Posted: Tuesday January 9, 2007 1:43PM; Updated: Monday January 15, 2007 5:32PM
Wyane Gretzky's competitive fire has spread to his team, which is now burning up the Western Conference.
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E.M. Swift will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
And the Coyotes? Guess who's the hottest team in the Western Conference, with a 7-2-1 record in its last 10 games as of Monday?
Yep. Phoenix turned their ship around without changing captains. The second-year coach, Wayne Gretzky, also happens to be the club's managing partner. No way he was leaving unless he resigned. And the thing that Gretzky the player and Gretzky the coach have in common is that they're both patient and decisive, without an iota of quit. Gretzky hates losing, the players respect him, and he's smart.
The Coyotes general manager is Gretzky's long-time agent, Mike Barnett. Instead of panicking, the two started moving players to the minors who didn't fit. Recognizing the need for more scoring, Barnett signed veteran Yanic Perreault to a free agent contract on Oct. 29, and Perreault now leads the team in goals with 13.
Gretzky benched underperforming veteran Jeremy Roenick until Roenick changed his attitude. Seeing that veteran netminder Curtis Joseph needed help, Barnett traded for backup Mikael Tellqvist, who was third on the depth chart in Toronto. Since arriving on Nov. 28, Tellqvist is 6-0-2, with a .910 save percentage and 2.71 GAA. Those are better numbers than Joseph's (11-4, .895, 3.12), but he has responded with improved play and a couple of shutouts since Tellqvist's arrival.
Change didn't happen overnight. It seldom does. The key was that Gretzky kept his players motivated and positive, preventing a culture of losing from setting in as the pieces were being assembled. Ed Jovanovski, a free-agent acquisition last summer who was supposed to stabilize the defense, began to do just that.
By Thanksgiving, Phoenix was no longer hemorrhaging wins, but they were still eight games under .500. They were seven games under .500 at Christmas. Then something clicked, and the Coyotes started to win. It started with back-to-back victories over the strong San Jose Sharks, division rivals, including an 8-0 blowout.
The talent gap in the new NHL isn't that dramatic. A team's success depends so much on goaltending, special teams and confidence. Suddenly, the Coyotes had a jolt of all three. Feeding off those successes, they went on the road on January 1, and have won four straight away games going into Tuesday's contest in Dallas. That gives Phoenix six straight wins for the first time since March 2002.
The Coyotes are now a respectable 19-20-2 overall, just five points away from a playoff spot, standing 11th in the conferenc overall. Nor is Barnett done dealing. He's added defensive forward Kevyn Adams, helped the Carolina Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup last season. That's how you breed a culture of winning.
Time will, of course, tell if the Coyotes can keep it up. But a season on the brink has been salvaged. Phoenix fans should be excited by what's going on there -- on the ice, behind the bench and in the front office.
In Philadelphia, it's the opposite story. Panic by management. It was real. It was deadly. And it can ruin a franchise for years.