Coyotes Welcome New Faces

By Brandon LeBourveau

Everyone around the NHL knew that the re-signing of goaltender Sean Burke to a 3 year contract officially meant that the Phoenix Coyotes decided to start taking offers on goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who hasn’t played a game in the NHL since the ’98-’99 season because of a contract dispute. Right from the get-go lots of teams were interested in acquiring the Russian netminder’s services, with the front-runners being the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers. Coyotes’ General Manager Cliff Fletcher was offered a deal by the Tampa Bay Lightning that he couldn’t refuse.

Heading to the Tampa Bay Lightning is of course Nikolai Khabibulin, along with defenseman Stanislav Neckar. In return the Coyotes acquired an excellent group of young players in defenseman Paul Mara, forwards Mike Johnson and Ruslan Zainullin, and a 2nd round draft pick in the up-coming 2001 Entry Draft. In my opinion, this was a great deal for the Coyotes. They acquired some great young players for a guy that was sitting at home and wasn’t helping their team.

Paul Mara is a 6’4 205 pound, 21 year old steady two-way defenseman with a good offensive upside. He was drafted 7th overall in the 1997 Draft by the Lightning, and he was highly regarded in their organization until this season, when they grew tired of Mara’s lack of development. They felt he hasn’t been improving much over the last year or so and don’t envision him becoming the Brian Leetch/Chris Chelios type of defenseman he has been compared to. With the depth at defense in the Tampa Bay organization, they felt it wouldn’t hurt their team to add Mara into the deal. The Coyotes’ hope that Mara can turn things around in Phoenix and develop into that top 2 defenseman that he has the potential to become.

Another player who the Lightning felt needed a change of scenery also was 26 year old forward Mike Johnson. The Lightning had high hopes for Johnson after acquiring him from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a deal for Darcy Tucker last season. Johnson and center Vincent Lecavalier had instant chemistry after the trade last season, and the Lightning figured Mike would be able to score 30 goals this season playing along side Lecavalier. But things didn’t go as planned. Johnson has struggled to score goals this season, despite posting 11 goals and 27 assists in 64 games. Johnson should now find himself on one of Phoenix’s top 2 lines this season. With forward Claude Lemieux likely done for the season and the playoffs, Mike will have a better chance to earn more ice-time and regain his solid form from last season.

The third player the Coyotes’ acquired from the Lightning is Russian prospect Ruslan Zainullin. The 6’2 202 pound 19 year old was drafted in the 2nd round (34th overall) by Tampa Bay in last June’s Entry Draft. Zainullin has been playing this season in Russia and it will likely be another 2-3 years before he makes the jump to North America. At 6’2 and 202 pounds, Ruslan has the rare blend of size and skill. He’s a good offensive player who excels in the offensive zone. He’s a great stickhandler and an excellent skater with good speed and lateral movement. He possesses a nice scoring touch, a deadly shot and the ability to make the tape-to-tape pass to his teammates. A 2-way threat, Zainullin also is solid defensively. His competitiveness and hockey sense make him a threat in all game situations. He was very highly touted leading up to last year’s draft and it is anyone’s guess why he wasn’t drafted in the 1st Round. He has so much skill that the Lightning were thinking about selecting him with the 8th overall selection before eventually deciding on Nikita Alexeev. The only knock on him has been his inconsistency. Some nights he’s the best player on the ice, while other times he is invisible. If he can just work on a few things in his game there is no reason to believe he won’t be a future 2nd liner for the Phoenix Coyotes.

On top of acquiring three great young players, the Coyotes have the ability to take another solid young player as they were also able to pry a 2nd round pick from the Lightning. The pick will likely be very high in the 2nd round, and with a lot of talented players in this year’s draft, the Coyotes are guaranteed to get a solid prospect.

It is too early to decide who wins the deal because the young players are still mostly unproven, but I like what the Coyotes end up with. Khabibulin refused to take the Coyotes contract offer, and he wasn’t going to help them out any by sitting at home. The Lightning still have to sign Khabibulin, and with Nikolai’s demands of being payed a full-season’s salary this year, it’s anyone’s guess if the signing will get done. But hopefully for the Lightning and Rick Dudley it will. Dudley has already guaranteed the Lightning will make the playoffs next season, and with this deal he improves their chances tremendously by adding a top-notch goaltender to his team.

With the trade deadline only 3 days away, the Coyotes still have a couple of choices left to make. Center Jeremy Roenick will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and it doesn’t appear the Coyotes will be able to re-sign him. If they don’t re-sign him by the deadline, look for the team to deal him. Also heavily rumored to be dealt is forward Keith Tkachuk. General Manager Cliff Fletcher has stated that he is not picking up the phone and offering Tkachuk around, but is willing to listen to offers. It should be an interesting week for the Coyotes to see what direction the team will be headed in…

News and Notes: I know this is a little late, but I apologize. I haven’t had much time lately to concentrate on the Coyotes’ section, but hopefully I will have more time in the future to update this page more frequently. Expect another article or two within the next week.