James Tanner: The Coyotes Are Better Than You Think: A Playoff Guarantee

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A lot of the fans of the NHL love to hate the Arizona Coyotes.

No team is a bigger punch line to people who don’t know what they’re talking about than the Coyotes. The reason for this is simple: The Coyotes are a team that for years has had the threat of movement hanging over it’s head and they happen to play in Arizona, a place known more for cacti (or cactuses, if you prefer) than hockey.

It would be nice if people would take the long view like the NHL has done. I don’t like to praise the fat-cats, but these guys aren’t idiots. The Phoenix area represents one of the largest TV and fan-base markets in the entire United States. Should hockey gain enough of a foothold there, it’s a goldmine.

The thing is, it takes time to get people emotionally invested. The Coyotes have a ton of hardcore fans – blogging for this team for the last year has really opened my eyes to the fact that the reality is vastly different from the perception. One thing that I think people don’t realize is that attendance isn’t a good indicator of interest in the team.

Now, I know that seems counter-intuitive, but the thing is, there is a lot of poverty in Arizona, and the economy is bad in general. Even a person of middle class income is hard pressed to afford to attend even one game per year. Sure, there are decently priced tickets, but when you factor in parking, gas, things to eat and drink, maybe a souvenir for the kids, it’s still more than a lot of people can afford.

This isn’t to make an excuse for attendance, because all teams have to deal with similar situations, however, one of the main drivers of any team’s attendance are tickets sold to businesses and corporations, and with NFL and NBA options to directly compete against (Not to mention high-school and college sports, which, if you live in Canada, it’s hard to believe their popularity), and of course years of not wanting to emotionally invest due to the constant threat of desertion, the Coyotes have a lot of things going against them in their quest to sell enough season tickets to make the franchise profitable.

Despite these drawbacks, the new owners are moving in the right direction as far as I can tell and improvements in attendance are sure to follow -though it may be slow after years of uncertainty. Obviously, there is one thing that can improve interest in the team far beyond any marketing efforts – WINNING.

That brings me to my second and main point: Everyone seems to mock the idea that the Coyotes are a potential playoff team, despite the fact that they finished a measly two points out of a playoff spot last season and did so with their star goalie injured for the final month of the season.

Get this: if the Western Conference is a vastly superior to the Eastern Conference, like everyone says, then the Coyotes must be a way, way better team than you think.

They sport a goalie who has been consistently good for several years. Those who mock Mike Smith probably do so because of his generic name – I mean, how can Mike Smith even be good? If you consider the job he has done on the teams he has played for since he’s been in Phoenix, then you have to admit that he has three fairly solid years in goal in a row.

The thing about goalies is, you can’t really project their play. Outside of five goalies who are stars just about every year, the position is extremely volatile and unlike forwards and defenseman, any goalie capable of making the NHL has the potential to go on a luck-based Vezina tear for an entire season. Given Smith’s track record and his overall talent, I am comfortable with him in net. He’s a legit NHL starter and that’s all a team really needs – the rest depends largely on luck.

On Defense, the Coyotes are stacked. I’ll save you yet another rundown of just how good, but suffice to say they have one of the best offensive defenseman in hockey (Yandle) one of the best stay-at-homes (Michalek)and one of the best overall (OEL). Add in Summers and Schlemko who gain the Coyotes an edge over most bottom pairing guys and the rookies/prospects Stone, Murphy and Gormley and you have easily the highest potential back-end in hockey.

The defense and goaltending of the Coyotes aren’t just playoff worthy, they match up favorably against every single Stanley Cup Contender. LA, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St.Louis and Boston are, in my opinion, the 5 best teams in hockey and I think you can objectively and favorably compare the Coyotes defense and goaltending against theirs. Not saying it’s the best in the league, but it’s in the conversation. Seriously, tell me a team with a superior top 3 than OEL, Michalek and Yandle. You probably can, but then try to argue that their bottom three can beat Murphy, Gormley and Stone or that their 7,8 guys can top Schlemko and Summers. If there’s are teams that match the Coyotes on D, there aren’t a lot of them and it’s not by much.

I guess I won’t be sparing you that rundown after all.

“But Jimmy,” I can hear you saying, “even if I grant you their awesome D and G, what about the forwards, aren’t they super lame?” (I imagine all rhetorical questions in the voice and syntax of my 14 year old daughter).

They aren’t is bad as you think is what I’d tell you if you asked me that.

The reason is, name brand guys aside, if you give a player enough ice-time and power-play time, if he stays healthy, he’ll exceed expectations. The Coyotes are filled with guys aged 24-27 who have the potential to finally live up to their potential with the ice time they are sure to get.

Sam Gagner, Mikkel Boedker and Martin Hanzal are three guys who are going to surprise a lot of people. Boedker might be one of the top 3 best shootout players in the world (in terms of the moves he does and how nice they are) should he put it together his potential is limitless. He’s a six foot 200lbs speedster with sick hands. He hit 19 goals and 51 points last year and he’s primed to take his game to the next level.

Hanzal is an 8ft 300lbs monster. Beset by health problems due to his being a giant, he has been limited to just 60 ish games in each of the last 3 full seasons. Despite this, he is only 27 and his ceiling is massive. His size/talent combo is rare and he remains a player unknown outside of Phoenix who is going to end up on the allstar team one of these days.

People forget Sam Gagner is only 24. He was the du jour pick to breakout last season and only a crushed jaw and rushing back due to his warrior-like demeanor kept this from happening. People might be fickle with their picks, but reality isn’t – Expect big things from Gagner. These three guys, given the chance to play more ice time and PP time then they’ve ever had before, will all be “surprises” on a national level come February. Take it from me now and don’t be surprised later.

On top of these three guys, the ‘Yotes boast 2 of the best ready for the NHL prospects in the league in Max Domi and Henrik Samuelson. Their third line promises to gain them an edge over most teams in the league with Vermette centering Doan and Korpikoski, and on the fourth, they have options like Chipchura, Vitale, MacMillan, Klinkhammer, Crombeen and Schultz. That’s enough to match any other team’s fourth line. And it’s a great amount of depth to cover any of the inevitable injuries that will occur during the season.

Overall, if you really look into it, the Coyotes seem to be only a couple of first line superstars away from being a true Cup Contender. Granted, those are the hardest guys to get and I am not hear to tell you they are going to win the Cup this year, but if you “build from the net out,” then the Coyotes are the team for you.

What I will tell you is this: they have a far superior team than when they went to the Final Four in 11-12 and they’re better today than they were last season when they missed by only 2 points. They will make the playoffs. Yes, Chicago, St.Louis and LA are absolute locks to make the playoffs. But after that, unless you are one of those people who just looks at last year’s standings and assumes they will be this year’s, there is no reason to think Anaheim, Dallas, Nashville, Colorado or San Jose will have superior teams to Arizona.

The Avalanche were a possession nightmare who are unlikely to get the kind of goaltending they got last year and they also got slower and worse over the summer, in my opinion. The Sharks are a team that should be imploded and will miss the playoffs. The Ducks are still a two-player team and you can bet that Kesler will spend most of the year injured and won’t help as much as people want to believe. Same thing about Spezza and Dallas. For my money, Spezza and Kesler are two guys who are being massively overrated.

Ultimately, I predict, and keep in mind it’s only August, that out of the eight teams that made the playoffs last year, Dallas, Minnesota and San Jose will be replaced this year by Arizona, Edmonton and Nashville.

While those are only predictions, here’s a Guarantee: The Coyotes will make it.

Thanks for reading. Follow @james_tanner123

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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