How many people reading this article have October 9 circled on your schedule? It would be easy to imagine that more people than last year can recognize the importance of this date.
About a year ago the Phoenix Coyotes had its chance to start all over again. They stepped to the ice facing the New York Rangers in their season opener with new owners, a roster that was poised to make the playoffs, but most of all promise the city of Glendale and the rest of Maricopa County that it can be a hockey town. The season certainly had its ups and downs, but overlooking still being one of the worst teams in attendance during the 2013-2014 season, there were a lot of positives that came about.
Sure there were times that the Coyotes ripped your heart out, losing their final games of the season only to miss the playoffs by one point. You also had so many instances where two goal leads heading into the third period ended in utter defeat. If you even dig deeper, the “butt goal” and “phantom goal” broke the season and gave Coyote fans a very bitter taste. And then remember when captain Shane Doan mysteriously sat out a few weeks in the winter after suffering from Rocky Mountain Fever?
But now the past is the past, and the owners want to make sure that they can answer to their ever-growing fan base. It all starts with letting go of Mike Ribeiro, their major free agent acquisition last season, and replacing him with Sam Gagner, a former number 1 pick from the Edmonton Oilers. Adding Joe Vitale from Pittsburgh and former Blue Jacket Mike McKenna can also help out a roster that was dying in trying to find solid scorers to help out Antoine Vermette. Radim Vrbata has left to play for Ottawa, but this leaves a chance to provide Mikkel Boedker opportunities to perform. Adding unrestricted free agent Devan Dubnyk will also add help to a defensive line that struggled greatly.
“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,” Coyotes coach Dave 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.”
But let us be real, where in Tippett’s tenure in the valley he has yet to see anyone produce in high numbers. Even in his stint when the team went as far as the Western Conference Finals in 2012, expectations were much lower. Now with failing to make the playoffs the last two seasons, the bar has risen much higher.
“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.”
Inconsistency is a word that is put rather lightly The Coyotes last season were 28th in win percentage when leading after two periods. This also combines with their 15 overtime and shootout losses that eventually put them on the outside looking in. But with everything going right in the off season, including a chance to see first round pick Max Domi step to the ice, the roster is starting to come together. There aren’t a lot of players that can dazzle, even with some of their additions, but a lot of skeptics do believe that a unified team like this one can do some damage if they make the postseason.
This preseason has brought a lot of positives. Its offense has brought forth a spark in its games against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. While the veterans stuck around in Phoenix, most of its second line and prospects headed to Southern California. Both games they averaged over four goals a game, providing some sort of effort they were missing just a few months ago. While things have slowed down recently, its defense has stiffened, providing some relief to its goaltenders.
“It is nice to see things begin to improve,” Rob Klinkhammer said. “Right now we are trying to shake off some of those cobwebs we suffered through last season, and get prepared for the first game of the year. Our rookies and most of our veterans are trying to prepare better than ever so we can make things much easier for us.”
Going into this season they will have yet another major change. The arena has been rebranded to the Gila River Arena, and their jerseys have been altered slightly due to their own name change. Its roster as usual had a facelift this off season, but it is the first time in a while that they have done so without any ownership distractions. While there was speculation they could have moved again because of illegal meetings that transpired before the vote to keep them in Glendale, it was trounced instantly.
This team has been itching to be noticed. They have always been mediocre, and many of the players know what it takes to become contenders. When October 9 hits on the calendar, another packed house will scream and shout proving that this is their squad that can possibly get over the hump and have them play through at the very least April.
Let’s hope the Arizona Coyotes can take advantage of its new look.
“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.”