Coyotes’ frustrating season comes to an end

GLENDALE, Ariz. – When Dave Tippett finally reached the podium Friday night following the Coyotes’ shootout loss to the Avalanche at Arena, his facial expression looked like that of someone who had been force-fed a deep cup of lukewarm, three-day-old coffee.
“I didn’t like that whole game,” Tippett said. “No meaning. Even an exhibition game, you’re evaluating players. Here, you’re just playing.”
If this season’s home finale was in fact the final Coyotes home game ever played in Arizona, it was at once both an unfair swan song of what this group has accomplished in its last few seasons and a fitting end to this frustrating season.
The Coyotes blew an early two-goal lead, goalie Mike Smith was mediocre in net, there were maddening defensive lapses for a club that prides itself on Tupperware tightness and, of course, there was a head-scratching loss to an unworthy opponent.
“It’s been a frustrating year. There are a lot of tight games where we’re losing in shootouts,” forward Antoine Vermette said. “It’s one point, yes, but if you look at the big picture of the standings at the end of the year, it’s so tight, and those (lost) points were crucial.”
The Coyotes will wrap up their season Saturday night in Anaheim and then break apart for what promises to be a lengthy and eventful offseason. There are numerous well-chronicled issues the club must address before training camp begins next fall.
Smith is a free agent, and the Coyotes must decide the price at which he’s worth bringing back.
Forwards Boyd Gordon, Kyle Chipchura, Rob Klinkhammer, Chris Conner and Alex Bolduc are unrestricted free agents, as are backup goalies Jason LaBarbera and Chad Johnson.
Forwards Mikkel Boedker and Lauri Korpikoski as well as defenseman Michael Stone are restricted free agents.
Tippett and general manager Don Maloney both have expiring contracts. And, of course, the team still does not have an owner, which Tippett believes had a greater impact this season than in any of the previous three rudderless campaigns.
“I felt it more this year around the group because everybody knows that there’s got to be a conclusion,” he said. “This year, it’s going to be a forced solution because of contracts of management, of coaches, of players, of staff. Everybody knows there’s going to be some kind of solution. Could be good, could be bad, could be indifferent.
“But put yourself in those shoes with the instability there. As much as you walk in the door every day and you’re committed, there’s a lot of stuff swirling out there.”
Free agency opens July 5 this season, and all of those dominoes must fall before then or the Coyotes could witness mass defections from the management group on down.
In the meantime, the painful truth that this team needs more skill was driven home again and again this season with a club that was shut out seven times on the road and has slipped to 20th in the league in goals per game (2.47) despite Friday’s output.
“We have a lot of players that work hard — in the guts of the game, they’re good players,” Tippett said. “But at some point, we need some difference-makers.”
The evaluation process of the roster will begin shortly, Tippett said.
“We’ll have a pretty good idea of where we want to be and the players that we think fit in, hopefully we can sign,” Tippett said. “The players where we want to make changes, hopefully we can make changes that improve our hockey team.”
Over the next couple of weeks, Tippett will drink in everything that went wrong this season and attempt to cope with a flavor he’s never tasted before.
“I don’t think I’ve ever, in coaching, been involved in a seven-game losing streak. That really gets frustrating,” he said before turning his thoughts to the bigger picture of the lockout-impacted season.
“Frustration in the way it started and when it started. It started late when we were hoping that we could use the momentum from the playoff. Started poorly. 
“The trademarks of this team have been consistency, work, play to its identity all the time and strong goaltending. We had glimpses of that, but not the levels we needed to earn ourselves into being a playoff team.”
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter