GLENDALE — On the eve of opening night, the Phoenix Coyotes have plenty of reasons to be optimistic for a return to the playoffs this season.
Goalie Mike Smith is healthy, confident and motivated.
They have eight players who could realistically play defense for any given game.
And a few youngsters managed to crack the lineup — a sign of successful drafting.
But what still nags at them is the lack of a playmaker for the second line.
“We still need a top two- or three-line offensive player,” general manager Don Maloney said.
In the meantime, Lauri Korpikosk will slot into that spot, and he’s the smart choice. He practiced with center Martin Hanzal and right wing Radim Vrbata for stretches of training camp and has some playing experience with them from prior seasons.
Korpikoski is quick, has a nifty wrist shot and can form a shutdown penalty-kill pairing with Hanzal.
“We’ll try to work on some chemistry and things that should be automatic in a game, and hopefully it will work,” Vrbata said.
The search for a left winger started in the off-season and continued at training camp. The Coyotes brought in Guillaume Latendresse for a tryout, but he didn’t pan out.
They also considered up-and-comer Max Domi for the position. Domi played three preseason games with the Czech duo before he was sent back to the junior Ontario Hockey League when camp adjourned Saturday, and Vrbata saw improvement from the 18-year-old in each game.
“You could see in those three games he was learning how to play this style (coach Dave Tippett) wants to play,” Vrbata said.
And the style for this line is particularly suitable. Vrbata’s skill makes the unit an offensive threat and the best the Coyotes have behind the Mikkel Boedker, Mike Ribeiro and Shane Doan trio.
It’s also a matchup line that usually challenges the opponent’s best because of the presence of 6-foot-6-inch Hanzal.
Finding a player who is offensively talented and a sound defender isn’t easy. Domi possessed the first but likely needed more time and experience to become the latter for the Coyotes.
“You can see it in practice he looks more to pass than shoot, so somebody’s gotta like to shoot all the time,” Vrbata said. “He’s looking for somebody who’s in a better position. That’s actually nice to see.”
Korpikoski will attempt to fill that responsibility of feeding the puck to Vrbata, who scored 35 goals in 2011-12 when he had a set-up man in Ray Whitney on his line.
“Vrby, obviously, is a very skilled guy on the wing,” Korpikoski said. “So (I’ll) try to get him scoring chances and get open for him and just read off Vrby.”
But the line will have a grace period to figure it out. The Coyotes just hope they eventually do.
“Early on, everybody will have so much energy and it’ll be so much running around I don’t think it’ll be too much about making pretty plays,” Vrbata said.
“It will be more about hard work and some defensive breakdowns. But for me, chemistry is a big thing. If we click with somebody, that helps so much.”