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Team Preview: Phoenix Coyotes

Key additions: Wayne Gretzky, Head Coach; Brett Hull, RW (FA - DET); Curtis Joseph, G (FA - DET); Mike Leclerc, LW (T - ANA); Mike Ricci, C (FA - SJ); Petr Nedved, C/LW (FA - EDM); Oleg Saprykin, LW (T - CGY); Sean O'Donnell, D (FA - BOS); Denis Gauthier, D (T - CGY); Jason Chimera, LW (T - EDM); Boyd Devereaux, C/LW (FA - DET); Chris McAllister, D/LW (FA - NYR); Zbynek Michalek, D (T -MIN); Steve Passmore, G (FA - CHI); David LeNeveu, G (D - 2002, 2/46); Keith Ballard, D (D - 2002, 1/11 by BUF)

Key losses: Daymond Langkow, C (T- CGY); Radoslav Suchy, D (T - CBJ); Brian Savage, LW (FA); Brent Johnson, G (FA - VAN); Andrei Nazarov, RW/LW (FA - MIN); Jean-Marc Pelletier, G (FA - FLA); Jon Sim, LW/RW (FA - PHI); Erik Westrum, RW/C (T - MIN); Dustin Wood, D (T - MIN); Dan Cleary, RW (FA)

Key players unsigned: None

Forwards: The Coyotes tied for 23rd in the League in goals in 2003-04. Such a pathetic offensive showing would not sit well with the new bench boss, so the usually-thrifty Desert Dogs went on a bit of a spending spree before the lockout adding Petr Nedved, Brett Hull and Mike Ricci, who totalled 51 goals among them in 2003-04. Hull is still capable of scoring around 25 goals and Nedved should also be around the 20 goal mark. Ricci hasn't scored 20 goals in his past two seasons combined, so don't look for it this year from the checking line center. The real boosts to the offense will come if the 'Yotes can get full seasons out of wingers Ladislav Nagy and Mike Johnson and center Mike Comrie, who played only 55, 11 and 28 games, repectively, for Phoenix in 2003-04. Nagy was in the midst of a breakout year (52 points in 55 games) when he suffered a dislocated wrist that ended his season in February of 2004; Johnson, who was coming off a 23 goal/63 point 2002-03 had 10 points in 11 games before undergoing shoulder surgery in November of 2003; and Comrie, now with his third organization in four NHL seasons, never really got it going in Philadelphia or Phoenix after a lengthy holdout. Joining Nagy and Comrie on the top line will be Shane Doan, a "heart-and-soul" type who has scored at least 20 goals in each of the last five NHL seasons. The inconsistent Oleg Saprykin will also see some time on a scoring line, as will Mike Leclerc, and the Coyotes hope that this is the year that former first round pick Fredrik Sjostrom (11th overall in 2001) starts to live up to his advanced billing. Overall, Phoenix's offense will be better top-to-bottom in 2005-06 and, if they can stay healthy, the team will have two consistent scoring lines. They're not the 1983-84 Oilers (who scored more goals than the 2003-04 Avalanche and Bruins combined!), but at least the Great One should be able to resist the urge to lace 'em up again, at least until November.

Defensemen: As bad as the Phoenix offense was in 2003-04, the defense was worse, finishing only ahead of the woeful Rangers, Capitals, Blackhawks and Penguins in goals against. Of course only so much of the responsibility for that ineptitude can be heaped upon the defensemen, but the blueline was of enough concern that the 'Yotes went out and bolstered the group by adding a pair of punishers in Denis Gauthier and Sean O'Donnell to take care of business in the defensive zone, though neither has much to offer offensively. The trio of Paul Mara, Derek Morris and David Tanabe are all above-average offensive defensemen entering their respective primes (each is between 25- and 27-years-old), and will compliment Gauthier and O'Donnell nicely. Cale Hulse, Matthew Spiller and Brad Ference will all also see time on the backline, and Keith Ballard has an outside chance of making the team out of camp, but more likely will start the season in the AHL. The additions of Gauthier and O'Donnell, as well as the maturing of Phoenix's big three defensemen make this group a significant upgrade over 2003-04's.

Goaltenders: Back in December of 2003 Brian Boucher went on a 10-game undefeated tear that saw him stop just about everything in sight, including a five-straight-shutout/332 -minute scoreless streak. Thereafter, Boucher went 4-17-5 and had a save percentage of .886. Look out below! Even with his historic 10-game stretch - in which his save percentage was a staggering .958 - Boucher ended the season with a save percentage of only .906. Take away the scoreless streak and his goals against average was over 3.00 for the year. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Brian Boucher is not an NHL-caliber starting goalie. The Coyotes knew this as well as anyone (except perhaps Bobby Clarke, who stole Robert Esche and Michal Handzus from Phoenix for Boucher back in 2002), so they signed Detroit's free agent castaway Curtis Joseph to handle the goaltending duties. Joseph never really got a fair shot in Detroit, but did a decent job when he was playing. Immediately before that, he was solid for good Leafs teams. Joseph is a proven winner, going 396-289-90 over his career. But he's also 38-years-old and missed half of 2003-04 with ankle injuries. Can the Coyotes get 40+ games out of CuJo this year? We'll take the under. Against this bleak goaltending background is a shining future star in former Cornell Big Red goaltender David LeNeveu. LeNeveu had a tough year on the AHL's worst team last year, but has the physical and mental tools that scouts look for in young goalies. Should the season start to slip away from Phoenix or if either Joseph or Boucher get hurt, expect LeNeveu to get a look.

Bottom line: The 2003-04 Coyotes finished 23rd in goals scored, 26th in goals against, 26th in power play percentage and 23rd in penalty killing percentage. There is almost no place to go but up, which is good when you have a rookie head coach. Expectations are probably unrealistically high because of a few big names (Gretzky, Hull, Joseph), but the Coyotes are a team that could sneak up on people. They play in an improved division, so the road to the playoffs won't be easy, but a healthy Phoenix will have a decent shot at playing post-season hockey for the first time since 2001-02.