Wayne has Great hopes

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

In the midst of his team's first field trip of the year, Wayne Gretzky fought back a grin when discussing an issue few NHL coaches are confronted with these days.

"The big thing for us now is that when we go on the road we've got to get letters of consent from their parents to get across the border since they're not travelling with their families," said Gretzky yesterday, maintaining a straight face.

"That's one of our biggest issues."

One year after committing fully to a youth movement that saw a handful of rookies help the perennial also-rans press mildly for a playoff spot, Gretzky's Coyotes find themselves entertaining thoughts of starting the year with four more raw rookies.

And while that may sound daunting in a city where fans have heard that familiar refrain year after year, Gretzky has reason to believe this year is different.

"Last year it was still a little foggy but it's clear now this group is going to be good down the road -- question is will it be right now or will it be a year from now," said Gretzky, perhaps finally justified in suggesting so.

"We definitely are going to be a much more talented team."

Last year, the list of productive youngsters in Phoenix was topped by Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and two Daniels -- Carcillo and Winnik. This year, the payoff of stockpiling draft picks the last three years has a half-dozen young hotshots vying for opening night desert gigs.

"Viktor Tikhonov, 20 (28th pick this year and grandson of the legendary Russian coach) has a tremendous shot at making it, so does (Canadian World Junior star) Kyle Turris (19) and Mikkel Boedker (18)," said Gretzky.

"We have a young 21-year old defenceman in (Jonas) Ahnelov that gives us an element we haven't had in the past -- a physical presence in the neutral zone. He's got a good shot to make the team as does Kevin Porter (22), who was a Hobey Baker winner last year and has had a great camp."

A few other things the club had been missing in Gretzky's eyes have also been addressed like team toughness and a first-line centre. Veteran Olli Jokinen was acquired (for Keith Ballard) to fill the latter role and Brian McGrattan and Todd Fedoruk were landed to allow Carcillo -- last year's NHL penalty-minute leader --to focus on being a contributor offensively.

"Last year at this time we were hoping for a lot of things to fall in place -- two were Mueller and Hanzal and they were ready earlier than we thought," said Gretzky, whose no-name lineup was dominated by the Flames last night.

"Then Ilya Bryzgalov fell in our lap."

And with the addition of a bona fide No. 1 goalie, the Coyotes found themselves hovering around that final playoff spot until a meltdown in the final month put an end to that. Stunningly solid on the road their ultimate demise was a losing home record, which Gretzky says will have to be improved dramatically to break a playoff drought that's lasted since 2002.

"Our home record was horrendous and if we're going to make the playoffs we need to play .700 or .750 at home," said Gretzky, whose club is obviously uninspired by the emotionless, three-quarters full building they call home.

"We've got to figure out a way to change that culture. It's a young team, it's talented and the future is bright finally in the sense that this core of guys can be here a long time."

Citing the leadership of Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris and now Jokinen, Gretzky says time will tell if his club has the right balance to make waves this year.

"We really like where we're at right now but the bad news for us is Edmonton will be better, so will Calgary, and Chicago and Vancouver -- it's just a tough conference," said the fourth-year coach.

"We knew it was going to be a process and it would take some time. If you look at the success of Pittsburgh and Ottawa, you've got to bottom out so you can pluck from the pool."

A kiddie pool he's actually excited about supervising.


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