How Long Can Phoenix Rise?

Around this time one year ago, the Phoenix Coyotes looked to be on the verge of returning to the playoffs. Under head coach Wayne Gretzky, the Coyotes had stellar goaltending in Russian Ilya Bryzgalov, contributions from stellar young players, and a hard forecheck system that finally seemed to be sticking. Then things changed at the All-Star Break, when the Coyotes lost their fifth seed and a porous defensive effort caused Phoenix to free-fall to the Western Conference basement.

Today, the Coyotes sit in a similar situation, but things are markedly different. Yes, they're on the verge of returning to the playoffs, and yes, they're competing for a potential home-ice spot. The similarities stop there, though; instead of Wayne Gretzky, veteran coach Dave Tippett stands behind the bench. Instead of playing young guys like Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhonov, veterans Scottie Upshall and Matthew Lombardi provide a workmanlike effort to victory. Instead of a forecheck-based style, Phoenix employs a strict defensive style based on discipline and creating turnovers.

And unlike last season, it seems extremely unlikely that the Coyotes will bottom-out again.

Keep in mind that at this time last year, hockey pundits were even talking about Wayne Gretzky for a potential Jack Adams candidate; a few months later, they were calling for his head. Part of the reason for this was due to the fact that Gretzky's system lacked structure — a noticeable symptom of his lack of experience. Under Tippett, the whole thing is about structure, both offensively and defensively. The big difference here is that while the Gretzky Coyotes may have emphasized skating, it only worked when things were going well. When Phoenix's defensive game started to go sour, there was no structure to plug in the holes.

Under Dave Tippett, the team's focus is defense first — and that's a good thing, because it took a while for the Coyotes to actually start scoring some goals. By instilling the team's attention to defensive detail, Tippett has allowed his veterans to think structure first, creativity second. That's not necessarily a way to create the most entertaining of games, but it gets the job done as long as everyone buys into the team concept (and it helps that Ilya Bryzgalov has been fantastic this season). We've seen this formula work before, such as in 1996 with Florida and 1999 with Buffalo.

However, teams built under the premise of structured discipline from grizzled veterans tend to burn out after a season or two. This is a natural process, as these styles require extreme attention to discipline, and that usually burns guys out after a year or two. It's that old sports cliche — at some point, players start tuning a coach out.

So what's the trick for the Coyotes? GM Don Maloney has said that the 2008-09 season was done in because too much responsibility was placed on rookies and sophomores. This swung the other direction in 2009-10, as many of those young players have been on the AHL shuttle, seeing occasional NHL time. However, the pure talent of these prospects (Turris, KHL-playing Tikhonov, Mikkel Boedker, Kevin Porter) is obvious. The goal, then, is for Tippett to start integrating these players into effective NHLers starting next season.

It's a tricky balancing act for Tippett. A playoff round or two is all a bonus this season; the real challenge is trying to build a foundation of winning in the Phoenix franchise. A defensive-based (or trap-based, if you will) system will only work for so long, and at some point, the young offensive talent must take control of the team. Tippett's job for next season and beyond is to develop these young players in a way that doesn't stifle their offensive instincts while learning defensive responsibility. Otherwise, the Coyotes will only see sparks of success over the next few years until Tippett loses the locker room.

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