The Phoenix Coyotes have found themselves in a good place on the ice this season. The fact trade deadline acquisitions Lee Stempniak and Wojtek Wolski scored in their Dog debuts is practically icing on the cake.
And while it’s heartening to know fans in the desert will get to watch playoff hockey this year, one of the more intriguing elements of the Coyotes’ about-face this season is how much of a damning indictment of the team’s past the turnaround has been.
To wit: At the trade deadline alone, Coyotes GM Don Maloney jettisoned three young talents brought up in the Phoenix system – forwards Peter Mueller, Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik.
Mueller, the eighth overall pick in 2006 and the biggest name of the three, was going backwards in Phoenix and Maloney said just that in an interview with the Arizona Republic after the swap that brought in Wolski from Colorado.
“He asked for a trade months and months ago,” Maloney said. “He wanted a new lease on life.”
Mutually beneficial trades are always nice – Mueller has two points in two games for the Avs already after watching his offensive production drop by double-digits in all three of his NHL seasons – but it’s incredible the Coyotes find themselves fourth in the West right now, given how their drafting and development has gone in recent years.
Along with the aforementioned trio, the Coyotes have seen Viktor Tikhonov go from a regular NHLer last season to a player who was more than happy to take his act back to the Kontinental League this year, despite the fact he has a California accent from growing up in San Jose (so it’s not like he was homesick).
While Patrick Kane brings his Olympic silver medal back to Chicago and James van Riemsdyk dazzles in his first campaign in Philadelphia, Phoenix’s top pick in 2007, Kyle Turris (third overall), took a step back this year, playing the whole season in the American League with San Antonio. Mikkel Boedker, taken in the same 2008 first round as Tikhonov, is also back in the AHL after playing all of last season with Phoenix.
To be fair, Tikhonov, Turris and Boedker were rushed in Phoenix and likely should have spent a full year or two in San Antonio to begin with, but under Wayne Gretzky’s watch, the kids were left to sink or swim. Two seem to be recovering – Tikhonov leads KHL Severstal in plus-minus at plus-12, while Turris has 44 points in 58 games for the Rampage – but Boedker’s a minus-9 in San Antonio and overall it’s not a good legacy for The Great One to leave.
Meanwhile, Jared Staal, youngest of the famed Thunder Bay, Ont., clan, has seen his production stagnate in junior with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario League.
On the flip side, Martin Hanzal and Keith Yandle have turned out well and the franchise is very high on Swedish defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, ranked third in THN’s Future Watch this year.
But so much for a youth movement, eh? The Desert Dogs are thriving thanks to veterans like Shane Doan, Matthew Lombardi and Ed Jovanovski – plus 29-year-old goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Coach Dave Tippett has also been a lifesaver.
That young core drafted throughout the past decade (which should also include Blake Wheeler, who never signed with Phoenix and took his game to Boston) may never lead the Coyotes. But clearly the Pittsburgh/Chicago/Los Angeles model isn’t the only route to success.
If players such as Stempniak and Wolski play consistently from here on out and Phoenix manages to advance a round in the post-season, that dearth of development success won’t matter one bit to the fans.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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