Tuesday, January 05, 2010

First Half Report Card from the Desert

Damn its been awhile... thought I'd better stop by and update on my boys...

We’re 40+ games into the season but looking as fresh and productive as we did at 30. GMDM has given a mini state of the Coyotes interview to Dave Vest. So I guess its time to take a good hard look… not completely at where we’ve been (although our rearview window shows a trail of teams looking for a few easy points and getting turned into road kill instead), nope, instead we’re gonna look at where we need to go and how we need to get there. We can start from the net out, which is how I like my teams built.


In Bryz we trust is not just a slogan on one of my posters. It is the base for our pack mentality. The boys trust Breezy to give them a chance to win every single night. He’s become a 29 team wrecking ball and like that iron ball, shows no signs of wear. He has to continue that stellar play for this team to get where we need to be. Smart practice schedule to preserve his mental acuity while giving him just enough of a workout to keep sharp is paying off handsomely. The Olympic appearance shouldn’t do much harm since you can expect Nabokov to be the real workhorse for the Russian squad.

Back up Jason Labarbera is doing well (he’d do better if he remembers he’s a huge guy and doesn’t need such big dramatic movements to get the job done). He’s currently 3 and 3 for starts which isn’t going to set the world on fire but won’t hurt us much if Bryz needs a little more rest down the stretch and for that horrendous road schedule in March. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think there may be better solutions out there but I don’t want to give up anything to get one of them, so its, continue dancing with the one who brought you at this point.

Defense - A

Bryzzie isn’t doing all this by himself. The offseason acquisitions of Aucoin and Vandemeer cured one of our biggest issues, which was defensive depth and grit. Last season our season turned ugly on the lynchpin of a broken foot. Kurt Sauer’s injury sent us into a tailspin of epic fail. There were other injuries that didn’t help but the loss of Sweets shuffled our line up too much and made us too dependent on players who weren’t quite ready for prime time like Hale and Yandle. When Sweets comes back we need to avoid the usual acclimation period that most teams have when a long term IR guy gets back in the lineup.

This season tells the tale. We lost Kurt after one game but didn’t miss a step in the rise. Keith Yandle became a man almost overnight and when we lost Z and Jovo, the young rookie manned up and could be counted on like a veteran. Young Sami Lepisto and noobie David Schlemko proved to be admirable fill-ins for the lighter work and the blue line remained stable. That same blue line has to continue to progress. They have meshed well and can be shuffled without worrying too much about specific pairings (this season there is no real ’shut down’ pairing, everyone has to play defense AND take care of their ancillary scoring chances).

It is wonderful to see that the neutral zone has become a battlefield. With the forwards actually doing their job and harrying the opposition, the Dmen can hold the line better and limit who gets to go see Bryz for a slap down. This also has to be stepped up. The nights that we battle way harder than we need to, are the nights when the forwards forget about the pack mentality and their ‘other’ responsibilities in the pack.

Offense - B+

It only takes 1 more goal than your opponent. Under Dave Tippet’s system it is a rare night when the opposing team gets the chance to score much. Thank the hockey gods for Tip and staff’s defensive teachings, because the pack has not gotten up to speed in scoring yet.

The Czech Federation of Hanzal, Prucha and Vrbata have been leading the way too often. They are not supposed to be the top line, yet they have been pulling our chestnuts out of the fire more often than not. Marty has continued to contain every top center in the NHL. He’s also becoming the King of flukey goals (I don’t care how he gets them, I just love to see him get on the board). Vrbie has been shooting his ass off. He’s in the top of the NHL for attempts. (He’s starting to get hot again and we all know what that kid can do on a streak.) Prucha has been the imp of this group. His amazing puck handling and seemingly crazy romps through the opponent’s slot have been bringing the crowds to their feet as much as the exciting Upshall. (We need to see Pruuu!!! in the shoot out more. He used to save NYR’s butts on a regular basis)

Apparently Doan’s quick offensive starts of the past 2 seasons were an aberration and we’re only just now seeing the Captain getting back into a point grabbing groove. We have found our top line again. The Lombo combo of Doan, Lombardi and Upshall have clicked finally. They have to remain solid and finish their excellent chances more often as the season goes forward. There will be even more close games as other teams start eyeing us like the threats we are. These guys will undoubtedly be the make or break difference for the team going forward.

Our 3rd and 4th lines have been deliciously interchangeable. Winnick and Pyatt have been simply fantastic for grit and determination. (It seems like our Winnie plays better when given specific tasks and a set role… apparently TGO couldn’t fathom that little gem but thankfully Tip is playing that card for all its worth.) Anyone who thought Fiddler was just a grunt has had their eyes opened through his face offs and the occasional goalie robbery. Robert Lang may not be as good as he once was but often enough, he is as good once, as he ever was. We may have to give the elderstatesman a break in TOI when we play tough back to back 65 -70 minute games (sometimes Lang seems to have issues with endurance… I could be wrong but resting the guy now and then on ugly scheduling can’t hurt). Mueller is slowly finding his confidence. PM is going to have to start giving that uncanny release of his a few more outings per game. (He’s going to have to ‘want’ the puck and take those shots with confidence rather than continue to dish the passes.)

As every team digs down to find that extra gear, to find ways to win at all costs, we may be ahead of the curve, since our entire game plan is predicated and planned and practiced for exactly that. We will probably not become some offensive juggernaut but we will need to find a way to get all 4 lines to finish their chances more often and preferably in some of the same games as each other.

We all take peeks at the players who are looking available before March 3rd and I am sure GMDM is looking the hardest. I doubt he falls for the rental player trap (the man cares too much about long term value for that). We all admit that a successful scoring forward would be the ideal grab. We also all remember how well Jokinen worked out for us. I do see Don kicking the tires on a few players to add to our firepower. I don’t see him bringing in a rental and possibly jeopardizing our pack’s pecking order and chemistry. GMDM will be looking for a player he already knows, a player who has at least a year left on his contract and a player whose personality and attitude will mesh with the boys and whose skillset will compliment Tippett’s system. We’ve got quite a few bargaining chips to play with for a good acquisition. We still won’t sell the farm (our youthful potential) but there are some 1st and 2nd round extra picks laying about that would be good starting points for discussions and bargaining. (We’ll talk more about that soon.)

Special teams - B

The PK is carrying the PP at this point and has since last season, otherwise this woulda been a C at best. This has to stop. Maintaining discipline will remain a crucial and pivotal part of our success. We can’t wear our best defensive players out while continually staving off the opposition’s PP crews. Our Pkers are in the top 10 in the league which is a beautiful thing. We need to stop giving them so much work. (How many ways must I say this?) Z as usual has been phenomenal in this respect but the other components have done well too. We need to continue doing the little things to keep our kill ratios high going forward… so let it be written, so let it be done.

The PP HAS to arrive. Bottom 10 of the league is pathetic with the skill we have on the ice. This is not optional. We will need the calvary when facing playoff experienced teams. The games will get tighter and tighter and without a fairly solid power play, Bryz will be fighting for his life every game and we can’t do that to the big guy. Relying on 5 on 5 scoring is fine for the first part of the regular season. The second half of the season is a brutal war that can leave you up or down a man continuously. We have to be ready to capitalize on those oppotunties when they come. Aucoin and Jovo have to step up here. Yandle has been relatively solid in getting the most out of his PP opportunities, its time for the big guns to follow suit. Pucks to the net, pucks with eyes, pucks that can be put away on 2nd and 3rd tries are severely needed going forward.

Coaching - A

So far the coaching staff has been stellar. Not to say they can’t improve with a little judicious tweaking of TOI for some players and a continued cattle prod for others. But they are all on the same page with 1 lead dawg and their skills complimenting each other very well. They think outside the box a lot and seem to be bringing solutions to whatever ails us on a daily basis.

We succeed as a pack, through grit and determination. The coaching staff need to continue to find ways to motivate the boys. We’re battling on our own tempo most nights but games like the New Year’s tilt against the Sharks can really hurt us. We came out all hungry and energized but let them lull us to match their low energy and when push came to shove, we just couldn’t get our rhthym back. (like frogs in a pot of warm water, when the Sharks turned the heat back up we didn’t realize it until too late and we got cooked) We need to be able to control the tempo and the tenor of the games better going forward.

They can’t let up on the guys about the distractions even as those distractions change from the BK and ownership issues to too much praise and media attention as we pull closer to a playoff chance. They have been phenomenal! From Ulf during the preseason ramp up to Tip and crew now. This has to continue, we appeared to be easily distracted over the last couple of years and we certainly can’t afford that again this year.

Believe it or not the Olympic break scheduling may help us. We’ll play 3/4 of the 82 games before taking a break. This means that a strong January performance will actually be the hump we need to get over. After the break it will be all about maintnence of our spot. So I guess we’ll just have to kick ass all of January then find a road game system to maintain through March. (Our road record is just this side of respectable… barely) A strong January will help negate any damage a barely .500 road record can do through March.

Operations - A

Don Maloney aka GMDM aka We Salute You, Mr. Super Bargain Hunting General Manager Guy (sorry that commercial just slipped into my head) has worked miracles. We haven’t given up a damn thing this year but we got some of the best pieces available. The only reason GMDM didn’t get a plus is that Craig Andersen was still available when we grabbed AZBarbie. (Can you imagine a goalie tandem of Andersen and Bryzgalov!) But no matter… the Don still done real good.

Shoring up our face off figures, repairing our blueline and grabbing us a real-honest-to-god-coach with chops in Dave Tippett, are all in and of themselves monumental A’s for the guy and we are all thankful for those. Now going forward, if Don can just grab us a scoring forward with playoff experience and grit, he’ll get that plus sign and my undying gratitude. We already know he is patient and value minded so we needn’t worry that he’ll give up anything we’re gonna need to keep this team in future hunts for the cup. (well, not without a plan in place to upgrade that give away)

Since the BK was finished, we’ve seen the Coyotes organization step up the advertising. There are billboards all over town, there are commercials on primetime TV (even CSI, NCIS and the Biggest Loser had Yotes ads in them!) We’ve seen partnerships like Pepsi/Circle K (buy Pepsi and get Yotes tickets) We’ve seen guerilla marketing (Ambassadors club discounts so the STH’s can pimp the team). These are fantastic ways to get Arizona aware of the team and get butts for our seats. This needs to continue going forward, its working. We will be pimping the Coyotes Carnival alongside the organization because there is nothing like meeting our boys to give potential STHs a sense of the wonderful people they are and help the potentials become invested in the guys.

The other thing that needs to happen sooner rather than later is the ownership question getting solved. The NHL and the CoG needs to get this done! Remove that potential distraction before it starts nagging at the team and the fanbase that is slowly starting to come back to the fold. I know the NHL keeps trying to keep it out of sight by saying they have til the end of the season to comlete a deal but seriously? This needs to be worked out way before that so that the fence sitters can committ and the haterz can go find other teams to harrass.

So where does that leave us? We’re sitting pretty in the standings. We’re finding ways to win. We have an experienced coaching staff that shows no signs of weakness. We need a scorer to get us over the hump but don’t need to spend unwisely to get him nor take just any old cancer from someone else’s locker room. We’ve got a system that works and our fanbase is trickling back every game. We’ve got new ownership on the horizon. I’d say that we look pretty damn good at 40+ and have plenty of spring in our step for the next leg of the journey.

So just keep the faith, come out and enjoy the second half of the season. It will be worth every penny, worth every emotional coin spent too. The Phoenix is rising, make sure you are part of it. The Year of the Yoties is happening now Arizona! GAME ON!

As always… GO COYOTES
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Kerri said...

Pruuuuu <3

Good for the Coyotes kicking ass during the first half of the season! Prove the haters wrong =)

Z4dfense said...

thanx Kerri... maaan we are really loving Prucha... he's known simply as Pruuu!!! LOL

That guy is the imp from hell on the forecheck... sadly we have not yet seen Pruuu!!! the shootout wizard yet but he has scored some of the most acrobatic and entertaining goals of our season so far.

Kerri said...

lol, that's my boy! Pruuu IS mean on the forecheck... as we liked to call him, a pepperpot. Relentless. A handful. Always working hard, that kid. Nothing feels better than watching him succeed in Phoenix, and I'm so happy all you Coyotes fans are bring back such positive reviews!