net. Given how other teams around them in the West have loaded up in the offseason, it isn't going to be easy.
Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Coyotes:
Ribeiro had a great start to the season until his play dropped off and he was demoted, so the Coyotes aren't really losing their "No. 1 center." But they did lose two of the five players who scored more than 15 goals last season.
Gagner is a natural center, but he's never been great in the faceoff circle and had defensive issues at times with the Edmonton Oilers. If Max Domi or Henrik Samuelsson is ready, it might be worth trying Gagner on the wing to help maximize the talent on the top two lines.
The Coyotes always have hard-working, responsible role players up front, and new addition Joe Vitale will fit right in. This might be the last chance for Brandon McMillan to prove he's an NHL regular, at least in the desert.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle are two of the best defensemen in the League at providing offense from the blue line. Ekman-Larsson played a lot with veteran Zbynek Michalek, but a top-four spot is open because Derek Morris was not retained.
Michael Stone and David Schlemko are the most likely candidates to earn a place next to Yandle, but prospect Connor Murphy could surprise. The other young player to watch in camp is Brandon Gormley, who is one of the elite prospects at the position. If Gormley is ready for NHL duty, this group could be even better than it was last season.
Smith started 61 games last season, but hasn't been quite as dominant in the past two years as he was in 2011-12, when he had a .930 save percentage in 67 games. The Coyotes also lost one of the best backups in the League when Thomas Greiss, who had a .920 save percentage last season, signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent.
Devan Dubnyk signed a one-year deal to hopefully resuscitate his career. He had a couple of nice seasons for the Edmonton Oilers despite a terrible team in front of him, but 2013-14 was a disaster. He was bad for the Oliers, worse (in a small sample) for the Nashville Predators and eventually ended up in the American Hockey League, where he was passed over when the Montreal Canadiens needed a goalie after Carey Price was hurt during the playoffs.
Dubnyk could be a bargain if he can find his previous form. If not, Mark Visentin might be ready for a backup role as well.
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: COYOTES
Undervalued: Shane Doan -- Doan is one of five forwards to combine for 120-plus points, 520-plus shots on goal and 450-plus hits over the past three seasons. That list includes Alex Ovechkin, Gabriel Landeskog, Evander Kane and Ryan Callahan. The veteran right wing was one of 20 players to hit double digits in power-play goals last season, and his point total with the man-advantage (19 PPP in 69 games) gives you more of a reason to draft him in such leagues. Doan turns 38 in October but is a given for top-line minutes with the departure of Radim Vrbata. Don't sleep on the category coverage Doan can bring to your team with a late-round pick.
Overvalued: Mike Smith -- Smith is a valuable goalie in wins-only leagues because he's a near lock to play 60-plus games, but he's much less of a sure thing in multicategory formats. Smith was a top-five goalie in 2011-12 when he had 38 wins, a 2.21 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 67 games, but has since taken a step back with 42 wins over his next 96 games. He missed the final weeks of the 2013-14 season because of injury and had mediocre GAA (2.64) and save percentage (.915) totals with a heavy workload (1,871 shots against, 4th most in NHL). He's a borderline top 100 overall asset who should be taken in the 15-20 range among goalies, but asking for quality over quantity from Smith may be a stretch.
Sleeper: Sam Gagner - Gagner's minus-29 rating from last season will scare away many potential fantasy suitors come draft day, but taking a deeper look at his fresh start in Arizona can put a positive spin on his value. Centers Antoine Vermette and Martin Hanzal had strong seasons and will be in the mix for top-six roles, but Gagner is younger than those two and is a wild card for the Coyotes. The 25-year-old center goes from the Edmonton Oilers, who had the third-worst Corsi-for percentage last season, to the Coyotes, who ranked among the top-half of the League in that possession category. If Gagner takes advantage of this change of scenery, he'll finally hit the 20-goal and 50-point plateaus.
Follow Pete Jensen on Twitter: @NHLJensen
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer
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