GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes spent three seasons shrugging off their uncertain future, keeping their focus on the ice as one potential owner after another popped up then disappeared.
This season, with the ownership situation headed toward resolution one way or another, the Coyotes may have been looking over their shoulder instead of at the puck.
Finally succumbing to the weight of four years of uncertainty, the Coyotes got the strike-shortened 2013 season off to a slow start and never fully recovered to miss the playoffs a year after reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time.
“I think everybody knows there’s going to be some kind of solution here,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “It could be good, it could be bad, it could be indifferent, I don’t know. For me personally, I felt it more with the group this year because everybody knows that there’s got to be a conclusion.”
The Coyotes had been able to handle a cloudy future before.
Despite being run by the NHL since former owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy in 2009, the Coyotes managed to remain focused, reaching the playoffs each of the past three seasons.
Phoenix hit a pinnacle last season, earning its first division title in 33 NHL seasons and the Western Conference finals as fan support around the Valley of the Sun reached a high not since the team moved from Winnipeg in 1996.
Hoping to build on the momentum of last season, the Coyotes stalled out after the NHL lockout delayed the season’s start until late January and cut the schedule to 48 games.
Phoenix had a slow start out of the gates in the sprint of a season, losing four of its first five games, and never quite gained enough traction to make it all the way back.
Injuries were a part of it.
Right wing Radim Vrbata, Phoenix’s leading goal-scorer a year ago, missed 14 games in the middle of the season with a foot injury. Defenceman Zbynek Michalek also missed 14 games and was never fully healthy after returning. Also, centre Martin Hanzal, left wing Lauri Korpikoski and defenceman David Schlemko all missed significant time.
Captain Shane Doan also fought through back pain the final two weeks of the season and defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson had a foot injury and a cut finger that made it difficult for him to even hold his stick.
The most significant injuries were to goalie Mike Smith.
He carried the team during a late-season push and into the playoffs a year ago, but suffered a groin injury the third game this season. He also was hurt two other times, missing a total of 12 games, and finished 15-12-5 with a 2.58 goals-against average.
“You look at the season he had a year ago, he was all-world, certainly from February on and he came in at the start of the season and got injured early,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said during an end-of-the-season news conference on Sunday. “He is where he was a year ago, we’re not having this gathering.”
But it was more than injuries.
The Coyotes never seemed to click, hurt by the slow start and a lack of front-line scoring.
Phoenix has always been a close-to-the-vest team under Tippett, but had trouble playing consistently in front of Smith—Jason LaBarbera and Chad Johnson, while he was out—during the strike-shortened season.
The Coyotes also had trouble scoring goals again, something they couldn’t overcome this season.
A seven-game losing streak in March that included three straight shutouts put a big dent in the Coyotes’ bid for a fourth straight playoff appearance and instead of making a late-season push, they faded down the stretch to play a final week of meaningless games for the first time under Tippett.
Phoenix finished 21-18-9 and had 51 points, four short of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
“The lack of success wasn’t because of injuries,” Smith said. “It was just because it was a different year, a tough year on a team like ours that relies solely on systems and we lacked consistency in that aspect.”
The hope for consistency at the top of the organization is still murky.
The Coyotes thought they had the perfect suitor in former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison, only to see his bid stall out after missing a deadline with the City of Glendale on a lease agreement for Jobing.com Arena. Several new suitors have popped up, but no deal has been reached with the NHL and a deal with Glendale still has to be ironed out.
The ongoing saga appears to building toward a head, with the NHL expected to go ahead with one of the prospective owners to keep the team in Arizona or allow it to relocate in the next month or so.
“The positive thing for Arizona hockey fans is that it will be settled,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “We still remain hopeful that it will work out here. I’m encouraged by the things I know, but I’m an optimistic person by nature, too.”
The Coyotes managed to work around the financial restraints of playing without an owner the previous three seasons, trading for and signing productive players at manageable salaries.
Phoenix also locked up Doan, agreeing to a four-year, $21.2 million contract after the captain took a leap of faith that the ownership issue would be resolved, and signed Ekman-Larsson, the team’s MVP, during the season.
But the lack of an owner seemed to make things more difficult this season.
Still in the playoff hunt at the trade deadline, the Coyotes were forced to trade veterans Raffi Torres, Matthew Lombardi and Steve Sullivan to unload contracts of potential free agents.
The uncertainty also kept Phoenix from locking up several of the organization’s other free agents, including Smith, Boyd Gordon, Kyle Chipchura, Rob Klinkhammer and LaBarbera.
The contracts of Maloney, Tippett and numerous others in the organization also are up, leaving a lot of holes to fill and no owner to pull the strings.
“We’ve said it all along that we feel like it’s a competitive disadvantage to be in the spot we’re in and nobody wants to be in the spot we’re in,” Doan said. “There’s a reason why teams that go through what we’ve gone through usually struggle. We’ve been fortunate to have the right group of guys in the room to deal with and Tip has done a great job of keeping it out, but we’d love for the whole thing to be done, for sure.”
It appears to be headed that way—one way or another.