ridiculous lockout is over and the Phoenix Coyotes are set to take the ice to begin a truncated season on Jan. 19.
Basically, the Coyotes are facing their traditional difficulties. The offseason didn't see too many moves, but the loss of a couple of veterans, especially Ray Whitney, could weigh heavily on the team. The ownership situation is on-going, but is reportedly edging towards a resolution.
The 2013 season, a mere 48 games, will not afford any opportunity for mistakes. Due to the shortened season, the Coyotes will not play any Eastern Conference teams (meaning no Penguins, Capitals, Flyers). Basically, there is no room for error as every point will have a direct impact on the playoff hunt. That could suit a disciplined Coyotes team, who have been an overall consistent performer under head coach Dave Tippett.
Here are some things to watch for -- along with my predictions -- for the Coyotes' 2013 season.
Player to watch: Mikkel Boedker
Mikkel Boedker is quietly becoming one of the most intriguing young wingers in the NHL. He's not the largest of players, but his skill and speed allow him to work around defenders. He really came into his own last season when playing the second line with captain Shane Doan and veteran center Daymond Langkow and still haunts the dreams of Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford. I'm not predicting a massive season for Boedker, but if he keeps his confidence levels high, I wouldn't be shocked to see him as a regular in the Coyotes' top six forwards.
Top trade bait: Keith Yandle
Keith Yandle, the Coyotes' offensively-minded D-man, has been a constant source of trade rumors over the years. Not because he's not adored by the club, but because he's a skilled defenseman who has a ton of points potential. Immediately after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement became official, the Yandle rumor mill was already rolling on various social media channels. I would be shocked if the Coyotes moved Yandle, mainly because it would take an enormous offer to pry him from general manager Don Maloney's hands, but the Coyotes can likely expect their phone to ring several times. On a semi-related note, expect a few young D-men to pack their bags this season.
Scoring leader: Radim Vrbata
It shouldn't come as a shock when Radim Vrbata leads the Coyotes in points this season. The first line will be looking to replace Ray Whitney, last year's points leader, who took off for Dallas in free agency. While Vrbata will still be primarily a shooter, I would look for him to pass a bit more this season, especially with new Coyote Steve Sullivan likely being paired with him and Martin Hanzal.
Storyline to follow: Can Mike Smith do it again?
Last season, the Coyotes' playoff run was supported by netminder Mike Smith. Coming off of a season where he spent a majority of time injured or in the AHL, Smith was clearly influenced by Coyotes goalie guru Sean Burke. Smith's record-setting play will be hard to repeat, but his game has come a long way, along with his hair. The Coyotes season will depend a lot on his play and he'll have to rise to the occasion again if there is going to be playoff hockey again in Glendale.
Best rehashed nickname: The Bash Brothers
I'm a Mighty Ducks (the movies, not the team) fan. Everyone remembers Fulton Reed and Dean Portman, the Bash Brothers,
committing hundreds of interference penalties crashing into any available player. We all cheered like maniacs, but the Coyotes have a real life set: Paul Bissonnette and Raffi Torres. Already the bad boys of the team, Biz Nasty and Torres are known for tough physical play and dropping the gloves if necessary. Neither will step down from a challenge and both will see slightly more playing time after lockout fatigue and/or injuries hit. The fans are behind both of these players, their very own Bash Brothers.
Bold prediction: Steve Sullivan outplays the Wizard
When Ray Whitney (a.k.a. the Wizard) left for Dallas, many in the Valley bemoaned his loss and rightfully so. A team-leading 77-point season is going to be difficult to replace. Enter former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Steve Sullivan. A veteran, Sullivan has played with some of the biggest names in the game. Some saw his signing as a cheap effort to replace the Wizard, but I see it as yet another deft move by Maloney, the Coyotes general manager who has a reputation for doing a lot with a little. Fans can expect Wizard-level production numbers out of Sullivan, especially if he's paired with Vrbata and Hanzal on the first line.
Season outcome: Another year of May hockey in the desert
The Coyotes may have lost some veterans in free agency, but those skates have been filled. As I said before, the shortened season will benefit the disciplined teams of the league, meaning the time is ripe for the Coyotes to continue their playoff run. I think the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings take the Pacific Division, but the Coyotes will finish a close second. In the Western Conference, I expect the Coyotes to be a lower finisher, probably around the six spot. Also, I have a trip planned for mid-May, and I plan on watching Doan and company in their second round series.
It's going to be a great season. See you at the Job on Jan. 20.