Thursday, December 11, 2008

Interview with Phoenix Coyotes blogger Paul Becker on the most underrated youth movement in the NHL

PHOENIX COYOTES GOALTENDER #30 ILYA BRYZGALOV - FILE PHOTO SEAN BURKE LEAD PHOENIX TO THEIR LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE 6 YRS AGO The Phoenix Coyotes are sitting on the most underground, underhyped youth movement in the National Hockey League. In addition to a pair of blossoming sophmores in 20-year old Peter Mueller and 21-year old Martin Hanzal, the Coyotes also boast the four horsemen of the 2008-09 rookie youth movement in Hobey Baker winner and former Michigan Wolverine Kevin Porter, Danish left wing slash speed demon Mikkel Boedker, former Los Gatos native Viktor Tikhonov (yes he speaks English Darren Pang), and 2008 WJC gold medal Team Canada veteran Kyle Turris. Phoenix Coyotes blogger Paul Becker was kind enough to answer a few questions about the youth movement in Phoenix, the offseason trade for Olli Jokinen, how the fans will treat Keith Ballard tonight in his first return to Arena, and break down Phoenix's offensive system and Wayne Gretzky's coaching style among other topics. [Q] Phoenix defenseman Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard were traded this offseason for longtime Florida Panthers captain Olli Jokinen. Eleven games into the 2008-09 season for Phoenix, how do you see this trade working out a this point for the Coyotes? What do you think Jokinen's leadership will mean for the team moving forward? Is he the type of franchise player you think should never be moved? [PB] The trade for Jokinen has worked well for both teams. There have beenslight chemistry issues on the ice for Jokinen's style of play, but he is tiedwith (Shane) Doan for points scored with 12, and woke up a game before last. I wouldlike to see him skate and play a more physical game like he did as a Panther, but there is definitely promise. I was surprised to see him traded to Phoenix, and management would be well served to keep him here. He has fit innicely off the ice, and has been enjoying his time here. [Q] Jokinen leads the NHL in games played without a playoff appearance at 734. The Phoenix Coyotes have not qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2001–02, when they piled up a 40-27-9-6 regular season record and lost to the San Jose Sharks in the WCQF 4-1. The White Out in Phoenix carried over from Winnipeg during that playoff series, the Phoenix-to-SJ trash talk online raised up a couple notches (there were not many blogs online at the time), Evgeni Nabokov and Sean Burke played solid in goal. Claude Lemieux, not solid. Can Jokinen help Phoenix make the playoffs for the first time in 5 years in a difficult Western Conference? What needs to go right for the Coyotes this season for them to qualify? [PB] Jokinen could definitely help, but secondary scoring needs to happen, and happen soon. Doan has 7 goals, Jokinen is second on the team with 4, Mueller has scored 3 and rookie (Mikkel ) Boedker also has 3 goals. The other veterans need to find a way to the net. Hovering around .500, even though moderately decent, will not qualify them for much. Goaltending with Bryzgalov needs to be rock solid every night (so far he has been streaky, but he hasn't gotten much help either), and the young kids need to pitch in. I am concerned with Gretzky's line tinkering. I know what he's trying to do, but he needs to stick with one line combination for a littlelonger and then evaluate. [Q] With the absence of Ballard and Boynton, the Coyotes have looked to Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris to contribute more from the blueline. Jovo went 9 games without a point, and has registered 1 overall point (1G) in 11 games played while averaging over 23 minutes of ice time. Morris also went 9 games without a point, and also has only registered 1 overall point in 11 games played while averaging almost 20 minutes a game. Where is the blueline scoring going to come from? Jovo is third on the team with 30 shots on goal, but are they resulting in rebound opportunities. How would you rate this defense's ability to transition the puck up ice, and will Zbynek Michalek be looked at to contribute in more of an offensive role than in the past? [PB] Right now, the defense has not contributed much offensively, and that is aconcern. Michalek is contributing all that he can, but guys like Jovanovskiand Morris have been ice cold. Jovanovski is a minus-7, and while thatstatistic is overused, it is still important. I think the transition gametook a hit with the trade of Ballard, but the addition of Kurt Sauer helpsin keeping the puck away from Bryzgalov. As you have most likely seen withDanny Boyle, the transition game is generated from the defense and Boyle isthe expert at it. The Coyotes right now, to me at least, are average atbest. [Q] How do you think Phoenix Coyotes fans will welcome the return of defenseman Keith Ballard tonight? What did he mean to the franchise, and is there a play or a game you remember that represents what he brought to Phoenix for 3 seasons? [PB] Coyotes fans should cheer the kid back - it wasn't his fault he was moved.I'm sure they will treat him well. From Don Maloney's point-of-view, hedidn't like losing him, but to get Jokinen, they needed to do package himwith Boynton (who they tried to move the summer prior). With Ballard, Iremember his rookie season the most. From his checking to his fearlessness(willing to fight anyone, including Vincent Lecavalier when the Lightninglast played here), that is certainly what I miss the most. One of the games I remembered last season was a battle he had in front of his net with a Buffalo Sabresplayer that was just phenomenal. I think these guys knew each other fromcollege hockey so they went at it. When interviewed, the Sabres player wasasked about an errant high stick Ballard gave him. He replied, "Oh, that'sno big deal, I'm sure I gave him an elbow to the end so it kind of evensout." [Q] If you had to describe the Phoenix Coyotes offense or system in 1 or 2 brief sentences, how would you describe it? How would you describe Wayne Gretzky's approach to coaching this lineup? [PB] It's (or should be) an aggressive forechecking scheme that relies on thespeed of their forwards. When they stop skating and start playing as a five-manunit, it truly falls apart. Gretzky's approach has been very patient withthe younger players, but with elevated expectations on the veterans. Again,he is trying everything possible, but my concern is that he may beoutcoaching himself by changing the lines so often. [Q] The youth movements in Chicago and Los Angeles get all the press and they have somewhat overshadowed an impressive group of young players in Phoenix and Columbus. One reporter mentioned the "waves" of talent in Phoenix. You might say Mueller-Hanzal-Yandle are the first wave, Turris second wave, Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov for the third wave. How is the youth movement in Phoenix progressing, and which players or lines are best geared for success over a marathon 82 game NHL season? Tikhonov, a former Los Gatos native whose father was an assistant coach in San Jose, had an eye opening sequence during a preseason game at HP Pavilion. He stuffed two attempted dump-ins at the point from 2 different Sharks players, then gathered the loose puck and sprinted up the right wing before pulling up and hitting a linemate for a scoring chance in front. The question many have, can the young players deliver consistently? [PB] I see Mueller and Hanzal doing just fine. Hanzal is one of the best youngforwards that can play the defensive side of the puck at a very high level.Boedker is the one that has surprised me the most. He's playing very, verywell at this stage of his development. I'm looking for Tikhonov to get morere-adjusted, and I think he will. He's pressing for his first goal and whenthat comes, I think he will relax more. Defensively, Tikhonov is used on thepenalty kill quite often and his puck handling skills are very good aswell. Yandle has been scratched twice so far for Ken Klee. Even though he is better this year, his play has been inconsistent so I am wondering abouthim. After the rough game the Coyotes had with Montreal and Sauer's highhit on Kosistyn (the resulting aftermath as we watched the "code" becomeenforced), Turris has not been the same as a player. I'm not sure if thatincident spooked him, but he wasn't in the lineup against Vancouver. He maybe still a little green, but there is some great potential with him.Gretzky may be protecting him a little bit as not to demolish hisdevelopment - he may see a little bit of himself in Turris... [Q] Last year after a Phoenix game in San Jose I wrote that the renewed confidence seemed to radiate from the goaltending crease out. Phoenix was able to pick up a big game #1 goaltender off the waiver wire in Ilya Bryzgalov without having to compensate Pacific Division rival Anaheim. In a post-game article, I described him as a "giant isosceles triangle" blocking a considerable amount of the net down low. After almost a full season in Phoenix, what is your assessment of Ilya Bryzgalov in goal? Can a talented goaltender like Bryzgalov make up for some holes on the blueline? Has he been as big a quote machine in the press as he was in Anaheim? [PB] Bryzgalov has been a different goaltender since being named to the All-Starballot. He had terrible game against the Senators earlier in the season, that raised some question marks for everyone. However, they didn't losefaith in him and Gretzky really put the onus on him to play better. He hasbeen streaky - winning two, losing three, winning one, losing one, but a lotof that is not all his responsibility - his team needs to score more. He isthe number one goalie and the success of this franchise will go throughhim. I place more of the emphasis to his teammates to do the little things,blocking shots, being responsible defensively, scoring goals, and so on sothat Bryzgalov has more of a chance to make that save count for something.He'll definitely keep the Coyotes in games than out of them, that's forsure. My favorite quote so far comes from earlier in the season when RickNash had *two* breakaway chances. When the reporters asked (annoyingly) howdid he make those saves, his reply, "I tried to challenge him. I just closedmy eyes … I don't know what to say, a breakaway, a game situation. Ichallenged him maybe. He sees the net, I can't see the net. I can only seethe player. Maybe there was no room to shoot, I don't know. He miss the net,and that's good for us." [Q] On your blog you mention being a hockey fan for about 20 years, originally following the Tampa Bay Lightning before moving to Phoenix. What kind of response has your blog received from the press, fans, or the Phoenix Coyotes (or even other blogs)? If there were 2 or 3 suggestions you could recommend to improve the climate for hockey in Phoenix, what would they be? And is the new arena and the Phoenix Coyotes youth movement a good enough reason to make a road trip out to see a game from Los Angeles (along with an Antelope Canyon pit stop)? [PB] That is one question I truly don't know. I don't know if the press readsit. However, I know some of the fans do. I remember being the onlyCoyotes' voice, but there are three others now blogging about the Coyoteswith some frequency (one more than the other two). I received a couple ofe-mails from within the Coyotes about other issues, and they have stated theyenjoy what they see which is good. But I haven't been inquiring as to whatthe press or the Coyotes' franchise feel about it. The other blogs andpeople that I've met virtually (like you, Mike Chen, Greg Wyshynski, EricMcErlain, James Mirtle) are incredibly supportive. Hip Shot Blog, the otherprolific Coyotes' blog is also very supportive and our writing stylescompliment each other, I think. The other blogs that have been around awihle (more so on the U.S. side than the Canadian side) also have been very good to deal with. Dirk Hoag of On the Forecheck has been great and Paul Kukla has been very kind as well. Suggestions to improve this market is to continue to put a winning product on the ice. Only winning will bring the people out. They are trying to keep ticket prices low, they are advertising everywhere (every local commercial break on my cable system is bought by the Coyotes), and they keep developing their youth hockey programs (each televised game has the kids introducing the broadcast). They are focusing on the younger market because if those kids stay here, then they will be your next generation of hockey fans. It's tough, but they need to keep doing these things to keep the Coyotes relevant. I would somehow ask the fans that go to the Saturday night games why they don't attend the weeknight games as much. Our weekend games are packed, but the weeknights barely crack 14,000 (and I'm being generous here). Traffic, like all large cities, is terrible here and the perception that Glendale is so "far away" from the middle to East Valley, makes it difficult to get the fans out. I would like them to consider developing some mass transit ideas from the east to west valley to help alleviate the congestion - it's the only thing that they haven't tried... The new arena is excellent and the youth movement is good enough for anyone from So. Cal to make the trip out here. [Q] I forgot to ask you about Enver Lisin, Alexei Kaigorodov, or Alexander Nikulin. The situation with Enver Lisin and Blake Wheeler are two unfortunate ones, but I think Phoenix has tried to take a few chances on players with undisputed talent. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. [PB] Enver Lisin just didn't work out for us for whatever reason, and I'm not sure what to make of the Blake Wheeler issue. He would have had a spot here and the Coyotes would have found other players to round out their team. Wheeler is playing well in Boston with his hat trick the other night, so he might have been concerned about being able to make the team here? I don't know. Maloney offered him as much as he is allowed, but Wheeler went to the Bruins instead. I think he just wanted to play elsewhere. You are right - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Thanks very much for taking the time to answer questions. The Phoenix Coyotes face off against the San Jose Sharks at Arena tomorrow night at 5PM. Paul Becker previews the game on One Fan's Perspective here. Tonight the Sharks host the Dallas Stars in a rematch of last year's Western Conference Semifinal playoff series. [Update] Q & A with former Panther Olli Jokinen - South Florida Sun-Sentinel. [Q] What is it like in Arizona? [OJ] "Everything's different – on and off the ice. …I'm enjoying my life over here and picking up my golf game. It's been unbelievable here -- just a great group of guys. It starts with the management. It's been amazing. It's a lot more fun to put a smile on your face and come to work at the rink every day. I wasn't able to do that the last couple of years in Florida. It was just too much." [Update2] Olli Versus Florida, NEXT! - George Richards On Frozen Pond blog. [Update3] Phoenix Coyotes V.P. of News Content Dave Vest asks rookie Kyle Turris about recently being a healthy scratch on his Desert Dog Blog: I spoke to rookie Kyle Turris about being scratched from tonight’s game. He said he was disappointed but that he understood Head Coach Wayne Gretzky’s decision and accepts it. “He told me to relax, take a step back and watch the game and learn from it,” Turris said after I asked him how Gretzky broke the news to him. “I’m a bit nervous (on the ice) right now and I don’t want to screw up, but he said just to relax and have fun, play my game and things will come.” Gretzky said Turris would play on Thursday night when they Coyotes play at Vancouver. I asked Turris what he thinks he needs to do better once he gets back on the ice. “I’ve got to get back to playing my game and just have fun out there,” Turris said “Right now, I’m hesitating, I’m forcing things and I’m not skating like I usually do because I am too worried about making a mistake or being in the wrong position instead of just letting it happen and letting it flow.”

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