SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — With reporters and cameramen crowded around him in a tight hallway Monday at the Ice Den, the Coyotes’ practice facility, Shane Doan was asked just how contentious labor negotiations got between the NHL and the NHL Players Association over the past few months.
“It was actually just a great big kumbaya,” Doan said with that familiar, innocent grin. “Everyone was happy.”
With that, it was tempting to believe that normalcy had returned to the Valley’s favorite hockey team. Doan was cracking jokes, Mike Smith’s hair was still a talking point and Boyd Gordon was putting himself in harm’s way on the ice, colliding with Kyle Chipchura and getting his bell rung.
But this will be anything but an ordinary hockey season — and that’s saying something when talking about the ownership-starved Coyotes. With just one week of training camp and just 48 games to decide who goes to the playoffs and who goes home, there is a sense of urgency already present before the coaches, players and management team are even allowed to gather in the same space.
“From a fan’s perspective, it will be exciting because everything means something,” general manager Don Maloney said. “It may not be playoff hockey, but it’s not far off.”
The challenges are myriad with so little time to prepare. The coaches must install their systems in a week. The players must get in game shape and build chemistry with their teammates. The management team must decide if any personnel moves can and/or should be made.
In one sense, the Coyotes may be in better shape than many teams because a lot of their players have been skating together throughout this protracted lockout.
“Skates here were pretty competitive,” reacquired defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. “When you talk to guys from different teams, different cities, they only have a few guys skating (together). Here we had 10 or more guys all the time. You get to bond with the guys, get together, go for lunch, skate together, play golf — that’s very important.”
“Plus the core of our team is the same,” Maloney added. “We still have the majority of that group that went to the conference finals, so it’s not like we have to integrate a whole lot of new faces.”
Maloney said Monday that training camp will be a bare-bones affair, with no junior players and few minor leaguers who don’t have an obvious chance to make the roster in attendance.
“Early in most seasons, you might try some things, experiment a little with the lineup,” Maloney said. “But now, you can’t dip your toe in the water. You have to be ready to go. A bad start can seal your fate in such a short season.”
That doesn’t preclude a deal or two, Maloney said, noting vaguely that there are a couple things he’d like to do if the opportunity arises and makes sense. Anybody who follows this team knows it is deep on defense and has an All-Star-caliber goaltender in Smith, so forward help — specifically scoring help — would be the obvious thing to look for.
But there is much work to be done in other areas, too, including some off the ice. Some analysts have warned of a fan backlash that could lead to lower attendance figures, but the Coyotes may be helped by the fact that the Cardinals just wrapped up a 5-11 season and the Suns are hovering anywhere between a high and mid-level lottery pick.
The Coyotes are the best team in town — a club fresh off a Pacific Division title and berth in the Western Conference final — so they have an obvious advantage, even if they aren’t taking it for granted when speaking to their fan base.
“We’re going to do everything we can to earn back their appreciation of the sport,” Doan said. “There’s no use saying whose fault (it is) or who did what. I think we all owe them an apology.”
As for fears that this long layoff hurt whatever momentum the Coyotes had built from a long-awaited playoff run, Doan was realistic in assessing the road ahead.
“We’ve got to try to get that momentum back as an organization,” Doan said. “Raising a (Pacific Division) banner — hopefully that helps.”