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Old September 26th, 2003, 01:31 PM   #1
Stronso
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New Pack of Coyotes Hunt for Wins - Toronto Globe and Mail


New pack of Coyotes hunt for wins

GM is betting that squad of larger players will have more staying power

By GRANT KERR
Friday, September 26, 2003 - Page S5



VANCOUVER -- The Phoenix Coyotes have a new logo on a brick-red-coloured jersey, a state-of-the-art arena nearly finished in suburban Glendale and a revamped lineup that's flush with unfamiliar faces.

Now all they've got to do is prove they can win more consistently after the National Hockey League team finished four games under .500 last season and 14 points out of the playoffs in the Western Conference.

The Desert Dogs are bigger and, hopefully for management's sake, faster than before as general manager Michael Barnett tries to fashion a team built along the lines of the early Edmonton Oilers, a team Barnett often watched back in the 1980s before he became a player agent. Barnett and head coach Bob Francis have selected rugged winger Shane Doan, 26, the new team captain after Teppo Numminen was traded to the Dallas Stars during a summer of reorganization and salary dumps.

"Not too many people think too highly of what we're going to do this year, but we've got a lot of confidence," Doan said yesterday before Phoenix played the Vancouver Canucks. "We've got some players we think are ready to step up and become elite players.

"We can't have any letdowns as a team and we must make sure we play consistently through the whole year. We can't afford to take a couple of weeks off and [try to] make it up."

The Coyotes often have played well at the start of a season before fading a month or two into the schedule. A bigger team shouldn't wear down, reasons Barnett, whose bosses include team president Wayne Gretzky and Cliff Fletcher, the senior executive vice-president of hockey operations.

Since last season, Barnett has acquired defenceman David Tanabe from the Carolina Hurricanes, centre Mike Sillinger from the Columbus Blue Jackets and winger Tyson Nash from the St. Louis Blues, plus signed unrestricted free agents Daniel Cleary from the Edmonton Oilers and Cale Hulse from the Nashville Predators.

Emerging centres Jeff Taffe and Krystofer Kolanos will be expected to bolster an offence that should be led by slick winger Ladislav Nagy.

"Both economically and philosophically we're of the belief that we're going to get to the winner's circle by drafting properly and developing your program," Barnett said. "We're starting to get the benefit of that philosophy already because we have younger players pushing the veterans.

"Over the last few years it seems size is such a factor in this league. Clearly a big man, with all things being equal, has the advantage over a smaller man. We're striving for mobility to go along with that size. There's an attitude and aggressiveness in these young guys, along with some decent skating skills. Hopefully they'll push each other to some success."

Some of the youngsters Phoenix management prizes are goaltender Dave LeNeveu from Cornell University, defencemen Igor Knyazev (Carolina) and Matthew Spiller from the junior Seattle Thunderbirds, and forwards Ben Eager from the junior Oshawa Generals, Kiel McLeod from the junior Kelowna Rockets and Fredrik Sjostrom, a Swede who played junior for the Calgary Hitmen.

Season-ticket sales have improved marginally in Phoenix, Barnett noted, as hockey fans possibly have a wait-and-see attitude toward the team as it prepares to move into a new arena.

"We've got to do everything we can to put together a brand of exciting entertainment that the fans can identify with," Barnett said. "People need to understand that these players will give back [to the community] rather than just taking. It's critical to us that the effort is there each and every night.

"Our sales people tell me that some fans want to test-drive the product first before they commit to season tickets in a new rink. The freeways in Phoenix make it easy to get from one side of the city to the other in 25 minutes. We must give them a reason to come."

One player who hopes he's around by late December for the arena opening is goaltender Sean Burke, 36, whose name is frequently mentioned in trade rumours. Burke played only 22 games last season, but is still considered one of the best netminders in the league.

The Coyotes have some depth with younger stoppers Brian Boucher, Zac Bierk, Jean-Marc Pelletier and LeNeveu. Phoenix could lose a veteran in the waiver draft next month when teams protect only two netminders with three or more years pro experience.

"It's a good atmosphere here [with] a lot of youth and a lot of changes," Burke said. "As a team, we feel we've got a lot to prove. As a veteran player, that's good to be part of.

"I know what my job is. I've got to stay healthy and I've got to do it. Goaltending is a big part of every successful team."

Burke doesn't want this to be his last season. If he can remain fit, he feels he can play another two or three years, maybe longer. By then, the new Phoenix logo -- a howling Coyote -- may be a little more familiar to hockey fans.
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