WASHINGTON, D.C. — Saturday began so well for the Coyotes in the nation’s capital. Former Capital and Potomac, Md. native Jeff Halpern brought doughnuts and gift cards from Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken, a local restaurant he co-owns, for his teammates.
A spell of bad weather gave way to a sunny day with temperatures in the 60s, the players got a chance to bond on the road with newest teammate, Martin Erat, and Brandon McMillan and Radim Vrbata staked the team to a 2-0 lead over the Caps after two periods at Verizon Center.
Then it all unraveled, and that has been an all too-common occurrence for the Coyotes this season — especially away from Jobing.com Arena. Protecting leads used to be one of the hallmarks of coach Dave Tippett’s club. If the Coyotes scored first or got a lead on you, a comeback became a monumental task.
Yet, while Phoenix has held the lead in 19 road games this season, the Coyotes have managed to win just seven of those games. That’s an ominous trend for a team chasing the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. Starting with that game in Washington, the Coyotes were due to play 11 of their final 19 games away from home, including three more on this trip in Tampa, north of Miami and in Boston.
Phoenix is 10-13-8 on the road this season. The five clubs below them — Nashville, Florida, Calgary, Edmonton and Buffalo — have five of the NHL’s seven lowest point totals and none of them will make the playoffs.
"We’re going to have to pay the price to win or with a tough schedule like that we’ll find ourselves on the outside," Tippett said.
It’s been a popular refrain lately to criticize Tippett’s system as too passive when the team takes leads. The belief is that the Coyotes retreat into a defensive shell and allow the other team to gain momentum and rally.
It’s an age-old criticism born of skin-deep analysis. These same criticisms didn’t exist two seasons ago when Tippett’s team was closing out games. So, to refresh, when your team blows leads you’re too defensive or too passive, but when your team holds leads, you’re a lockdown defensive club.
Never mind that Tippett is preaching and implementing the same principles he did two seasons ago. The structure and approach aren’t the problem. The execution is. Tippett can’t make a player block shots. Tippett can’t make a player execute his assignments. Tippett can’t get inside a player’s head to make sure he doesn’t repeat the same careless mistakes.
If the Coyotes fail to make the playoffs for a second season, Tippett will surely garner some of the blame. He’ll be fine with that. That goes with the job and he understands that. But if anyone is under the misguided notion that Tippett could take the fall for this club’s second straight early spring, think again.
"He has a straight-forward, honest approach, he earns tons of respect, he coaches to his teams’ strengths and he gets the most of his teams," NBC NHL analyst Ed Olczyk said. "I would have loved to have played for him. I played against him too many times."
Let’s put it in simple English. Tippett is widely considered one of the best coaches in the NHL. If he were to be let go at any point in the future (there’s not a chance it will happen after this season), he’d be snapped up quickly. So if his principles aren’t taking hold, maybe it’s the personnel that is the issue.
The Coyotes’ lack of top-end forward skill has been explored ad nauseam. Without it, it’s hard to erase glaring mistakes — mistakes that will happen in every game — with goals. The Coyotes’ need for a physical, shutdown defenseman has also been well-worn. Without one, they have difficulty shutting things down in their own end.
Tippett was angry about Keith Yandle’s failure to block a shot from the point while he screened goalie Mike Smith on Washington’s first goal Saturday. But Yandle has never and will never be known as a defensive stalwart. He made a mistake and he makes them often in his own end and with the puck, but he gives the Coyotes something at the other end that is in precious short supply: world-class offensive skill.
The problem isn’t so much Yandle. The Coyotes would like his defensive game to improve, but he is who he is. The problem is that some of the pieces that have been tucked in around Yandle and other core players don’t fit as well as the pieces that were here two years ago. Tippett had a hand in some of those personnel decisions, so if you want to criticize the coach, maybe that’s where you should look.
But if you want to focus on the structure and style of play, just know that people with a whole lot more knowledge of this game disagree with that analysis. The core of the problem for the Coyotes is simple.