It’s that time of year again, when veterans and selected rookies alike around the National Hockey League return to camp and writers (like me) who took a long summer break (again, like me) working on other projects (heyo) dust off the old keyboard and get back to talking hockey.
And boy is it a good feeling.
That being said, the Phoenix Coyotes officially opened training camp Thursday. For the first time under head coach Dave Tippett, the team will proceed with an owner at the helm of the franchise. The word “stability” was thrown out by everyone during Coyotes media day Wednesday, but all were also quick to add that new ownership puts more pressure on the team to perform. The crutch the rest of the NHL gave the Coyotes — who deny they ever used it as a reason for not having success — is gone.
While the question of ownership may be a thing of the past, questions about the team’s roster are things of the present. The Coyotes currently have several key players — captain Shane Doan, defenseman Keith Yandle, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, goalie Mike Smith and new arrival center Mike Ribeiro — locked into long-term deals. Again, stability is nice, but there are some key roster issues the team will need to address in camp.
From what I’ve seen, these are the top five questions the Coyotes need to answer by the close of camp:
1. Who is going to play left wing?
The Coyotes have a glaring hole at left wing. The team has not recovered since Ray Whitney departed the Valley following the team’s run to the Western Conference Finals in 2011. While the team has a few guys on the roster with NHL experience at left wing, I’m not convinced any of them are of the caliber needed to be paired with center Martin Hanzal and right wing Radim Vrbata. The Coyotes could look to youngsters Max Domi or Lucas Lessio to take the job, but I’m not convinced either is NHL-ready yet. In a couple of seasons, sure, but not now. The team could also look to the free agent market (where some talent is still available, albeit for a price) or make a trade to fill the slot.
2. What will the Coyotes do with so many defensemen?
The Coyotes have too many defensemen on one-way deals right now, meaning any they want to assign to the AHL have to clear waivers. With a strong defensive core, it’s a safe bet the team will likely lose one or two, especially given the lack of defensive depth in the NHL. Some of the defenders are young as well, which will only increase the likelihood of them being picked up on wires. I expect the veterans to stick around, but a few of the young guys to leave on a trade, either to clear salary for a left wing or for a top-six scorer.
3. What’s going to happen with Max Domi?
I’m excited about the future of Max Domi, son of former NHL bruiser Tie Domi. The kid’s hands are as soft as his dad’s were hard and he’s going to hurt teams by scoring rather than punching. His knack for behind-the-back passes only shows his confidence level and he’s going to be an NHL star. Key phrase? “Going to be.” He’s not ready for the NHL yet. He’s only 18 and undersized. I would rather see the Coyotes give him time to develop and strengthen his body rather than push him and watching him fizzle out, a la Winnipeg’s format for young talent. However, there’s a reason the Coyotes don’t pay me the big bucks to make player decisions, but they need to determine the future of Domi sooner rather than later. Camp is a perfect time for that.
4. Is Mikkel Boedker on pace to become a star?
Right wing Mikkel Boedker penned a two-year deal just before the start of camp. It was believed he wanted a longer-term deal, but has yet to fully prove himself on the ice. Last season, the Dane posted 26 points in a shortened season, just two off of his career-high of 28. I’m postulating that the Coyotes only gave him two more years to test himself, but I’ve long been a believer in Boedker. His skill set is proven, but his scoring is the issue. Camp should reveal how he works with new boy Ribeiro, whom he is expected to share a line with.
5. Which Mike Smith will the team see this year?
It’s no secret that the stellar play of goalie Mike Smith led the Coyotes to their deepest run in the playoffs — technically their only run — in franchise history. He shut the door on numerous teams and was excellent all year. But last season, he was good, not great. His save percentage dropped, his goals against average went up and he spent some time out injured. The team has a quality backup in Thomas Greiss, but he’s not someone who can carry the team should Smith start laying eggs.