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Can Steve Sullivan help solve Phoenix's power play problems?

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

Another offseason in Phoenix and the story, for the most part, remains the same.

Ownership questions, key players leaving (this year it was Ray Whitney and Adrian Aucoin, along with what is still a very real possibility that long-time captain Shane Doan could sign with a new team), and general manager Don Maloney having to find capable replacements with a very limited budget.

Every year they seem to be counted out, and every year they seem to come back stronger and better than the year before.

To replace Whitney (their leading scorer this past season) after he signed a two-year contract with the Dallas Stars earlier this summer, the Coyotes turned to another veteran free agent, Steve Sullivan, and brought him in on a one-year, $2.6 million contract. Earlier this week Maloney discussed the addition of Sullivan on the Coyotes' website (shown in the video above) and how he feels the 38-year-old winger can slide into the opening left by Whitney's departure and why they're excited to have him.

Perhaps the biggest reason: the power play.

"When we looked around for a replacement [for Whitney] Steve Sullivan's name and face and game just jumped out at us," said Maloney. "He's a very similar player, not quite maybe as thick as Ray, but he's always been a smart, quick, dynamic offensive player. Good on the power play, played a lot of point on the power play, very very similar."

Ah, yes. The power play. The biggest weakness for the Coyotes last season as they finished the year at the bottom both in terms of their inability to convert chances into goals (29th in the league), as well as the fact they generated fewer shots per 60 minutes of power play time than every other team in the league other than the Stars.

Things didn't get much better on the man advantage during their playoff run to the Western Conference Final.

Naturally, it's an area Maloney said the Coyotes have to improve this season especially after the loss of Whitney, one of their leading power play scorers the past two years. Sullivan might just be the kind of guy that can help make that happen based on the way he played this past season with the Penguins.

He's coming off a solid 17-goal, 31-assist campaign, and for just the second time in the past seven years was able to go through an entire season without having to miss significant time due to injury. His biggest impact in Pittsburgh may have been his contributions to its much-improved power play.

The Coyotes have to be hoping he can make a similar impact in Phoenix.

With Sullivan added to the mix last year the Penguins power play shot up the league rankings and went from 25th in the NHL during the 2010-11 season, all the way up to the top-five this season. Having James Neal for a full season and a healthy Evgeni Malkin for more than 41 games certainly helped that turnaround, but throughout the season Sullivan was also given a lot of credit for that jump. Not only based on the numbers, but for what was also often times referred to as a "steadying presence" he seemed to bring to the unit. It wasn't uncommon for Sullivan to be responsible for lugging the puck up the ice on the man advantage, gaining the zone (good example here), and also helping to get things set up.

All are traits that Maloney addressed when talking about Sullivan's addition to the roster.

"He's really a guy that likes to get the pucks in the zone on the power play," said Maloney, via the Coyotes website. "Set it up, good at transporting pucks, maybe a quicker skater than Ray. Ray had such great hands and instincts in tight areas he could make things happen, where Steve is a little more of a get on the half wall, make good passes. We're excited about him."

The Penguins power play seemed to be at its best last year when Sullivan was on the ice, and this is true whether you're going by the eye test or by simply looking at the numbers. Example: With Sullivan on the ice the Penguins averaged 7.59 goals and 54.5 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 play; without him on the ice those numbers dropped to 5.71 goals and 43.8 shots. Sullivan spent a lot of time on Pittsburgh's top power play unit playing alonside guys like Malkin, Neal, and Kris Letang so, again, he certainly had a lot of help and it wasn't all him.

But even just by watching the unit they seemed to be significantly better and much more efficient with him out there.

Sullivan isn't going to walk into Phoenix and lead the team in scoring like Whitney did, and I don't know that he's going to be as productive as Whitney was at even strength when it comes to scoring goals. One of the most maddening things about Sullivan is how often he has an open look in a scoring chance area and instead of letting it rip (he still has a very good shot) he passes it up to make a pass. But if the Coyotes can get their power play going in the right direction and improve they might be able to make up for some of what they've lost with Whitney this summer.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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