It was rarified air for the Coyotes. A Pacific Division title, the first in 33 years for a franchise born in Winnipeg that joined the NHL in 1979. The first playoff series win since the team moved to the desert — only the third in franchise history — followed by another to push into the Western Conference finals.
But perhaps more important was that a team that has long been No. 4 in a four-sport town, one fighting for its survival amid the quest for stable ownership, had the undivided attention of Arizona sports fans and a suddenly full bandwagon.
So if former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison is finally approved as the owner of the team, securing its future for at least the near future, and if GM Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett are given more to work with and more time to concentrate on hockey rather than impending doom, 2012 could be the beginning of a new, successful chapter for this franchise.
“It was a phenomenal year. Everyone stuck to what we do, and we didn’t spent a lot of time worrying about who owned us,” Maloney said. “What we’ve done is establish a base of expectations and how we move forward. We’re not the team you’ve seen the last 33 years, and we hope it’s not going to be another 33 before we get to the semifinals. Our model is New Jersey, the (Detroit) Red Wings … in (the) playoffs with a chance to win every year.”
That’s the plan. But for every New Jersey and Detroit, there are teams like Tampa Bay, which, which made the conference finals in 2011 but missed the playoffs entirely in 2012, and Montreal, which reached the conference finals in 2010 and hasn’t been back to the playoffs since. Of the four teams to reach the conference finals this season, none of them had been that far since the Devils in 2003.
The Coyotes have six unrestricted free agents, four more restricted free agents and holes that needed filling already. One of those free agents, 40-year-old Ray Whitney, helped lead Carolina to the 2006 Stanley Cup before the Hurricanes missed the playoffs the next season.
“The organization took a step forward, and hopefully it builds some momentum with the area and the people,” Whitney said. “But to assume you’re going to be in the conference finals next year? It’s not going to be as easy as saying, ‘We’re going to get there because we got there this year.'”
The Coyotes have a lot going for them, starting with the elite off-ice tandem of Maloney and Tippett, hailed around the league for the job he’s done in Phoenix. They have a 30-year-old goalie in Mike Smith, who had a fantastic season and is hungry for more, a solid and sound defensive corps, several quality forwards who are signed to long term deals (Antoine Vermette, Radim Vrbata) and young players such as forward Mikkel Boedker and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson who are just coming of age.
The rest depends on stable ownership ensuring the franchise’s future, equipping Maloney and Tippett with the tools to do their jobs and keeping what’s been built on the ice intact.
According to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Jamison is closing on a finalized deal, which could bring a sense of normalcy to the franchise for the first time since the spring of 2009.
All in all, it was an amazing year. The challenge now is to make it a typical one. NOTES, QUOTES
— The Coyotes lost all three of their home games to the Kings in the conference finals — no shame considering that Los Angeles still hasn’t lost on the road in the postseason. But they also lost two of three to the Blackhawks in the first round and finished 4-5 at Jobing.com Arena in the postseason, not a great performance in front of the WhiteOut crowds.
But those numbers weren’t much different from the regular season, when the Coyotes were a .500 team at home at the end of January (10-10-4) before winning 12 of their last 17 on home ice (12-3-2) to finish 22-13-6 for the year. That’s almost identical to last year (21-13-7) and a far cry from the 29-10-2 mark they had in Dave Tippett’s first season in Phoenix, when they set franchise records with 50 wins and 107 points.
Home-ice advantage starts with an atmosphere and an attitude. This year’s run to the conference finals should help a team that ranked dead last in attendance this year, and perhaps the attitude will follow.
— It wasn’t talked about much during the regular season — in other markets, especially Canada, it was spoken about as if it was an advantage for the Coyotes to not have an owner and instead be run by the National Hockey League — but one of the hidden disadvantages for the team this year was it had no say when the league drew up the schedule.
The NHL wanted to give the Coyotes a chance to have as many Saturday night home dates as possible (they had 15 Saturday home games and only six road games) and backloaded the home games in February and March to maximize the crowds in Glendale.
But the downside was an incredibly difficult early-season schedule. From Nov. 29 through Jan. 18, the Coyotes played 17 of 25 games on the road and had only one homestand of more than one game, effectively making six of the seven games in Glendale just another part of the road trip.
The Coyotes lost 16 of those 25 games (9-11-5) and were in 12th place by the end of January before an unlikely 11-0-1 February turned the season around. But that put the team in playoff mode for four months, a pace that eventually caught up to them.
“The scheduling we was the worst I’ve seen in 20 years,” Coyotes winger Ray Whitney said. “But who’s (general manager) Donny (Maloney) going to complain to? (NHL deputy commissioner) Bill Daly? He’s the one who’s sending it in.”
Whitney also pointed to the 25-game suspension handed to Raffi Torres — ending his postseason in the first round — and other penalties called on the Coyotes during the playoffs that weren’t disputed because there was no one in place to do so.
“If you have an owner that’s not going to stand up for some of that (refereeing) that you saw …” Whitney said. “Our owner gave the trophy out to the other team. Do you think he gives a (expletive)?” QUOTE TO NOTE
“We plan to keep Shane. He’s not going anywhere if I have anything to do with it. Once we have our ownership settled, we will immediately go after Shane and do everything we can to keep him a Coyote for the rest of his career.” — Coyotes general manager Don Maloney on the team’s desire to re-sign captain Shane Doan. PLAYER NOTES
— C Antoine Vermette proved to be a great trade-deadline pickup and a great fit for a team that needed a playmaking center. Vermette is signed for three more seasons at a $3.75 million and says he loves the desert lifestyle after having spent time in Ottawa and Columbus. He finished the season between Mikkel Boedker and Shane Doan, and that trio might stay intact moving forward.
— RW Radim Vrbata led the Coyotes with 35 goals during the regular season, but he struggled during the postseason and finished with just two goals and five points in 16 games. He ended the season battling an allergic reaction to penicillin and suffered a shoulder injury on the first shift of the playoffs against Chicago. Vrbata said he finally felt more like himself against the Kings, but he was neutralized during the conference finals.
— G Mike Smith has one year left on his contract at a bargain $2 million salary. Smith said he isn’t in any rush to sign a contract extension, but he will be a priority for the Coyotes once the ownership situation is clarified. Another important move would be to sign goalie coach Sean Burke, whom he credits with a big part of his success in a career season.