Anthony LeBlanc called owning an NHL franchise every Canadian kid’s dream when his group completed the purchase of the Phoenix Coyotes last summer.
LeBlanc’s first season as an owner lived up to expectations except for one glaring hole: A late-season slide that caused the Coyotes to just miss the playoffs.
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”Other than the disappointment of not making the playoffs, it really was a dream come true to have the ability to run a hockey club and get a season under our belts and learn what we did right and we did wrong,” LeBlanc said. ”Luckily, we feel we progressed in the right direction.”
LeBlanc had pursued the Coyotes for several years before he and the rest of IceArizona’s investors completed a deal to buy the team from the NHL last August.
Because it took so long to finish, the group was left with two months to get ready for their inaugural season as owners.
And there was a lot to do: Securing corporate sponsorships, TV and radio deals, a long-term concession contract, suite and season-ticket sales, along with a management deal for Jobing.com Arena with Global Spectrum.
LeBlanc and his partners accomplished it all while learning on the job, hitting pretty much all of their business-side marks in a first season that saw an increase in average attendance by 1,000 per game and a franchise record for ticket revenue.
”We’re very encouraged on the business side,” LeBlanc said.
The ice side could still use a little help.
The Coyotes missed the playoffs for the first time in five years in 2012-13 and had high expectations this season with the new ownership group in place.
Phoenix got off to one of the best starts in franchise history, but was inconsistent after that, thanks to an inability to hold onto leads and to key injuries.
Captain Shane Doan got off to one of the best starts of his career before missing 12 games with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Even when he returned, Doan needed time to get back into the flow, then starting goalie Mike Smith went down with a sprained right knee, knocking him out for the final 10 games of the season.
Even without two of their best players – and a few others who missed games with injuries – the Coyotes still had a chance to make the playoffs, right there with Dallas for the final spot in the Western Conference down the stretch of the season.
Instead of making a run, Phoenix fell back, losing seven straight games before winning what turned out to be a meaningless season finale.
The initial reaction after the season was that the Coyotes needed an overhaul, either by changing the core of the team or by giving younger players in their system a chance.
Now that there’s been time to reflect, it doesn’t seem changes in the desert need to be that drastic; the Coyotes missed the playoffs by two points, so they don’t appear to be that far off.
There will be changes in the offseason, but perhaps not as drastic as some might expect.
”I’m actually very bullish on this team when you factor those things (injuries) in,” LeBlanc said. ”Of course, the injury bug could hit again – it happens to everybody – but at the end of the day we’re feeling better about our chances. But there’s no question we have to make some changes.”
This year’s free agency market appears to be fairly weak, but Phoenix general manager Don Maloney said that has led to more open discussions for potential trades.
The Coyotes could become players in the market with the new owners in place. LeBlanc and his group aren’t going to open their wallets and let the money fly out – they have a fairly set budget for the first two years – but there will be far more flexibility for the team than when it was operated under the tight-string tenets of the NHL.
”We’re feeling very optimistic about the future, but the worst thing we could do is go out and spend over our budget and dig ourselves a hole,” LeBlanc said. ”We certainly won’t be the New York Rangers or Toronto Maple Leafs when it comes to spending, but at the same time we want to be a competitive team that everyone expects to be a championship team and that requires a little spending.”