Just a week or so before the start of the season, I had the occasion to speak to Sean Burke, the newly appointed goalie coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. It was during the chaotic days when the future of the franchise was at the mercy of a bankruptcy judge, Wayne Gretzky was being replaced as coach by Dave Tippett, and Burke himself was taking over for Grant Fuhr, a friend and former teammate of Gretzky who was carefully being eased into the role of roving consultant. With a relatively short time to fully assess the situation, Burke made a simple declarative statement:
"The Phoenix Coyotes are a playoff team," he said. "I believe that, but more importantly these players believe that. They know they have to go out and prove it every night, but they believe in themselves. They believe they were on this path last season and they believe, to a man, they will succeed this season."
Truthfully, they were then, and are now, in the minority on that subject. But after two starts this season -- road wins at Los Angeles and, more importantly, Pittsburgh -- they at least have my attention.
Playoff berths, especially in the West, are difficult to come by for better teams than these Coyotes, but there's something to be said for those on a mission from God (see: Jake and Ellwood in The Blues Brothers if you missed that old school reference). The Coyotes at the very least see themselves on the "surprise them" level of last season's St. Louis Blues. In short, they have just enough elements, known and unknown to the general hockey public, to perhaps rise above the chaos of their time in bankruptcy court (still ongoing, we might add) and their legacy of failure on ice.
Start with who is standing behind the bench. With all due respect to Gretzky as a player, Tippett is far and away a much better coach. Like Gretzky, he understands offense, but unlike him, he's far better at teaching it. That's a plus for a team peopled largely with young talent. I'll give Gretzky high marks for developing some players no one in or outside of Phoenix has yet to hear of -- Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker -- to name three. After far too many mistakes behind the bench and in the hockey operations office, Gretzky was getting a grip on the developing young talent, and if these three players build on their base and potential, The Great One can legitimately claim them as his legacy. They are good now, and will be better after a seasoning with Tippett, and the Coyotes will be a better team because of it.
There are also a few older players -- Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata and Petr Prucha -- who have been around long enough to give the kids some guidance. Doan, for instance, set up the first Phoenix goal in the Pens game, a smart pass to veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski. Prucha scored while on his back after driving to the net. Though the game was ragged, especially regarding the way the Pens approached it, the Coyotes did play as if they were on a mission. In much the same way that they upended the Kings in Los Angeles, they set the tone with some physicality, played strong defense and got superb goaltending from veteran Ilya Bryzgalov.
Lest we forget (and most of us have), Bryzgalov was the key to the team that last season was in fifth place overall in the West near the All-Star break and had people mentioning Gretzky as a possible Coach of the Year candidate before it all fell apart down the stretch. It's up to Tippett and an upgraded coaching staff that includes Dave King and Burke to keep the mercurial netminder focused, but that's not impossible, and with a seemingly improved defense in front, it's even likely. And while Tippett has a reputation of being an offense-minded coach, he does have the necessary wherewithal to improve on a defense that, in just two games under his hand, already appears to be on the upswing.
Against both the Kings and Pens, the Coyotes' defense made a statement. It played physically and smart, clogging passing lanes and generally disrupting plays at its own blue line as both opponents insisted (and with good reason based on past performance) on carrying the puck over the line. As a unit, the defensemen also made smart decisions in the other end of the ice, not the least of which was the usual stay-back Jovanovski going in deep to an open area where Doan found him for what amounted to a turnaround slapshot.
You've likely never heard of defensemen Zbynek Michalek, Kurt Sauer and Keith Yandle, but scouts know them and like what they see. General Manager Don Maloney seems to have made a smart pickup with the offseason addition of veterans Adrian Aucoin and Jim Vandermeer, who along with Jovanovski make for a decent blend of youth and experience.
It's by no means a Stanley Cup team, but the bar is set much lower than that. The coach, who has the security of a four-year deal, is a better teacher and disciplinarian than the one who came before, and the players appear determined to bring some measureable success to a franchise that hasn't won a playoff round since the operation was in Winnipeg way back in 1987. There is some talent that is starting to develop.
Two games do not a season make, but a quick glance at the standings indicate that on opposite coasts the Yotes have put together a system that has allowed just three goals and a .947 save percentage.
Playoff teams have succeeded on a whole lot less.
""There's a lot of off-ice situations we can't control," Tippett said on the day he took over. "What we're going to do is concentrate on what we have to do on the ice to earn the right to be a playoff team and earn the right to compete for the Stanley Cup. That's what we're all in the business for, and we look forward to that challenge."
Throw in the fact that, due to court rulings, they won't be moving anytime soon and one gets the sense that the Coyotes just might surprise their critics and make it to the postseason.
It's a longshot, but then so were the Blues at Christmas last season and look how that turned out.
It would be a great deal easier to comment on the tampering decision handed down by the league against the Toronto Maple Leafs if someone on either side was allowed to comment on it. The NHL fined Toronto some $25,000 for what it deemed was tampering when coach Ron Wilson said in a radio interview that the Leafs might have an interest in Vancouver forwards Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The twins were on the cusp of free agency when Wilson made the remark, but quickly re-signed with the Canucks.
The Leafs weren't fined for a statement by GM Brian Burke that Vancouver was shopping two players -- Kevin Bieksa and Alex Burrows -- at last spring's draft. That, too, drew a complaint from the Canucks.
Now, there is no love between the Canucks and Burke, who at one time was their GM, and there's likely none between Burke and current Canucks GM Mike Gillis, a former agent. But in being tight lipped about the charges and the decision, and directing the two parties not to comment, the NHL does what it always does in a controversial situation: it decides in secret, issues a tightly worded statement and then issues what amounts to a gag order.
And for what? A free and open discussion of just what the Leafs were accused of doing, what they did, and what rules were applied, and what didn't rise to the level of infraction would go a long way toward warning others as to exactly where a team official can and cannot go. Instead we get another of those "because we said so" edicts, the kind that always leads to confusion and endless debate -- like whenever the league deals with supplementary discipline.
How about this for a change of pace: the NHL cites chapter and verse exactly what the Leafs did and did not do wrong. The Leafs then state why they did what they did and the Canucks state why they believe they were within their rights to file a complaint. The issue is aired, the debate is joined by fans and media (at least for a few days), and while no one becomes completely satisfied, at least the league gives the appearance of transparency in regards to how rules are interpreted and applied, and the fans get a chance to argue whether the correct ones were indeed applied.
It works in football whenever the NFL openly admits an officiating mistake, or in basketball where rules violations are cited (see: David Stern's explanation for suspending Phoenix players who during a playoff game left the bench for an altercation but never even got involved).
Maybe if fans could occasionally hear why the NHL applies rules they might be more willing to believe the league actually has some. It couldn't possibly hurt.
Given the number of times a hockey player is dragged into court (and, no, we're not counting the Coyotes bankruptcy or former Predators minority owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio's fraud convictions), you would think someone in the judicial system might take this seriously:
Witness the recent guilty plea of one Jonathan Roy, son of legendary hockey goalie Patrick (no stranger to the inside of a courtroom himself). Jonathan this week pleaded guilty in a Quebec courtroom to assault charges for his part in a junior hockey league game in which it was alleged that his father, then his coach, condoned and perhaps even furthered his son's attack on an opposing goalie. In taking the plea, Jonathan Roy is asking that he be allowed to donate $5000 to a charity and receive an absolute discharge of the assault charge.
If that happens, a prosecutor has to wonder why he even bothered to bring charges (we will lay aside for the moment the concept that it is sometimes done for the benefit of political grandstanding).
No hockey player ever seems to lose in these affairs. There's a furor, a great media debate, and then a slap on the wrist -- community service and perhaps a minimal suspension or very small fine. Hockey goes back to its "game" and the courts go back to their backlog of real crime cases.
Roy will only be the latest in a very, very long line to have simply gone through the process.
Things get ugly in hockey and occasionally they get so ugly that the authorities feel compelled to at least give the appearance of using their discression and jurisdiction to impose some sort of order on a sport that has only a vague set of rules regarding how far is too far (see: Todd Bertuzzi vs. Steve Moore, or Marty McSorley's stick vs. Donald Brashear's head).
In the end, however, nothing ever seems to come of it. Which begs the question: why do they even bother?