Coming out of training camp, the Phoenix Coyotes had a trio of rookies with the club. As time progressed, only two of the three would stay on and play the entire NHL season.
A couple of prospects earned call-ups throughout the season, but could not get much ice time as it was evident that the Coyotes were stacked up front. The organization was more focused on ensuring all the players within their system saw action, even if it was in the AHL.
When the Coyotes played themselves out of a postseason bid towards the end of the year, a couple of prospects found themselves getting some experience in the show.
Keith Ballard, D (Age 23)
After a season under his belt in the AHL, Keith Ballard came into 2005 training camp determined to swipe a starting spot on the Coyotes blue line. It didn’t take long for the coaching staff to notice Ballard, even though a lot of the talk during camp was centered on some of the older, more seasoned defensemen.
“He had some good accolades and a strong work ethic,” Coyotes associate coach Barry Smith recalled about Ballard’s presence throughout the summer camps as well as in the their exhibition matches. “Just watching the way Keith skated and he played; I knew it was going to be hard to keep him out of the line-up.”
Ballard went on to earn the trust and confidence of his teammates and coaching staff, which moved him into a more prominent role as the season progressed.
“When we started, he took one of our spots,” Smith explained. “Then he started playing against the other teams’ top players, spending most of his time in the top four defensive spots.”
Ballard was one of four rookie defensemen to play in all 82 contests this past season. He went on to score 39 points (8, goals, 31 assists) during the 2005-06 campaign, which tied him with Andrej Meszaros (OTT) for second among rookie rearguards, behind Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf. Ballard’s 99 penalty minutes led all rookies, while his minus-18 was second to last to the Blues’ Dennis Wideman’s -31.
“There were times last season where he would be coming off the ice and the other team scored a goal,” Smith explained about Ballard’s low plus/minus. “Now, there are some guys that would rush out there to get their plus. He wouldn’t do that. In fact, there some times where I know he could have gone back out there and got his plus, but stayed on the bench.”
While Smith recognizes the stat, he said that it’s hard to count the stat against Ballard when it didn’t necessarily tell the entire story. He added, “He was playing against the other teams’ best players and when you add in the fact we had a hard time scoring 5-on-5, it’s hard to get rid of a minus.”
Overall, Ballard had a great all-around season for the Coyotes. He played five-on-five hockey as well as special teams. Smith was also quick to point at that Ballard was a key penalty killer, especially while two men down.
Smith was very high on his competitiveness, his overall skating ability and his fearless nature. He feels that Ballard’s immediate presence helped the club in many different areas.
“We were working on getting our roster a bit younger,” Smith explained about the Ballard factor in moving some older defensemen. “We were also looking to improve in a lot of areas like speed, skating and competing. When you have someone like Keith come along, it helped us a lot.”
Zbynek Michalek, D (Age 23)
After joining the team a couple days before training camp started, Zbynek Michalek hit the ground running. Feeling he was a bit behind the 8-ball because he was an outsider, Michalek told Hockey’s Future back in October. “Everything and everybody was new to me. It’s huge to make a good impression. I just played my game and gave it my best effort.”
According to coach Smith, the team was equally intrigued because they weren’t too sure what kind of player they got in the newly-acquired defenseman.
“He didn’t play that much in the exhibition season because we were giving some other players a look and we had a lot of guys to go through,” Smith explained.
Because he wasn’t getting into games, Michalek started to stick out in practices because of his relentlessness, overachieving approach. His style made Smith and the rest of the staff wonder if they had a diamond in the rough.
“You could see that he had good foot speed, good balance, he moved the puck really well, and had patience,” Smith explained. “From there, we thought we might have something here. Then, we were afraid to play him because he would have been showcased and it would have been hard to move him down into the minors because he would have been taken.”
As the team progressed in the summer and early on in the season, the coaching staff started to get a good look at the young defenseman.
“We had to see what he could do in training camp and the early part of the season,” said Smith on evaluating Michalek. “You have to weigh it and we needed to see how he would do. We wanted to see how and when he would tire. We were also interested to see during a game if his play would improve or have a drop off.”
As the season progressed, so did Michalek. He earned his ice time and special teams play, as well as becoming one of the top four defensemen the Coyotes would go on to ice. He too was another rookie who played in all 82 games. He scored a total of 24 points (9 goals, 15 assists), logged 62 penalty minutes and was a plus-4. Michalek was led his rookie class and the Coyotes with an average of 22:49 minutes of ice time per game.
“His game progressed tremendously over the season,” said Smith. “He never went out there thinking, ‘okay, I’m going to have to take it easy.’ You couldn’t get him off the ice. Both he and Ballard were the last guys to get off and the both of them just love the game.”
Yet after all the hard work, there was still one stat that went underreported: blocked shots. It seemed almost every time you turned around, Michalek was out there dropping to the ice, laying it on the line for Phoenix.
“I think it shows everyone he’s for real,” Smith commented on his selfless play. “Again, both he and Ballard were helping the team, and playing in key situations. Because of that, they also both became our key 3-on-5 guys.
“And due to the fact he played hard down low, both Ballard and him, two rookies, were matched up against the opposition’s top five players. They both did a great job for us.”
Even though he accomplished so much in his first year, the exclamation point came for Michalek just as the Coyotes season ended. Phoenix re-signed the defenseman to a new four-year deal.
“We’re lucky to get him locked up because these are the kind of guys we want to build with,” Smith added. “You want to have good young players and ones who can play in all situations. This is one of the ways we’re going to be able to improve as a team here.”
Matt Jones, D (Age 22)
The former Fighting Sioux defenseman was another young rookie who impressed the Coyotes during the summer. However, due to a plethora of rearguards the Coyotes had to consider for a limited number of roster spots, it made it hard for Matt Jones to stick with Phoenix as the regular season got underway.
“He was very good in training camp,” Smith recalled. “He was close to making our team, but there were only so many spots we can carry. We can’t have a good young defenseman playing on the bench. They can’t improve unless they play.”
Jones went on to start the 2005-06 season and played the majority of it with San Antonio in the AHL. He was recalled five times by the Coyotes and saw action in a total of 16 games. He registered two points (2 assists), earned 14 penalty minutes and was a minus-2. He averaged 16 shifts a game and 11:34 minutes of ice time in those contests. And though he had a limited viewing, Smith liked what he saw.
“He’s very physical and has good balance,” he said.
David LeNeveu, G (Age 22)
One man’s loss is another man’s gain. So was the case when the Coyotes lost goalie Brain Boucher to an injury in the preseason. David LeNeveu stepped into his role and alternated with Curtis Joseph early on, seeing action in nine games before he was sent to San Antonio to play the bulk of season.
The Fernie, British Columbia native would rejoin the team in late March and saw time in an additional six contests. Overall, he went 3-8-0, had a 3.24 goals against average and a .886 save percentage in a total of 15 games played.
Smith on LeNeveu’s two stints with the Coyotes: “LeNeveu had a good start for us, but he had to go down to the minors to get his ice time. There was no sense to keep him up when Boucher came back healthy. He played very well in the AHL and earned himself a chance to come back up towards the end of the season. We need to discuss whether he goes back down to get more playing experience, he stays up with us next season, and if he stays, can he help us win games at this level. We don’t put numbers on anybody’s backs. It all depends how well he comes through training camp and what the next season will bring.”
Bill Thomas, RW (Age 22)
The Coyotes signed Bill Thomas out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha when his season concluded. He joined the team immediately and went on to see action in nine games, while scoring three points (1 goal, 2 assists). He also logged eight penalty minutes and was a minus-2.
It was too early to tell just how well Thomas will adapt, but he’ll definitely get a chance to come back over the summer and try to oust a veteran for a role on the Coyotes’ 23-man roster.
”Thomas had a lot of good accolades coming from his college coaches,” Smith said. “He’s a guy who is patient, a goal scorer who knew where to go and someone with good hockey sense. When you watch him play, you can tell that he knows what is going on out there. He’s not just a guy who goes full speed all over the place. Instead, he anticipates the game pretty well.”
Joel Perrault, C (Age 23)
The Mighty Ducks traded their 2001 fifth-round draft pick Joel Perrault to the Coyotes in exchange for Sean O’Donnell right before the trade deadline. Perrault started playing for the Coyotes in the AHL for San Antonio. He received a call-up on April 4 and finished the season with the Phoenix.
In five games, Perrault registered one goal and one assist. He also earned two penalty minutes and was even throughout all contests.
Perrault is another young addition to the Coyotes who will be back in training camp vying for a key roster spot with Phoenix. He had a shortened season after suffering post-concussion syndrome until January.
Smith on what he saw in Perrault in a limited viewing. “He is another young guy who has good hockey sense. He needs to get a bit bigger and fill out, which I’m certain he will. He’s a playmaking centerman who needs to improve a bit on his faceoffs and his special teams play.”
Josh Gratton, LW (Age 23)
In order to add a young enforcer into the mix, the Coyotes picked up Josh Gratton in another trade deadline deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. Gratton started his career with the Coyotes organization hurt and ended his season with the Coyotes hurt. When he was traded to Phoenix, the young enforcer was kept off a roster because of a staph infection in his knee.
Gratton played in three contests for Philadelphia, while registering no points, 14 penalty minutes and a plus-1. When he was healthy enough to go for Phoenix, he saw action in 11 games. He registered one goal, 30 penalty minutes and was a minus-4. Of those 30 penalty minutes, 20 of them came by way of fights.
Gratton would go onto to miss the Coyotes’ final two games of the season due to a groin injury.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.