NHL Season Preview: Phoenix Coyotes

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Welcome to the NHL FanHouse 2008-09 season preview. While other sites are previewing "30 teams in 30 days," we decided to take advantage of the extra time off before the start of the season to bring you all 30 previews over the next three weeks. We're counting down in reverse order of finish from last season in each conference every weekday from now until October 3. Look for an Eastern Conference preview every morning and a Western Conference preview every afternoon. Click here to read them all.

Who's In: Olli Jokinen, C (Trade-FLA); Kurt Sauer, D (FA-COL); David Hale, D (FA-CGY); Todd Fedoruk, W (FA-MIN); Brian McGratton, W (FA-OTT)

Who's Out: Keith Ballard, D (Trade-FLA); Nick Boynton, D (Trade-FLA); Radim Vrbata, W (FA-TBL); Mike York, W (FA-CBJ); Niko Kapanen, C (FA-Russia); Marcel Hossa, W (FA-Russia)

What's Changed: Since the lockout, the Pacific Division has essentially been a three-team struggle. Over those three years, the Dallas Stars have accumulated 316 standings points, the San Jose Sharks 314, and the Anaheim Ducks 310. Other than Detroit (352), they represent the highest totals in the western conference over that span.

This season, things more or less will stay the same in the Pacific -- the Stars, Sharks, and Ducks figure to continue their winning ways (I'll be previewing them in two weeks) while the Kings continue their battle to stay out of the cellar. The Phoenix Coyotes, on the other hand, represent the division's most interesting team. They are the ones that are improving, and with a new #1 center in Olli Jokinen, a full season of Ilya Bryzgalov in the net, and a young core of forwards that would make any general manager drool, it's tough to know how good this team could get. Could this be the year that the Coyotes get seated at the winner's table in the Pacific?

In November 2007, the Anaheim's Brian Burke found himself with too many netminders, and failing to find a suitable trade, he put backup Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers. Sound familiar? Well unlike Mathieu Schneider, Bryzgalov did get claimed, and Phoenix saw immediate results from their early Christmas gift. On the Coyotes, Bryzgalov had a 26-22-5 record with a 2.43 GAA and a .921 save percentage. Compare that with the rest of the Phoenix netminders (Tellqvist, Auld, and Aebischer), who combined for a 12-15-2 record with a 2.98 GAA and a .900 save percentage. With a full season of quality netminding from Breezy, the Coyotes figure to have improved results on the ice and improved hilarity in lockerroom interviews (skip one minute into this video for some Bryzgalov brilliance from his Anaheim days).

Up front, the Coyotes added Olli Jokinen in a draft-day trade, who as Eric McErlain has pointed out, is Florida's all-time career leader in goals, assists, and points. Jokinen figures to make a killer top line with sophomore Peter Mueller (see YouTube below) and captain Shane Doan. Behind that, Phoenix has a crop of young forwards led by Kyle Turris, third overall pick in the 2007 draft. Martin Hanzal, Daniel Winnik, Joel Perrault, and Craig Weller are all in their 20s and should improve their play in the coming years.

Let's not forget about the muscle. The Coyotes signed tough guys Todd Fedoruk and Brian McGratton to patrol the ice and protect their young forwards. Along with superpest Daniel Carcillo (324 penalty minutes in only 57 games), Phoenix figures to have its fists a-flying on its attack this year, which should both help create space for the kids and entertain a still-developing fanbase.

On the blueline, the Coyotes will need to make some adjustments, as losing Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton in the Florida trade for Jokinen means that roughly 20 minutes a night will need to be replaced. The Coyotes brought in Kurt Sauer and David Hale to complement returning defensemen Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris, and Zbynek Michalek. The Coyotes' blueline figures to be productive but thin, so it's going to be up to youngsters like Keith Yandle to step up and play a prominent role.

Who's on the hook: I think Phoenix fans have a good enough understanding of the perils of the Pacific Division that nobody will be crucified this year, but there's certainly some demons that could be put to bed. Olli Jokinen has fashioned himself a fine enough career, except that he's never played in an NHL playoff game. Wayne Gretzky dominated hockey for two decades on the ice, but hasn't yet shown greatness in coaching. Ilya Bryzgalov has certainly shown stretches of greatness, but he has yet to carry a team for a full season.

Where they'll finish: The OC Register is running a great series on the Pacific Division rivals, asking questions of opposing team's beat writers. Jim Gintonio of the Arizona Republic predicts the Coyotes to finish third in the Pacific, ahead of the Ducks. That may seem optimistic, but it's tough for me to rule out a strong year for the Coyotes. They are definitely closing the gap between themselves and the top teams in the Pacific. It may take them another year to really become a contender, but I can definitely see why Coyotes fans are thinking "Whiteout" this season.

Blogs to Watch:Ice Chips, One Fan's Perspective, Hip Shot Blog, True Coyote Love, Coyote Corner, Battle of the Pacific

Gratuitous YouTube Embed: Here's a great montage video of young Coyotes forward Peter Mueller scoring impressive goals in a lot of different ways, courtesy of Hip Shot Blog. This video soundtrack should be turned into a Guitar Hero level immediately.

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