Friday, July 11, 2008

Young Guns: Desert Dogs

When it comes to young players, the Phoenix Coyotes have very few competitors in terms of quality. An emphasis on a young team has been the emphasis since Don Maloney came to be the general manager. His self imposed age restriction on player signings, which is about 32 years of age, has led to Phoenix becoming one of the most exciting young teams in the league. 
This past year, Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal were the two big young names that were going to be making the squad. Mueller was moved from his normal center position and put on the wing with Shane Doan on the other side. Because the Coyotes didn't have a number one center, that pivot changed alot over the course of the year. After a shaky start, Mueller came on and finished the year with 22 goals and 32 assists for 54 points in 81 games including 2 hat tricks. He was named the NHL Rookie of the Month for January. Mueller was absolutely stellar in his first year and he will definitely be relied on by Wayne Gretzky to improve on his numbers this coming season. 
Martin Hanzal turned out great for Phoenix but in a different role. The big center, who has been known for his offensive abilities, turned into a very good two way forward this past season. He put up 8 goals and 27 assists in 72 games with his best game coming at New Jersey. Hanzal brought in a big body to matchup against the bigger centers in the West and he did a very good job in his first year doing so. With that defensive responsibility moving to Olli Jokinen, Hanzal will be looked to improve on his offensive numbers and provide a strong lower line pivot.
The Coyotes did get surprises from two younger players. First, Daniel Carcillo came in and assumed the role of enforcer. Despite playing only 57 games, Carcillo managed to lead the league in penalty minutes with 324. He also managed to score 13 goals and add 11 assists with 5 of those goals coming in the final 2 games. With the acquisitions of tough guys Brian McGrattan and Todd Fedoruk, Wayne Gretzky will be looking for Carcillo to improve on his offensive output while letting the other 2 handle the enforcement duties. Although don't expect Carcillo to give up his toughness altogether.
The other player who definitely came out of no where was Daniel Winnik. A 9th round choice of Phoenix in 2004, Winnik made this team after spending a short stint in the Coyotes farm system and instantly became a very serviceable bottom 6 player, scoring his first NHL goal in the first game of the season vs St. Louis. He finished the year with 11 goals and 15 assists in 79 games, certainly a surprise season for a bottom 6 player who was a 9th round pick. I don't think this is a Henrik Zetterberg case but Winnik is turning into a decent checking player with speed. Look for him to continue his success next season.
All of these players were huge pieces to the success of the team last season. But the Coyotes will be relying on another group of youngsters to provide the same, if not, a bigger showing this coming year. Kyle Turris is a lock to make the team this year and has a chance to be the best rookie the organization has had since Teemu Selanne had an unbelievable rookie year back in Winnipeg. Will Turris have that kind of year? I doubt it but the Coyotes will be looking to him to lead the young players into the season and be an offensive catalyst for the Coyotes. 
His newest friend will probably also be his new linemate. This year's first pick for the Coyotes, Mikkel Boedker, signed an entry level contract with the Coyotes during this offseason and will become another key piece to the Coyotes offensive future. After a great rookie year with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, Boedker will look to have a great rookie year in the NHL. When I saw him at the prospects camp they had in Phoenix a few weeks ago, Boedker and Turris played unbelievably well together and certainly will be given a shot at training camp to pull it all together with a third line mate. Todd Fedoruk seems to be a likely candidate since his role as a protector will be well represented there, not to mention he has some offensive skills which will make for a dangerous line. 
Three other players that will be fighting for spots on the Coyotes roster are Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik and Viktor Tikhonov. Porter and Kolarik were linemates for the high flying Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA this past season with Porter winning the Hobey Baker award as top player in the NCAA. He scored 33 goals along with 30 assists for Michigan in 43 games. He finished the year and went to San Antonio for their playoffs where he had 4 assists in 7 games. Kolarik had 30 goals and 26 assists in 39 games for Michigan and followed Porter to San Antonio where he scored 4 goals and 2 assists including a hat trick. These 2 are both good hockey players but when they are together, they can dominate the ice together. 
Viktor Tikhonov was drafted this year in the late first round. Darren Pang reported that Wayne Gretzky had mentioned that they weren't leaving Ottawa without him. That says alot for a kid. He received the award for Best Forward at this year's World Junior Championships scoring 5 goals and 2 assists in 7 games, helping Russia to a bronze medal. He is a big kid and a strong skater who seems to have no problems using the big frame to make space for himself in front of the net. His wrist shot is very quick. If he can pull it all together, he will have a good shot of making the Coyotes and making a difference. 
All of these guys are forming the core of the Phoenix Coyotes that will lead them back into contention in the NHL. Other young players like Jared Staal, Brett MacLean, Nick Ross, and Jonas Ahnelov, and more all need to work on specific things but will one day be added to the Phoenix roster to help fill it out and make them an even better team. Everyone better look out for these guys. Their bite will certainly be scarier than their howl.

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