This season began with high hopes for the Coyotes, the youngest team in the National Hockey League. Phoenix had made significant improvement last season over the prior year and last year’s promising rookies were looking forward to becoming impact players as sophomores. In addition, another crop of rookies was ready to step in and play important minutes for Head Coach Wayne Gretzky. However, my optimism for this team was always tempered by the realization that it’s very difficult for a franchise to make a huge leap while leaning on so many young players. And yet all of us that follow this team on a daily basis were encouraged by a stretch of games prior to the All-Star break that put the young Coyotes into the fifth spot in the competitive Western Conference.
So, what has happened since the All-Star break? It’s hard to pinpoint one aspect of the Coyotes’ game that is most to blame for the recent woes. But General Manager Don Maloney and his staff took some initial steps at the trade deadline to give the franchise maximum flexibility going forward: flexibility in terms of players and money.
The moves made at the deadline got some money off the books for next season while adding more players in the 24- to 28-year old range. The Coyotes also picked up a first- and second-round pick. This is why people within and outside the organization were singing Maloney’s praises. But, these moves were only one step in the right direction. The last month of this season, even as playoff hopes have all but vanished, will be crucial in continuing the process. Now, the management and coaching staffs really have to evaluate what they have going forward. Is Peter Mueller a first-line player on a playoff-bound team? Is Martin Hanzal
a future Selke Award-type player? Is Kyle Turris one year away from being the player we all believe he will be or will he need more time? Is Ilya Bryzgalov strong enough to put a team on his back for an entire season and a playoff run? How often can Ed Jovanovski deliver dominate performances? How much longer will Shane Doan
be the go-to guy for this franchise? You’ve heard Panger mention this on telecasts: you learn more about a player’s character when things get tough. Well, things are tough right now.
Once the organization has its hockey plan in place, how it gets implemented depends on the new ownership group that we all hope will be in place soon. It was great news to hear that a couple of bids had been put forth and a third could come at any moment. In this salary-cap world, the hockey plan can only move forward with a solid money plan in place. The Coyotes, like every other team in the NHL, need to identify the unrestricted free agents that fit into the hockey and money part of the equation. And, it’s crucial to have another successful day at the draft table.
So, while we all would like to be watching the Coyotes prepare for a playoff run this season, the next month is still going to be an important one to follow as the Coyotes continue to build for the future.