So with the NHL regular season beginning its long, winding regular season this last week I spent a lot of time recently perusing the pundits to compare analysis of who will be fighting for the Stanley Cup in June.
The usual suspects rise to the top quickly. The Blackhawks are going for three Cups in four years. The Penguins have a healthy Sidney Crosby and all that talent. The Los Angeles Kings, champions in 2012, have all the main cogs back and Darryl Sutter’s no-nonsense direction. Then you have teams like San Jose, St. Louis and Vancouver — full of firepower but never quite able to get over the hump.
But ESPN analyst Scott Burnside took a slapshot from center ice. Oh, he has the Penguins representing the East in the Stanley Cup Final, but he has them losing to the Western Conference Champions — the team that he say will deny the mighty Blackhawks for the second time in three years.
Ooo, was that a hint? Yup, it’s the Phoenix Coyotes.
No, I’m not kidding.
Now I don’t think the Coyotes have a snowball’s chance in Scottsdale of reaching, much less winning, the Stanley Cup Finals. They don’t have enough elite talent. They are at least one, if not two 30-goal scorers short on offense.
They play in a tough division, in a tough conference and their depth especially at forward is paper-thin. They dressed 12 forwards for the season opener and if one guy goes down, the replacement is most certainly a step down.
But in defense of Mr. Burnside, a respected voice in the sport who is drawing his share of snickers for this stance, I will defend his Hail Mary on several levels:
• Recent NHL history is filled with hard-working, lunch pail teams who caught fire in the playoffs and rode a strong defense and hot goaltending through the playoffs. Two years ago, the Coyotes and the Kings both fit this category.
• The Coyotes have one of the best defenses in the league. They have a gaggle of good, young, talented puck movers, a few beefy veterans and all of them do their thing within Coach Dave Tippett’s system. And they have a goalie in Mike Smith who, if he can regain the form of 2011-12, has what it takes to carry a team.
• The addition of Mike Ribiero, maturation of Mikkel Boedker and promotion of Lucas Lessio give the Coyotes more speed and quickness. It was the first thing the New York Rangers mentioned on opening night. They are strong down the middle and have good leadership in a very tight dressing room.
• With a new ownership that has already shown its willing to spend — and a general manager who has shown the ability to make effective additions and wise subtractions — the Coyotes are a work in progress. Maloney has made no bones about the need for another top-six scorer right now and he has the pieces to offer both in Phoenix and its farm system to get something done.
• Maloney has been a good deadline dealer. Lee Stempniak carried them to the playoffs three years ago. Rusty Klesla was stolen from Columbus. If things look more promising financially by the spring and IceArizona gives GM Don Maloney salary to work with, one or two deals could give the Coyotes the extra bite they need.
• If anyone is going to beat the best team in the West — the Blackhawks — it’s going to be a team like the Coyotes. They did it before. As good as they are, I don’t think the Kings could beat Chicago in a series. Yes, Chicago dominated Phoenix last year, and Phoenix needs more firepower than it has now.
I’m not picking the Coyotes to win it all. Or the West. Or the Pacific Division.
But I do think they will get back to the postseason. And once they get there they will be a tough out. And if that team is upgraded from what they have now Mr. Burnside might be the one doing the snickering.
Jerry Brown is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.