Gretzky and Seidenberg feel the heat in Phoenix

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2006

By Lucas Aykroyd

This season, the Phoenix Coyotes are celebrating their tenth year in Arizona under the slogan of “Decade in the Desert.” But cynics might suggest that this franchise is like the Biblical Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and the Promised Land is nowhere in sight.

The Coyotes haven’t made the playoffs since 2002. Last season, their first under coach Wayne Gretzky, they finished 12th, and their play has ranged from abysmal to mediocre so far this year. From November 22 to December 9, it looked as if the Coyotes might be getting back on track, as they earned points in six out of eight games. But then, bad back-to-back losses to San Jose and Vancouver cast doubt on their resurgence.

“We got off to a ridiculously poor start [with two wins and eight losses],” said the Great One. “Then we had a couple of key injuries to Steven Reinprecht and Keith Ballard. I’d say over the last 15 games, we’ve played extremely hard every night. We know we’re not the most talented team, but if you play hard, you can be competitive.”

Ironically, Phoenix shouldn’t be short on talent, considering the money the club has spent on free agents. Neither Gretzky nor GM Michael Barnett can be exempted from criticism for how they chose to allocate their dollars.

Owen Nolan, who hadn’t played in two years, and Jeremy Roenick, who had a disastrous post-lockout stint with Los Angeles, both got deals worth about $1.2 million this year, despite being well past their prime. So far, Roenick has been a bust, while Nolan is on track for about 40 points after a slow start. Slovak sniper Ladislav Nagy, earning $3 million this year, isn’t on pace to break the 20-goal mark, which he’s done three times before.

Enforcer Georges Laraque ($1.2 million) and faceoff specialist Yanic Perreault ($700,000) appear to be this season’s two best buys, dollar for dollar. You could argue the Coyotes overpaid for defenseman Ed Jovanovski (five years for $32.5 million), who’ll earn more than Scott Niedermayer this year. But Gretzky is pleased with the 30-year-old former Vancouver Canuck star.

“We’re thrilled to have him with us,” said Gretzky. “We needed to get a guy that hates to lose and brings passion to the locker room. It benefits every guy on the team, especially our younger defensemen like Ballard and Zbynek Michalek.”

Dennis Seidenberg is another blueliner who’s benefited from Jovanovski’s presence, and the 25-year-old German veteran wants fans to know that his coach has a lot invested, emotionally as well as financially, in Phoenix’s success: “A lot of people may think Gretzky doesn’t really care. But I think he really cares about us and wants to get this thing turned around.”

Seidenberg hopes to score more after recording just one point in both October and November: “It could obviously be better. I’m going to try to keep shooting, but I’m also aiming to be better in my own zone. When I’ve taken care of that, I’ll worry more about my offense.”

Phoenix has been among the league’s worst at both ends of the ice. In fairness, the Coyotes have been hobbled by fractured feet. Center Mike Comrie missed 14 games with the same injury that’s sidelined defenseman Nick Boynton since November 30.

Yet even when the entire roster gets healthy, the goaltending must improve. Starter Curtis Joseph’s average has hovered around a mediocre 3.50 this year, and ex-Toronto prospect Mikael Tellqvist is the latest candidate to back him up after David LeNeveu and Mike Morrison fell short.

Much work remains before Phoenix’s playoff drought can end. “We just need to work hard and be better in our one-on-one battles,” Seidenberg said optimistically. “If we play better defensively as a team, things will eventually work out.” Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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