Defense, Power Play Among Coyotes' Five Questions for 2014-15
NEW YORK -- At this time a year ago, many pundits were speculating that the Arizona Coyotes were poised for bigger things offensively. The Coyotes added free agent Mike Ribeiro to existing weapons Radim Vrbata, Shane Doan, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle, and the team appeared committed to a more attacking mindset.
The philosophy worked, until it didn't, and the Coyotes' impressive 14-4-3 start deteriorated into a season of inconsistency on each side of the puck and, ultimately, a narrow miss of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season.
"Maybe the change in philosophy, trying to expand our horizons into a more offensive team probably didn't do us as much good, overall, as we thought it would," Head Coach Dave Tippett said.
With Arizona approaching 2014-15 determined to avoid an early summer, an all-around game will be central to its chances, and also to the major questions facing Tippett and his staff. Here are five questions facing the Coyotes heading into training camp:
1. Will the Coyotes rediscover their defensive posture? -- Last season, the Coyotes allowed too many goals (2.76 per game) and too many shots (31.0 per game), and their 79.0 percent penalty kill was 26th in the NHL. The defensive lapses left goalie Mike Smith vulnerable, especially in key late-game scenarios.
Tippett is confident his stock of defensemen, a mix of talented veterans and eager young players, can return Arizona to its suffocating defensive roots.
After missing 22 games last season with a lower-body injury, Zbynek Michalek should again join Ekman-Larsson on the top pairing and provide a valuable penalty-killing presence. Michael Stone has a full season under his belt. Connor Murphy played 30 games as a 21-year-old last season and is poised to be a regular starter in 2014-15.
2. Can Arizona's power-play prowess survive a busy offseason? -- Last season, the Coyotes finished fourth in the NHL in conversion rate (19.9 percent) and tied for fourth in goals (56). However, the Coyotes enter this season missing 27 percent of that production in the form of departed forwards Vrbata (10 goals) and Ribeiro (five).
Still, Tippett maintains that power-play specialist and assistant coach Newell Brown can continue to engineer a successful man advantage. The top unit's quarterbacking duo of Ekman-Larsson and Yandle will control the puck from the point, and Yandle will try to improve on a season in which he led NHL defensemen (and finished third overall) with 28 power-play assists. Doan's 10 power-play goals in 2013-14 prove he is still a threat. The addition of Sam Gagner and the continued emergence of Mikkel Boedker should also provide a boost.
3. How much stronger are Arizona's bottom-six forwards? -- This summer the Coyotes acquired Joe Vitale and B.J. Crombeen, two disciplined and physical forwards, to anchor the fourth line. Antoine Vermette, entering the final year of his contract, looks likely to move down to third-line center where he can display his faceoff and forecheck abilities. In all, the additions should help Arizona roll four lines in an unforgiving Pacific Division and Western Conference.
"When you've got players like [Anze] Kopitar, [Ryan] Getzlaf, [Joe] Thornton, players who can exploit you, we need players who can play against them even if they are third- or fourth-line players," Tippett said. "That's what's going to keep us competitive in our division."
4. Which of Arizona's young forwards will emerge? -- With Vrbata and Ribeiro gone and only Gagner and Martin Erat there to replace them, Arizona will likely need production support from its group of talented forward prospects.
Much has been made of Max Domi, the Coyotes' top pick (No. 12) at the 2013 NHL Draft, and Tippett said the Coyotes would also use training camp to evaluate the likes of Lucas Lessio and Henrik Samuelsson. All have been point-producing wingers in their respective leagues, but whether they can withstand a full season in the NHL remains to be seen.
5. Can Mike Smith recover his 2011-12 form? -- If Arizona wants to return to the playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup, there is perhaps no more important player on the roster than Smith. The goaltender proved this in 2011-12, when he sparked a run to the Western Conference Final. Smith's past two seasons, however, have been marked by inconsistency. After signing a six-year, $34 million contract last summer, Smith allowed 2.64 goals-per-game and had a .915 save percentage.
"Last year I think he was coming off a big contract and put a lot of pressure on himself with the Olympics and all of the above there," Tippett said of Smith's season. "Speaking with him this summer, he just seems like a more relaxed player. He understands his role, and I expect Smitty to have a wonderful year this year."