GLENDALE, Ariz. – Anticipation and expectations rose from the desert at the start of the 2013-14 NHL season.
The Phoenix Coyotes had owners for the first time in four years. They had money to spend, at least more than in previous years.
The front-line scorer they had coveted for so long was there. So was the franchise goalie, locked up to a long-term contract.
They had stability in the front office, a new connection with fans who no longer had to worry the team would pull up stakes and move somewhere else.
By the time the season ended on Sunday, the Coyotes ended up in the same place as last season: Out of the playoffs.
Plagued by an inability to close out games and one of the worst closing stretches in franchise history, the Coyotes failed to make the playoffs for the second straight season, a trend that could lead to big off-season changes.
“We have to be better,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said Monday from Jobing.com Arena. “That’s what we have to look at and that’s what we all want. We have to be better, certainly than we were this year.”
Everything looked so bright during the summer, when George Gosbee, Anthony LeBlanc and the rest of IceArizona completed their purchase of the team from the NHL. The new owners promised a new influx of money and Phoenix made a big-splash signing during free agency, landing centre Mike Ribeiro, who was coming off a point-per-game season with Washington.
Phoenix also signed goalie Mike Smith to a lucrative five-year deal and locked up Maloney, coach Dave Tippett and his staff to stay in the desert.
Knowing the team was here to stay reignited fan interest and the Coyotes gave them even more to cheer about by opening 14-4-3, the second-best start for a franchise that started in Winnipeg in 1979.
An almost unheard of offensive outburst—at least in the desert—fueled the good start, but it was only a window dressing for what was going on behind the glitter.
While it was fun to watch, the Coyotes had gotten away from the defence-first philosophy during the opening weeks of the season, outscoring teams instead of outlasting them.
Once the offence dried up, so did the wins.
Phoenix found its outwork-their-opponent mojo for stretches after that, though never consistently. A team that had grinded until finding ways to win games, the Coyotes instead were creating ways to lose.
Even with all their struggles, the Coyotes still had a shot at claiming the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot with Dallas unable to run away with it. Instead, Phoenix lost seven of its final eight games, playing the final two at home with their summer plans already set.
It was the Coyotes’ worst finishing stretch since closing 2-17-4 in 1980-81, their second season as a franchise. Phoenix finished 37-30-15 and had 89 points—two behind Dallas for eighth in the West.
“Obviously, to not make the playoffs, you need to find your identity and get back to it,” defenceman Keith Yandle said. “A few years ago, we did that and won some games, and we need to get back to that, find ways to win games.”
Part of the problem was injuries.
Every NHL franchise loses players during the season, but what hurt the Coyotes were the players who got hurt and when it happened.
Captain Shane Doan got off to one of the best starts to his career, but missed 12 games after contracting Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and had to work his way back into shape even after he returned.
Martin Hanzal laboured over the final two months of the season while battling hip and groin injuries. A shutdown centre and a big presence in front of the net offensively, he missed 11 games after March 2, including the final four.
Perhaps the biggest blow came on March 24, when Smith went down with a right knee injury after the New York Rangers’ Derick Brassard fell awkwardly on him.
Smith had an up-and-down start to the season, but had gotten back to playing well before he was hurt. He missed the final 10 game with what the team revealed on Monday to be a sprained right MCL.
Adding to Phoenix’s problems was the freefall of Ribeiro.
He was as good as advertised early, leading the Coyotes in scoring over the first two months, but a nonfactor over the final two, scoring two goals over the final 25 games and being a healthy scratch twice. He finished with 47 points, fifth on the team.
“If I had played a little bit better, we’d have made the playoffs,” Ribeiro said. “I take zero positives from this season, but I at least know it can’t get any worse.”
Now the Coyotes have some decisions to make.
Their style of play worked in the past, but now they seem to be caught between the big-and-brawny teams like Boston and the Los Angeles Kings, and the speed teams like Detroit and Chicago. Phoenix got better on the power play this season, a big emphasis, but continued to struggle with scoring despite that initial outburst early in the season.
The Coyotes will spend the off-season trying to decide whether to give younger players bigger opportunities, bring in a piece or two here or there, or alter the team’s core.
Something has to change.