Feb 7, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek (4) fights with Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) during the third period at Jobing.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
BU: The Coyotes challenged for the final Wild Card spot in a stacked Western Conference right until the bitter end last season. What went right for the ‘Yotes in 2013-14?
HH: I think the Coyotes have a sort of ‘gestalt’- the team is more than the sum of it’s roster. This was made pretty apparent this season, where the team managed to put up an impressive fight in a conference just overflowing with talent. I think the firepower seen in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle cannot be stressed enough- both blue liners made impressive contributions to the team’s offense, in addition to holding down the fort on their own end of the ice. One of our writers at Howlin’ Hockey, Adam Pierce, also made an interesting observation earlier today. While joking about fantasy hockey, he mentioned that Mikkel Boedker was an underrated addition to his team last year. I think this extends to looking at the Coyotes, as well- players like Boedker, Ribeiro, Vrbata and Hanzal made contributions to the team that went beyond just the number of goals they put up.
Unfortunately ‘almost’ won’t be good enough in the NHL. Where did you feel that the team lacked last year?
We lacked a few things last year that I think we still lack. The Coyotes had a shortage of score-power, and the blue line looked a little inconsistent. In addition, missing the playoffs isn’t necessarily all on a goaltender, but I think that Mike Smith is given too much responsibility for his team. He’s not elite, number-one goaltender material anymore- as a matter of fact, it was never certain that he was number-one material to begin with. The team made a great showing considering, but they didn’t look like playoff material overall.
Do you feel that the scoring and goaltending issues has been addressed so far this off-season?
It’s tough to tell. Two huge forwards left the desert- Mike Ribeiro was bought out, and Radim Vrbata signed elsewhere- and it’s too early to tell whether the team has added enough scoring strength to replace them, let alone fix the team’s offense. Sam Gagner has been added down the middle, and while he can be a superstar, he’s wildly inconsistent. Joe Vitale will fill in nicely behind him as a fourth line center, and will boost the team’s final line, but will BJ Crombeen, Lauri Korpikoski, and either Max Domi or Brendan Perlini be enough? In addition, the team’s big stars aren’t getting any younger- Shane Doan is turning 38 this year, and I don’t think that the team can expect to see him put up the kind of numbers he has in any seasons past.
My biggest concern, though, is still in the net. The team seems to be buying time until Mark Visentin is NHL-ready, which I talked about in my season matchup preview with the Calgary Flames. I don’t think that the team can survive with Mike Smith as the clear starter and a backup like Devan Dubnyk– in order for the team to be a playoff contender, I think the team should have brought in a goaltender who could split the net with Smith more evenly.
The Coyotes have missed the playoffs in the past two seasons following three straight trips there, with the last one taking you all the way to the Western Conference Final. Are the good times behind the ‘Yotes, or will a re-tooling get you guys back in the post-season?
I think that the Coyotes are going to be back in the playoffs sooner rather than later. They aren’t the Chicago Blackhawks by any standard, but I also think that they aren’t Calgary, who Flame For Thought Editor Len Nunes said “are not one or two transactions away from being a playoff team”. The Desert Dogs were only two points away from the eighth WC playoff spot, and I think that this is going to be a recurring trend- at least with the current roster, the team will dance around the wild card spots. I could see the team winning the spot next year as easily as I could see them missing the playoffs in a similar manner to last season.
At 32, how much longer can Mike Smith be counted on as a true #1 goaltender?
I’ve made it pretty clear where I stand on Mike Smith. It’s too bad, because he’s the kind of goaltender that I think has a lot of charisma and brings a ton of heart to the team. It’s impossible for me to look beyond some of the games he’s had in past seasons, though; he’d make a great split-season goaltender, but I think it hurts the team to have him uncontested for the number one spot.
How do you feel the Coyotes did at this years’ draft? You didn’t select a defenseman until the fifth round, was loading up on forward prospects the priority?
Back during my tenure with Frozen Futures, I did a grading of this year’s draft– and gave the Coyotes one of only 9 A’s handed out. I still stand by what I said- this wasn’t a particularly strong draft class, and I think they picked some of the best players they could have. They may not have picked up a defender in one of the first rounds, but Brendan Perlini looks like he’s going to be a great addition to the team- and he can join the line-up much faster than many young defensemen could have. In addition, the Coyotes picked up Al MacInnis‘ son Ryan and two members of the Memorial Cup-winning Edmonton Oil Kings. I think that this draft class was weaker than most in recent years, and the team did a good job of picking the best players they could from what was offered.
It wasn’t a crazy off-season for the team by any standards. Do you feel the Coyotes did enough this summer to contend this season?
We’ve still got a couple of weeks to go, but unless we make one more trade, I’m going to go with no. Sam Gagner, Joe Vitale, and BJ Crombeen don’t make up for the loss of Mike Ribeiro, Radim Vrbata, and Jeff Halpern, in my humble opinion. The team made a lateral movement rather than moving forward in the net, switching out Thomas Greiss for Devan Dubnyk , and they seem to be looking at their good-but-not-great defensive prospects to step up instead of bringing in someone with experience.
I have to ask. How sad are you to see Biz go?
I’m a little devastated, I have to say. I think that the team really could have held on to him with the salary space they had, though, so the fact that they didn’t pick him back up reinforces the feeling that they’re making moves to modernize the team’s roster. Players like BizNasty, Zac Rinaldo, and John Scott are a dying breed in the league, and I think the Coyotes were smart to pick up on that. I’m upset, but I understand it.
What are your feelings on the Arizona name change?
Well, for one thing, it made my 2012 Stanley Cup Conference Finals shirt a little bit more valuable- it’s like a Whalers shirt now! Vintage!
I kid. I think that it was a smart move- it gives the whole state a little bit more identity association in relation to the team. It also gives the team flexibility in terms of relocation, which could be a possibility in the future. By no longer limiting the team to Phoenix, the franchise can be open to exploring arena options in the event that Glendale chooses to no longer host the team.
Predict the Coyotes’ 2013-14 season.
I think the teams’ going to break the 90-point barrier this year, finishing with 93 points. Too many teams are in a retooling phase for the ‘Yotes to fall much lower than this. 42 W, 31 L, 9 OT. I think they’re going to beat the Kings at least twice, the Flames four times, the Hawks twice, and the Ducks only once, as well, so you guys have some wildly unsupported predictions you can laugh at me for come April.
We’ll squeak our way into the playoffs, beating out the Wild (but not the Stars). We’ll play the Kings in the first round and that’ll be it, but we’ll take it to six games. We’ll have picked up a high scorer at the trade deadline in exchange for Max Domi and a few draft picks. We’ll pick up a great d-man before the season starts, because we need it. Just because it’s fun to make predictions that have no ground in fact, I’ll take a stab at the scorer being Evander Kane, and the defenseman being Johnny Boychuk.
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