GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dave Tippett experienced a level of disappointment Friday night that he had never experienced in his NHL coaching career, missing the postseason for two consecutive years.
"It’s a frustrating time. You’re in this business to win," the Coyotes coach said. "Ultimately, when you don’t make the playoffs, you have to make changes to get better, and that’ll be the goal like every year."
Those changes will be determined over the next two months through a series of meetings between ownership and the hockey operations department. Then they’ll be executed over the following two months.
Watch them closely, because those moves will say a lot about how involved ownership is, or is not, in the actual personnel decisions.
"We need to make some changes in the overall mix of the team, but that’s where we look to the guidance of (GM) Don (Maloney) and (assistant GM) Brad (Treliving) and, of course, Dave and his staff," Coyotes co-owner Anthony LeBanc said Saturday before San Jose’s meaningless 3-2 win over Phoenix at Jobing.com Arena. "My gut reaction, I’d like to see some of these younger guys get a chance. But at the end of the day, we said it from the beginning and we continue to mean it: As owners, we’re going to put our focus on the business side and let what we feel is the best tandem of GM/coach in the league to do their job."
That’s where it gets tricky. Giving young defensemen Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy greater roles next year makes sense based on the promise they’ve shown and the likely departure of free-agent-to-be Derek Morris.
Bringing top prospect Max Domi or Portland’s Lucas Lessio in for look-sees also makes sense. Domi has elite talent and a mature body; Lessio might add some edge, grit and speed. But if the Coyotes try to add prospects Tyler Gaudet and Henrik Samuelsson to the mix as well, that’s taking a huge risk with three junior players (Domi included) who have played exactly zero games of professional hockey — in the AHL or the NHL.
Remember the last time the Coyotes tried to force a lot of youth into the lineup during the Gretzky years? Remember Maloney saying then that he’d never make that mistake again — a mistake that probably stunted the growth of players such as Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker and Peter Mueller while perhaps hastening Turris’ exit?
The problem? Maloney and Tippett lost a little leverage when they missed the playoffs for a second straight season. Ownership is impatient — something fans like — but they are also inexperienced at running a hockey club.
And then there’s this truth: If youth is too much a part of the roster next season, it’s not only a questionable decision given those players’ experience level but also a financial decision that will save the team money. However that move is spun, how would the fan base react to a drop in spending?
It’s true that this year’s free-agent class is thin and comprised mainly of aging players. The prices could be high because of the small supply. It’s also true that trades or free-agent signings are not cure-alls — a point that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman drove home with LeBlanc on the day IceArizona closed the sale of the club.
"He said, ‘Whenever you think that one trade is going to make all the difference, you’re wrong,’" LeBlanc said.
But the ownership group said at the trade deadline that it was committed to adding more high-end offensive pieces. So if they wanted 30-year-olds Ales Hemsky or Thomas Vanek then, why not pursue them again in free agency if they are available? And if they still feel they have a surplus on their blue line or some forwards who might bring a return, why not pursue trades?
The franchise must balance the need to develop its own prospects with the need to stay competitive, and this year’s team was not as far off as the gloomy current view suggests.
If it hadn’t been for a butt goal in Buffalo, a phantom goal in Toronto, a Thomas Greiss mishandle against Edmonton, 24 blown leads (13 in the third period), a case of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or a Mike Smith knee injury in New York, Phoenix could have earned just a couple extra points to make that season finale against Dallas meaningful.
The Coyotes missed the playoffs, and that can’t be accepted. They also got next to no production from a highly paid group of veteran forwards when it mattered most this season. There will and should be fallout from that drought.
But that doesn’t mean Phoenix should clean house. And it doesn’t mean the Coyotes can afford to go young and cheap in a market that only tolerates winning — a market that still keeps that five-year out clause in the back of its mind.
"At the end of the day, the worst thing we could do as owners is try to say that we know how to fix anything that ails us," LeBlanc said. "This team is right on the verge, and the team did make significant changes in the offseason. There’s no question we have to make some more changes, but it’s not like we have to do a complete redo."
It would be prudent for the rest of the ownership group to remember those words.