With less than a month before the start of hockey’s regular season, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Arizona Coyotes. 2014 has already brought a ton of change to the formerly Phoenix – and now Arizona – Coyotes. Some have been perceived as good, some perceived as bad, and some just simply have a whole lot of hope riding on it. Not all changes, however, have to be met with fright and opposition. This year, the “year of change” should bring a sense of promise and opportunity to the desert.
Last Season – When IceArizona purchased the team from the NHL for $170 million before the start of last season, the new owners were hoping to be profitable by the end of Year Three. When fans hear about a team’s “profit margin” and a goal to be profitable by the end of three years, it is often perceived that the change in ownership, which was first regarded as an opportunity to let loose on spending in order to win, is now just another excuse for missing the playoffs. Last year, under the new ownership and new budget, the first move made by the front office, which was to attempt to secure a top line center for years to come, failed miserably in the acquisition and inevitable early departure of Mike Ribeiro. However, even with this failed experiment, the Coyotes were still in the hunt for the playoffs up until Game 81. Unfortunately for the team and their fans, the ‘Yotes dropped seven of their last eight games and fell just two points short of the eighth and final playoff spot. Moving into this offseason, while still working with IceArizona’s budget of profitability, the new owners, their front office, and head coach are doing their part to ensure the Coyotes get back to putting a winning team back out on the ice.
The Offseason – On the ownership’s end, the team has shown a commitment to success through change in the Valley by signing long term agreements this offseason with LEVY Restaurants (15 years), the City of Glendale for Arena Rights (15 years), Ticketmaster (10 years) and the most recent partnership agreement with Gila River Casinos (9 years), which will include a name change to the arena. Given city approval, what was once called Jobing.com Arena will now become Gila River Arena. Along with these agreements, the ownership is also hoping to piggyback off its first year of success when it comes to their attendance, which grew at a league-high rate last season. The team’s name change from Phoenix to Arizona this summer will be attached to a simultaneous hope for a continued increase in revenue from jersey sales, season tickets, and suite sales. With this hope, the ownership is now optimistic that the team could be profitable sooner than its original Year Three expectation. This change from cynicism to optimism comes as a major sigh of relief as the quicker the team can become profitable, the quicker the team can increase its spending.
During this season of change, however, the part of general manager Don Maloney is to retool and re-adjust his roster according to his team’s newest needs and budget. Not resting on this limited budget as a reason or excuse for failure, the changes on his end to the roster this offseason have included a dramatic shift from a failed, and quick, foray into veteran free agency from a year ago, to an infusion of youth and speed into the system this year. This change should also be met with excitement, given the fact the Maloney is still choosing to make moves, regardless of the handcuffed position he has been put in. Head coach Dave Tippett has also been forced to work with these major changes to the roster. From key departures of scoring forwards Radim Vrbata and Mike Ribeiro to the key addition of top-line forward Sam Gagner and the infusion of and commitment to youth into their system, Tippett will be coaching a whole new crop of players that may or may not work in his system. Either way, this major change to the roster does not have to be met with a negative disposition.
What to Watch for This Season – It is hard to imagine with all of these big changes among their own team – let alone within the conference, which has drastically improved again – that Arizona will be ushering in another “White Out” game come mid-April. However, it is important to remember that since coming to the desert, Tippett has never had a losing season. Last season, under their first year of new ownership, they had a rough end to their season under even rougher circumstances and still only missed the playoffs by a two points. Three of the biggest things to watch out for this upcoming season will be surrounding the health of goalie Mike Smith, the infusion of youth and the possible trade of star-defenseman and assistant captain Keith Yandle.
First and foremost, any hockey team with a dream of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end of the season will have to have a solid and healthy net-minder. In 2012, when the Coyotes went to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history, it was goalie Mike Smith who led them there. In the 2012 season, Smith set career-best numbers in the categories of GAA (2.21), Save-Percentage (.930), Shutouts (8) and Wins (38). In the playoffs that season, he only got better, posting a .944 save-percentage and a 1.99 GAA. However, since turning 30, Smith has found himself being riddled with minor injuries, bringing his projected starts down and leaving the team to rely heavily on their scoring and back-up goalies. If Smith can stay healthy and have a 2012-type of year again, it should not only help ease the burden of the coaching staffs need to work in a slew of new players, it should also lead the “Desert Dogs” back into the playoffs.
As of right now, Arizona will have one main roster spot to fill at the forward position before the start of the season. That spot has been listed as an open competition between minor-league players Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson, Lucas Lessio, and Tyler Guadet. Whoever ultimately ends up winning this spot will have some major expectations to fulfill, as he would be slotted among the top two lines and relied heavily on being able to produce right away. The forward position is not the only one that will be relying on the youth of their system, as the defense will also be having a four-way competition for its final two roster spots. Assuming that Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keith Yandle, Milan Michalek and David Schlemko have sown up the top four spots of the defense, and with the departure of long-time Coyote Derek Morris, that would officially leave youngsters Michael Stone (age 24), Connor Murphy (age 21), Brandon Gormley (age 22) and Chris Summers (age 22) vying for the final two-starting defenseman spots and a major increase of playing time. The need to see what all of these young players can accomplish right away is supremely important this year, as veteran forwards Martin Erat, Antoine Vermette, David Moss and Rob Klinkhammer, along with veteran defenseman Zbynek Michalek and David Schlemko all become unrestricted free-agents next year.
Last, but certainly not least, to keep on eye on this season is the possible trade of star defenseman Keith Yandle. Yandle has been a member of the Coyotes since being drafted and signed by the team in 2005. Yandle, who has led the team in points over the past two seasons, is a hot commodity when it comes to the trade market. The Coyotes would certainly love to keep Yandle around as long as possible, but with youngsters like Stone, Gormley, Murphy, and Sunmmers chomping at the bit to receive more playing time, should Arizona’s season start to take an ugly turn for the worse, do not be surprised to see Yandle get moved around to free up roster space and valuable cap-room.
The “year of change” will officially begin to pay – or not pay – off in dividends when the puck drops October 9 versus the Winnipeg Jets. A new team name, a new arena name, and a new roster; Every one of these changes breathes a bit of fresh air into a team, its fans, and into a city that desperately needs it. A new chapter will begin in the new-look desert, and all of the changes that have been made may not be finalized just yet. Regardless, the organization as a whole has been making a concerted effort to work within their means, and above their bottom line in order to assure fans that they are committed to winning… And that is certainly a change to Arizona hockey that all fans can be proud of.
Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow, where 30 in 30 will examine the “Beast in the East,” the Boston Bruins. Also check out yesterday’s team, the Anaheim Ducks.
For more Arizona Coyotes news, check out the Desert Dog Times.
Commentary by Ryne Vyles
Guardian Liberty Voice Sports Writer Covering the Arizona Coyotes