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Canadian Press
8/22/2006 3:57:13 PM

(CP) - Wayne Gretzky gets set for Year 2 of his NHL coaching career with a Phoenix Coyotes club featuring several prominent new faces - and with them, higher expectations.

"We're really excited about it," Gretzky said in a phone interview. "We feel we're a better team than last year and added some toughness and speed to our team."

A young Coyotes team went 38-39-5 and placed 12th in the tough Western Conference last season. The off-season additions of star defenceman Ed Jovanovski as well as veteran forwards Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick, top-four defenceman Nick Boynton and tough guy Georges Laraque have the Coyotes thinking bigger.

"Were we happy with being a .500 team last year? We probably surprised a lot of people," said Gretzky. "That's the good news. The bad news is that you can't stand still. It's a tough conference. Our sights are on making the playoffs. With the addition of players this off-season we're really gearing to make the playoffs and anything short of that would be a disappointing season at this point in time."

Jovanovski and Boynton join a blue-line that already includes promising youngsters Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek, as well as Derek Morris and Dennis Seidenberg. The Coyotes now boast one of the deeper defence corps in the league.

The big prize was the 30-year-old Jovanovski, the former Vancouver Canucks star who accepted a $32.5-million US, five-year deal from Coyotes GM Mike Barnett on the very first day of free agency.

"July 1, Mike and (senior advisor) Cliff (Fletcher) flew to Toronto and were at (agent) Pat Morris' door at 12:01 in the afternoon to show how much we really wanted Eddie on our team," said Gretzky. "We're fortunate to have been able to land a guy of that calibre. We really had him targeted from Day 1 as far as what he would bring to the table: physical play and a tremendous amount of energy. He was a big priority for us."
With Jovanovski, Boynton, Laraque and Nolan, Gretzky also feels the Coyotes got a much-needed boost in toughness.

"We needed to be physically stronger," said Gretzky. "Part of our problem last year, we were .500 at home, and some nights I think we just couldn't match up against a lot of the bigger teams, especially in our division and the Western Conference."

The 34-year-old Nolan is somewhat of a gamble, having not played a game in two years while recovering from knee problems. But the Coyotes feel there's quality hockey left in the former perennial star power forward, who was represented by Barnett when he was still an agent.

"We were lucky that was a little bit of history between Owen and Mike," said Gretzky. "Mike knows Owen as good as anybody in hockey. We started to talking to Owen in early July but he wanted to make sure he was physically able to come back before signing with anyone. He went through a rigorous training program the whole summer time. He came into Phoenix and checked out really nicely.

"We really think he has the ability to score a lot of goals for us."

Gretzky said he'll probably put Nolan alongside centre Steven Reinprecht, who had 23 points (12-11) in 28 games after joining the Coyotes in a trade from Calgary last season.

"I think he's an underrated player," Gretzky said of Reinprecht. "Those two would be a nice combination for us."

The Coyotes also re-signed veteran goalie Curtis Joseph instead of losing him to free agency, confident he can duplicate what was a solid campaign last year.

"We felt that Cujo had an outstanding season for us last year, he was really good, tremendous from start to finish," Gretzky said of the 39-year-old goalie, ninth in the NHL last year with 32 wins. "If anything, we maybe overworked him a little bit. There was a stretch there when he may have been a little physically and mentally tired."

To that end, the Coyotes signed backup goalie Mike Morrison this summer and hope that either he or youngster David LeNeveu can jump up and take some pressure off Joseph.

"We're hoping one of them will be able to play in 30-35 games and win some big games for us," said Gretzky. "Last year we won 38 games and Curtis won 32 of them. So a lot of our success will sort of depend on one of those young guys grabbing the bull by the horns and showing us they can handle that. If that happens we'll be in pretty good shape."

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And suddenly Phoenix is looking pretty good.

Adding in Roenick to the offence that already included Comrie, Reinprecht, Nagy and Doan, and getting Owen Nolan as a possible upgrade on Mike Johnson. They now have 2 solid scoring lines (if Roenick can produce again):


And their defence is also much improved, adding in Jovo and and replacing Mara with Boynton. Not bad at all. It's a very well-rounded. (Ballard, Mihalek, Morris and Seidenberg behind them).

And of course CuJo back again (my favourite NHL goaltender)! And Big Georges.

I guess being "The Great One" goes a long way. I'd say they have one of the better teams in the Western Conference.
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