Improved Coyotes will likely miss playoffs again

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2008

By Lucas Aykroyd

Wayne Gretzky achieved his most famous international victory as a player with Team Canada by victimizing two Russian goalies, Sergei Mylnikov and Evgeni Belosheikin, in the 1987 Canada Cup final. Ironically, the “Great One” can credit much of his coaching success with Phoenix this season to the acquisition of a Russian goalie.

Picking up Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers from Anaheim on November 17 was the best move the Coyotes have made in years. The former backup to J-S Giguere set a record for consecutive playoff shutouts (three) with the Ducks in 2006, and delivered similarly top-notch goaltending to keep Phoenix in the playoff hunt. Bryzgalov, 27, is clearly a better fit for the number one job than Mikael Tellqvist (his current backup), Alex Auld, or David Aebischer were earlier this year. He’s recorded career highs in games plays, wins, and shutouts this year, and his save percentage is among the NHL’s best. Although some insiders question whether Bryzgalov’s wacky, outgoing personality will eventually start to bug his teammates, there’s no question they’re happy with his puck-stopping.

The bad news is that despite the improvement at the team’s most important position, the Arizona-based franchise will likely miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.

“I’m very proud of how my guys battled,” said Gretzky with good-humored resignation after a critical 3-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks at GM Place on March 17. “They came to play as hard as they could, and that’s all you can ask for.”

That’s the kind of effort you should expect from a young club not loaded with big names. For 2007-08, the Coyotes finally decided to concentrate on developing young prospects instead of signing over-the-hill veterans like Petr Nedved, Brett Hull, and Mike Ricci. Center Peter Mueller, chosen eighth overall in the 2006 NHL Draft, has emerged as a legitimate offensive threat in his rookie season, playing the point on the power play. Although other talented rookies like forward Martin Hanzal and defenseman Keith Yandle haven’t received as much of the spotlight, they should emerge as important parts of the Phoenix nucleus in the seasons to come.

On the veteran side, one bright spot has been Ed Jovanovski. Although he’s no longer the dominating physical presence he used to be, the 31-year-old blueliner has stayed healthy this year, after battling abdominal injuries in the past, and surpassed his previous career high of 48 points from the 2001-02 season with Vancouver. And up front, Radim Vrbata has blossomed with more ice time and responsibility than he ever received in previous stops in Colorado, Carolina, and Chicago. The 26-year-old Czech winger has set career highs in goals and points.

But it doesn’t matter whether you talk to Phoenix veterans or rookies at this stage of the season. The desperation in their voices is clear. Merely improving on last year’s paltry 67 points is not enough.

“We’re playing for our playoff lives and we’ve just got to string together some wins to get in,” said 23-year-old tough guy Daniel Carcillo.

“Winning all our games is all we can worry about now,” captain Shane Doan admitted.

But more likely, you’ll see players like Mueller, Doan, and Vrbata receiving invitations to participate at the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Canada in the near future. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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