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2011-12 Season Preview

Friday, 10.07.2011 / 10:04 AM / Features
By Dave Vest
GLENDALE - The Coyotes will begin their 2011-12 season in San Jose on Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks. It will be the first of many steps for the team as it attempts to march back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a third consecutive season.

Head Coach Dave Tippett returns behind the bench where he will be flanked by two new assistants – Jim Playfair and John Anderson. Both newcomers are former NHL head coaches who add knowledge, commitment and professionalism to the staff.

There are also several new players on the roster in key spots. After three weeks of training camp, captain Shane Doan likes what he sees.

“I think we have a great mix of guys and a great group of guys and we’re going to have a lot of fun going forward,” Doan said. “I think our strength is how important every guy is and how good every guy is… We expect to win.”

Mike Smith has replaced Ilya Bryzgalov as the starting goaltender. Smith, who played for Tippett early in his career when both were with the Dallas Stars organization, is eager to become a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.

“I’m excited about getting the opportunity to play some games and reuniting with coach Tippett, who I have a lot of respect for,” Smith said. “I believe in what he does and I believe in his system. I believe it’s very goalie-friendly... I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to play a lot of games.”

Mike Smith. Photo by Norm Hall.
Jason LaBarbera, who backed up Bryzgalov the past two seasons, will do the same for Smith. LaBarbera, who reported to camp 10 pounds lighter than last season, likely will play more games this season and is ready for that challenge.

Other new faces include top-line center Daymond Langkow, pesky forward Raffi Torres, faceoff specialist Boyd Gordon and forwards Petteri Nokelainen, Kyle Chipchura and Patrick O’Sullivan.

Langkow has returned to the Coyotes to play on the top line alongside Doan, his good pal and former roommate. Langkow and Doan were drafted just minutes apart in 1995 and played together with much success during Langkow’s first stint with the Coyotes from 2001-04.

“I’m really excited to be back here,” Langkow said. “It’s a fresh start for me and I think we’ve got a good squad here, and I think we have a real good chance to have a winning season.”

Doan is thrilled about Langkow’s return.

“I really can’t express how excited I am,” said Doan, who will enter the season needing four goals to reach 300 for his NHL career. “… Getting Daymond is a big step for us. We needed a centerman to come in here and to have him come in here is huge.”

Keith Yandle and Shane Doan. Photo by Getty Images.
All-star defenseman Keith Yandle is back to play the first year of a new five-year contract he signed in the off-season. Yandle, who ranked second on the team with 59 points, will anchor a defense packed with veterans such as Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin, Michal Rozsival and Rostislav Klesla, and up-and-comers David Schlemko and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, whom Tippett believes is poised for a breakout season.

Yandle is eager for the season to start.

“This is what we work all summer for… to start the season and get the season going, so everyone is looking forward to that,” Yandle said. “Today (Thursday) we had a good day of practice and you could just tell everyone is excited that now it’s time to start getting ready for games, time to start getting serious.”

Seven of the team’s top 10 scorers from last season are back in 2011-12: They are Doan (60 points), Yandle (59), Ray Whitney (57), Radm Vrbata (48), Lauri Korpikoski (40), Taylor Pyatt (31) and Martin Hanzal (26), who signed a five-year contract extension on Thursday.

“I know I will be here for the next six years, including this one, so it’s great,” Hanzal said about his new deal. “… I love it in Phoenix, I love the team and I love the coaches… I think we have a better team than last year so we’ve got to prove that to the fans and to the coaches and to everyone.”

Lauri Korpikoski. Photo by Getty Images.
Korpikoski looked sharp in the preseason games and appears set to become a 20-goal scorer for the first time in his career.

“I’m really excited for this season to start,” Korpikoski said. “I just want to start off where I finished last year. I really feel confident and (I’m) looking forward to playing a lot of minutes and being a core player on the team and building from last year. I’m really excited to get it going.”

Meanwhile, Whitney is closing in on 350 goals for his career and Vrbata needs just two goals to reach 150.

Enforcer Paul Bissonnette, who on Wednesday signed a two-year contract extension, also is back in the mix looking to again protect teammates and play more minutes.

“I’m a fourth-liner (and) I know my role, but that’s not to say that I’m satisfied just being a plug,” Bissonnette said. “I want to get better as a player and do what I can to help the team.”

Head Coach Dave Tippett. Photo by Norm Hall.
The Coyotes will open the season with three road games (at San Jose, Dallas and Nashville) before playing their home opener on Oct. 15 vs. the newly reborn Winnipeg Jets. The original Jets, of course, became the Coyotes in 1996. This fact sets the table for a curious home opener, to say the least.

The Coyotes will compete in arguably the toughest division in the NHL – the Pacific. Four of the five teams reached the playoffs last season and all appear just as good, if not better, than last year.

“We know it’s going to be a dogfight to get to the playoffs in the Western Conference,” Tippett said. “It’s going to be a challenge… we’re going to have to continue to play well as a team. Consistency is always a big factor in that.”
 
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