The last time this franchise won a playoff series Ronald Reagan was president of the U.S., John Ziegler was president of the NHL, and you didn't know anybody with a laptop computer. After 10 years of playoff failure, the Coyotes (until 1996-97 they were the Winnipeg Jets) must play into May if they are to shed their reputation as inconsequential. "We were good enough to be in the final eight last year," says Phoenix general manager Bobby Smith, whose Coyotes were nonetheless bounced in the opening round by the Mighty Ducks. "This franchise needs playoff success."
To that end, Phoenix signed free-agent power forward Rick Tocchet, who has skated many hard miles in his 13-year career but who should fit in nicely on the first or second line, where the Coyotes have unquestioned talent. Last season left wing Keith Tkachuk became the fourth player to lead the league in goals (52) while getting more than 200 penalty minutes. New coach Jim Schoenfeld, however, prefers that Tkachuk, who was suspended last week after refusing to play in preseason games because he wants his contract renegotiated, spend more time menacing goalies on the ice than in quiet contemplation in the penalty box. Before Tkachuk's suspension he was lobbying to again play with Craig Janney, the slick passing but soft center, instead of Jeremy Roenick, who will be moved back to the middle after spending much of last season on the wing.
Like the prototypical freewheeling Western Conference team that the Coyotes are, Phoenix has only a smattering of talent on defense. It includes goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, underappreciated defenseman Teppo Numminen and 21-year-old Oleg Tverdovsky, a restricted free agent who, as of Monday, had not signed a new contract. He's one of perhaps 10 NHL defensemen capable of breaking a neutral-zone trap with his dazzling skating. But too much may be expected of journeymen defensemen Gerald Diduck and Murray Baron, who actually may be as inept as he appeared last season.
If the Coyotes are to be more than early-round playoff fodder, they must give more ice time to—in hopes of getting more production from—a stockpile of gilt-edged 21-and-under prospects: right wing Shane Doan, center Chad Kilger and defensemen Deron Quint and Jason Doig.
The Coyotes aren't ready to drink from the Cup, but they can toss back a few beers with the big boys.