The Phoenix Coyotes fan base may be imaginary but this year's squad may turn out to be for real. The NHL season is still in its early stages and the troubled Coyotes franchise finds themselves in the thick of things in the Western Conference.
The Coyotes were in a playoff spot until the all-star break last season and a similar collapse could happen this year but after one of the strangest off-seasons in NHL history, the Phoenix players have a common goal this season - saving the franchise. Despite the quick start, the attendance numbers have yet to demonstrate that winning equals sell-outs in the desert as the NHL argued in bankruptcy court throughout the summer.
In their three home games, the attendance numbers are the worst in the league, averaging 11,197 fans per game. With a new promotion in place - “We win - You win”, where on certain nights a Coyotes win earns free tickets for all in attendance, it is difficult to see where the money is going to come from when they repeatedly devalue their product. Why pay full price when the struggling franchise continues to offer free tickets and their “sell-out” of the home opener was accomplished with $15 tickets.
Leaf fans would love to see this statement on their team’s website - from the Coyotes site “The team offers a variety of full and partial season ticket packages starting at only $9 a game, as well as a variety of individual game ticket specials.” With approximately $41 million in salaries, a $9 ticket is not going to pay the bills anytime soon.
While the off-ice issues continue to plague this team, headed into tonight's game at home against the Red Wings (3-3-1), the Coyotes are ahead of the Wings in the standings, probably for the first time ever and their 5-2-0 record has them in eighth place with 10 points.
A surprising statistic, besides their place in the standings, is the fact that the Coyotes have allowed the fewest goals against in the NHL - giving up only 10 goals through seven games. Led by Ilya Brygalov in net, the Coyotes lead the league in the goals against category with a team GAA of 1.43. Buffalo is second with a 2.00 GAA, with Colorado and Pittsburgh next at 2.11 goals per game. By comparison, Toronto is last in the league with a 4.57 GAA.
The goaltending duo of Bryzgalov and Jason LaBarbera has been phenomenal. Bryzgalov, a former Anaheim Duck picked up on waivers during the 2007-08 season, has a win/loss record of 5-1-0 with a 1.14 GAA and a .953 save percentage; his two shutouts this season lead the league. Recently named the NHL’s First Star of the Week with a 3-0-0 record, .095 GAA and a .959 save percentage, Bryzgalov defeated the Sharks, Blues and Bruins; stopping 70 of the 73 shots he faced in the three games. LaBarbera is 1-0-0 with a 2.03 GAA and an equally impressive .949 save percentage.
The major change in Phoenix this year is behind the bench. While Wayne Gretzky was a quality coach in my opinion, the addition of Dave Tippett as Head Coach and former Canadian National Team Coach, Dave King as an assistant, has improved the play on the ice. Their experience in the league and around the world in King’s case, should provide the veterans and up and coming stars on the Coyotes with some extra guidance when things go wrong that perhaps, Gretzky could not provide. A natural on the ice, was Gretzky able to teach his players when things went bad and the team began to slide in the standings?
Tippett, the former Head Coach in Dallas, had coached 492 games entering the season; his win/loss record is an impressive 271-156-28-37. King coached the Flames and the Blue Jackets, was an assistant in Montreal and most recently he was in Germany and Russia as a Head Coach. His record in the NHL is not as impressive as Tippet’s numbers but they demonstrate his abilities as a coach in the league. With Calgary and Columbus, he had a 173-182-42-13 record and he may be able to communicate with some of the young European players on the Coyotes with his experience overseas. Combined, the two men have 902 games of coaching experience as a bench boss in the NHL.
While it is far too early to call the Coyotes a playoff team, they are off to a great start and certainly have a new commitment to defence in their own zone. Will the sports fans in Arizona embrace the team if they continue to win? So far, they seem to be taking a wait and see approach but if they wait too long, their team may be entertaining hockey fans somewhere else next season. The NHL is banking on the fact that a winning franchise will save the day in Phoenix; if things stay the way they are, they may be approaching the bank for more funding to keep the Coyotes in the desert. Have a great sports day everyone.