When the Arizona Coyotes (formerly Phoenix) take the Gila River Arena (formerly Jobing.com Arena) ice for their season opener against the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 9, they will be hoping the name changes won't be the only difference.
That's because Arizona endured a second straight early summer last season after making the Stanley Cup Playoffs three consecutive seasons from 2009-12. The Coyotes finished four points out of eighth place in 2012-13 and came even closer last season, when only two points separated them from the Dallas Stars and the final wild-card spot.
However, coach Dave Tippett said his team is not content with merely making the playoffs and argued that heading into 2014-15, the Coyotes are poised to compete among the Western Conference elite.
"If a couple things go differently, we make the playoffs. But we want to be a better team than just get to the playoffs," Tippett said. "Last year we just had too much inconsistency to push us into that last playoff spot. In this League, you know it's going to be a dogfight right down to the end and you can't afford to have any lulls."
The Coyotes team that started the season so well, tying a franchise record with nine wins in October, barely resembled the one that finished it, losing seven of eight to fall short of a playoff spot. Tippett lamented Arizona's tendency to leave points on the table.
"We didn't play poorly the last 10 games, we were close. Of the last 10, I think four or five of those we lost in overtime or the shootout," Tippett said. "Losing those extra points hurt us down the stretch."
Arizona ranked 28th in the NHL in win percentage when leading after two periods (.697) last season. The Coyotes' 15 overtime and shootout losses were tied for second-highest in the NHL. For a team that prior to last season was consistently among the League's elite at locking down late leads, Arizona will be hoping last season's shaky finish is the anomaly.
The Coyotes spent the offseason spending wisely, filling holes while keeping the core intact. The major splash came from former Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner, whom the Coyotes hope will benefit from a change of scenery. Tippett wants to use the veteran in all situations, but Gagner will be heavily relied on to help offset the loss of two major scorers from 2013-14.
Radim Vrbata, who ranked second on the Coyotes last season with 51 points, departed to play with the Sedin twins in Vancouver, and Arizona used a compliance buyout on Mike Ribeiro (fifth on team with 47 points) after one season in the desert. Despite nearly 100 points of offense gone, Tippett believes Mikkel Boedker, who emerged as an offensive force last season, as well as recent arrival Martin Erat and prospects like Max Domi and Lucas Lessio will also help Arizona retool its top lines.
Tippett wouldn't chalk last season's collapse to injuries, but captain Shane Doan and goaltender Mike Smith missed key stretches. Injuries to key defensemen including Zbynek Michalek and David Schlemko also disrupted team chemistry. However, the vacant spots on the blue line gave the Coyotes' crop of defensive prospects (especially the puck-moving Connor Murphy) an opportunity for valuable experience alongside elite defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle.
"You talk about Ekman-Larsson and Yandle, but then we have some young players -- Murphy, [Brandon] Gormley -- guys I think are ready to take the next step in the League," Tippett said. "We have a good puck-moving defense. Right now our defense is young and mobile, and hopefully they can get the job done for us."
In the crease, Smith's packed schedule yielded pedestrian statistics. His 62 appearances for Arizona, despite his also joining Canada for a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and nine games missed with an MCL sprain, underline his importance for the organization moving forward.
For the third time in three seasons, Smith will have a different backup, with unrestricted free agent Devan Dubnyk signed this summer.
"I think Dubnyk is a guy, of all the [backups] we've had here in the last little bit, with a great deal of upside," Tippett said. "He's looking to rebound and get his game going in the right direction, so there's certainly a chance for him to play more minutes."
Tippett's biggest task won't be in the crease, on the blue line or in the offensive zone; it will be putting it all together on a nightly basis.
"We have to play a sound team game, consistency all the way through," Tippett said. "We're going to have play a lot of close games, so we have to better in overtime and at finding ways to win. Winning through a team game is our biggest challenge, and we'll face that challenge head-on starting in training camp."
2013-14 record: 37-30-15, 89 points, fourth in Pacific Division, ninth in Western Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
Author: Davis Harper | NHL.com Staff Writer
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