GLENDALE, Ariz. – Everything fell perfectly into place for the Phoenix Coyotes last season.
The team without an owner rode a fabulous February to its first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise and kept winning all the way to the Western Conference finals, bringing along quite a bandwagon of fans as it went.
The Coyotes also got a potential owner along the way, capping what was easily the best season in franchise history.
Now they’re hoping the 113-day NHL lockout will only be a speed bump to the momentum they’ve built.
With essentially the same roster that won the Pacific Division and owner-in-waiting Greg Jamison on the cusp of buying the team, Phoenix is in good shape for this year’s shortened 48-game schedule and beyond.
“It feels like we just came out of an All-Star break or something like that—we’ve got the same team there,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said.
For the most part, they do.
Phoenix lost playmaking wing Ray Whitney, young forward Taylor Pyatt, centre Daymond Langkow, along with defencemen Michal Rozsival and Adrian Aucoin. Whitney and Pyatt were arguably the biggest losses, but the Coyotes made some solid pickups during the off-season, adding left wing Steve Sullivan, defenceman Zbynek Michalek and right wing David Moss.
They made their most intriguing move a few days before the season was about to start.
Centre Matthew Lombardi, one of the NHL’s fastest skaters, will return to the Valley of the Sun after the Coyotes traded a 2014 fourth-round draft pick to get him from Toronto.
During his first stint with Phoenix, Lombardi was one of the team’s best players, leading a playoff surge after arriving in a trade from Calgary during the 2008-09 season, then scoring 19 goals with 34 goals the next year.
Lombardi left for more money in 2010, but never found the success he had with the Coyotes, missing all but two games because of a neck injury with Nashville in 2010-11 and managing 18 points in a limited role with the Maple Leafs a year ago.
After hearing reports of Lombardi’s speed and skill level during the Coyotes’ informal workouts during the lockout, Phoenix general manager Don Maloney made landing the 30-year-old a priority and wound up with a great deal, giving up a draft pick and getting Toronto to pick up a portion of his salary.
Maloney believed Lombardi was the square peg trying to fit into a round hole with the Maple Leafs and is hoping he can flourish again back in the desert.
“The long and short of it is we just knew we had a little more insight than maybe the next team,” Maloney said.
Even if Lombardi isn’t the player he once was, the Coyotes should be in good shape.
Phoenix flourished under Tippett’s close-to-the-vest style last season, limiting scoring chances, getting superb goaltending and scoring opportunistic goals while winning the Pacific Division and going deeper in the playoffs than it ever had.
Little is expected to change this season.
After a drawn-out process created by an uncertain ownership situation, the Coyotes locked up captain Shane Doan just before the lockout, signing him to a four-year, $21.2 million deal.
Phoenix still has Radim Vrbata, a 35-goal scorer last season, two-time All-Star defenceman Keith Yandle and a good mix of veteran players and up-and-comers who fill specific roles with the team.
And the Coyotes have Mike Smith.
Given a shot at being a No. 1 goalie really for the first time in his career, Smith flourished.
Big and athletic, the shaggy haired goalie known as Smitty had 38 wins and eight shutouts while posting a 2.21 goals-against average last season. Smith almost single-handedly kept the Coyotes in games for stretches of the season, stealing victories as they pushed toward a division title and into the conference finals.
Carrying the confidence of last season with him, there’s no reason to think Smith won’t be as good this season.
“Last year’s playoff run really matured him as a player,” Tippett said. “He obviously has the talent to be a top goaltender, but the maturity from his experience as a No. 1 in the playoffs I think will bode well for him.”
With Smith between the pipes and many of the same players around him, the Coyotes are hoping to make another playoff run this season—maybe even deeper than the year before.