Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Around the League: A Look at the Phoenix Coyotes

As the Montreal Canadiens enter what we won't call a rebuild, but rather a restructuring, starting from the top management on down, it is only natural to look at teams who are having successful seasons as a model.  One of five teams remaining in contention at the time of this writing is the Phoenix Coyotes.  Certainly, much of their success is owed to their front office and coaching staff, but today the more interesting tool will be to look at their roster.  If you look up and down the Coyotes line-up on paper, you will see a who's who of players who have flopped in other markets and been exiled from other organizations.  Yet they're making it work.  Let's dig deeper into some of the guys that have gotten them this far.

The Coyotes have used a few different players and combinations during the post-season, so we'll base this breakdown on their most recent game played, being their game 5 win to eliminate the Nashville Predators.


Shane Doan
Every winning team needs its star contingent, and Doan is perhaps the only "household name" superstar the 'Yotes have up front.  He was drafted by the franchise, 7th overall by Winnipeg in 1995, and at age 35, has never left.  Winning team with a veteran leadership star, nothing unusual here.  Doan had 50 points this season and has 6 points in 11 playoff games, so as captain think of him as a Brian Gionta.

Ray Whitney
The Coyotes leading scorer in the regular season had 77 points in 82 games and was a +26.  Surely the Coyotes paid a hefty price to bring in such star talent, right?  Except not so much.  Whitney has had a great career, but just turned... 40 years old.  Acquired on the UFA market 2 years ago for just $3M per season.  For argument's sake, think Erik Cole.

Antoine Vermette
A mid-season acquisition from Columbus, Vermette was made available because he had produced only 27 points in 60 games.  Thus, the cost for the 29-year old center was a back-up goaltender and 2nd and 4th round draft selections.  Nothing crazy considering he is more than a rental with two years remaining on his reasonable deal.  And now?  He leads the team in playoff scoring with 5 goals and 9 points in 11 games.  Since Vermette is a solid two-way guy, let's say Tomas Plekanec.

Martin Hanzal
Once considered a top offensive prospect but has never panned out.  A 30-35 point center with size that Phoenix took 17th overall in 2005.  Let's call him Lars Eller.

Radim Vrbata
Vrbata bolted to Tampa Bay as a UFA back in 2008, but struggled mightily.  The Lightning straight up dumped his contract to the Coyotes, in return for David Hale and Todd Fedoruk.  He could have been had for next to nothing.  He found his goal-scoring game again in Phoenix, so the team rewarded him with a new three year deal last summer at the same $3M per season he was previously making.  Amazing value for a guy who scored 35 goals and 62 points this year, for which reason we'll equate him to Max Pacioretty.

Mikkel Boedker
Boedker was an 8th overall pick by Phoenix back in 2008, but has developed slowly.  The average-sized winger had just 24 points in 82 games this year.  He has stepped it up in the playoffs with 7 points in 11 games, but who's to say a Louis Leblanc, who as a rookie with limited minutes had almost as good of a .PPG, couldn't have done the same?

Daymond Langkow
When Langkow was limited to only 4 games a year ago, there was talk his career might be over.  When it seemed he may be able to play, Calgary was happy to dump the final year of his deal to Phoenix for the struggling Lee Stempniak last summer.  Again, not a big price to pay - something anyone could have matched - and Langkow produced just 30 points in 73 games this year.  As an offensive center with some question marks, I guess we'll call him David Desharnais?

Boyd Gordon
A checking center which the Canadiens lacked for most of the season, Gordon was available to all teams last July 1st, signing with the Coyotes for $1.325M per on a 2-year deal.  Sort of like a Travis Moen.

Lauri Korpikoski
A bust after the New York Rangers drafted him 19th overall in 2004, he was dealt to the Coyotes for fellow bust Enver Listin.  Think of it as a Pouliot-for-Latendresse swap.  Korpikoski has turned into a respectable NHL'er in Phoenix, but again is the type of guy any team could have had for a similar offer.  Let's say he's a Rene Bourque for that reason.

Taylor Pyatt
The older brother of ex-Hab Tom Pyatt, Taylor was seen as up-and-coming late-bloomer when he scored 23 goals with the Vancouver Canucks in 2006-07.  But his production dropped each of the next two years, so the Canucks let him go, and the Coyotes picked him up as a UFA in 2009 for just $600,000.  Again, easily could have been had by anyone.  His play earned him another UFA deal in Phoenix averaging $1M per season, but his production went south again this season with only 19 points.  We'll thus call Pyatt an upgraded Mathieu Darche.

Gilbert Brule
The Oilers selected Brule 6th overall in 2005, one spot after Montreal took Carey Price.  Many fans wanted the Habs to take Brule there instead; ALL are now glad they didn't.  Brule has been a bust, clearing waivers this very season (meaning he could have been had for nothing), and splitting time between the AHL and NHL.  In fairness, he's still more productive than Aaron Palushaj, so since he occasionally plays forward, let's equate him to Yannick Weber.

Kyle Chipchura
If you weren't following the Coyotes playoff run this Spring, then you might not have realized this former Canadiens' first round pick still played in the NHL.  But indeed, the 18th overall selection in 2004 - taken ahead of the likes of Travis Zajac, Andrej Meszaros, Mike Green, Dave Bolland, Brandon Dubinsky, David Krejci, Alex Goligoski, and others - plays a defensive, tough, fourth line role in Phoenix.  The Habs sent Chipchura to Anaheim for a fourth round pick back in 2009, and after being re-signed for a second season, the Ducks chose not to qualify Chipchura last summer.  So he signed in Phoenix for a cap hit of just $550,000 as a UFA last summer.  Let's call him Petteri Nokelainen.


Keith Yandle
Yandle is the leader of the group, topping all Yotes' d-men in regular season scoring and time-on-ice per game.  Still young at only 25, drafted all the way in the 4th round in 2005, and already a stud on D.  Let's call him their P.K. Subban.  Yes, I'd take him over P.K. today, but the comparison is reasonable.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson
The Habs sorely lacked another top pairing d-man this season due to Andrei Markov's absence.  I love Josh Gorges, but he belongs in the #3/4 slot.  Ekman-Larsson is only 20 and has a phenomenal career ahead of him after Phoenix took him 6th overall in 2009.  Even though he's inexperienced, we could already equate his two-way game to a healthy Markov's.

Derek Morris
The first two were acquired with draft picks, but the rest of the D is the kind of scraps this article was meant to highlight.  Morris has had an up-and-down career, which started going sour in Phoenix in 2008-09.  He was sent to the Rangers for a trifecta of cast-offs in Petr Prucha, Nigel Dawes, and Dimitri Kalinin, all three of whom have since moved on to the KHL.  After signings as a UFA in Boston, he was deemed expendable and sent back to Phoenix for the bargain price of a 4th round draft selection when the Bruins needed cap space for other acquisitions.  Another player who any team could have added on the cheap.  He is averaging over 22 minutes a night in the post-season.  For his ability to occasionally lay out a big hit, let's call him Alexei Emelin.

Michal Rozsival
The New York Rangers didn't want to pay Rozsival anywhere near the $5M he was making annually on his deal, and it seemed like his fate might be similar to Wade Redden's if they couldn't move him.  Fortunately, Phoenix obliged, picking him up for New York to take the disgruntled winger Wojtek Wolski off their hands.  Rozsival was dealt as a salary dump.  Certainly was available league-wide.  He is now on the final year of that contract, and playing an average of 22:30 per game this playoffs.  He doesn't have much offense to his game, so let's say he's Josh Gorges.

Adrian Aucoin
We know Aucoin has a big slapshot, but aside from that, he didn't seem to have much of an NHL future a few years back.  With a -22 rating in Chicago in 2006-07, the Hawks were basically happy to give his contract away, sending him and a 7th round pick to Calgary for "nothing" in the form of Andrei Zyuzin and Steve Marr.  He rebounded enough in Calgary for the Coyotes to sign him when he became a UFA in 2009, and he then accepted a 2 year deal to stay in Phoenix in 2010 for just $2M a season.  For his pointshot, we can see he's a Raphael Diaz.

David Schlemko

Schlemko, 25, was never drafted, but signed as a UFA by the Coyotes in 2007.  He has split most seasons since between the AHL and NHL, amassing 109 games with Phoenix.  Is he better than Frederic St-Denis?  Most probably, yes.  But there's enough here to call them comparables.

Rotislav Klesla
Klesla didn't play in the last game due to an injury, but dressed for the first 10 these playoffs for Phoenix scoring 7 points, so we'll include him.  Of the players Phoenix acquired from other organizations, Klesla was the only one they had to pay a real price for, giving up rentals Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto for him and Dane Byers.  The only Montreal d-man remaining is Tomas Kaberle, and putting the two in the same sentence is an insult to the more complete Klesla.  So there it is, a guy the Habs lack.


Mike Smith
Smith is the only guy that matters in this category; some might say the only one that matters on the team.  And he fits well, a cast-off that wound up with the Coyotes.  Once a centerpiece of the deal that brought Brad Richards to Dallas, Smith never panned out in Tampa Bay.  How much did he not pan out?  The Lightning placed him on waivers during the 2010-11 season... and he cleared, being sent to the AHL for a few games.  The Coyotes gave him a shot as a UFA last summer with a two-year deal for just $2M a season, and he continues to rattle off a very impressive season.  With Carey Price emerging as a dominant young goaltender, there is little doubt Montreal can rival Phoenix in this area as well.

So what's going on in Phoenix?  Is this team of rejects and cast-offs that will play in the Western Conference Finals any better than the Montreal Canadiens who finished 15th in the East?  On paper, it's very debatable. This is a testament to league-wide parity, and as a positive to Canadiens fans, maybe all it will take for the Habs to make a run is upgrading a Kaberle to a Klesla, a good coach, staying healthy, and getting a Smith-like season out of Price.

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