Almost eight full months after losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals, the Phoenix Coyotes took to the ice in Dallas,Texas on January 19 looking to build on last season's playoff success. Instead they lost a close in a close contest 4-3. For a team that prides itself on its defense, it was an uncharacteristic performance which involved defensive lapses, a disappointing penalty kill performance and Mike Smith not looking like the Vezina candidate he was less than a year prior. That game was foreshadowing for the rest of their season in many ways.
The mistakes in their own end would continue to be a concern for much of the season, the same could be said for Smith's goaltending. However, those wouldn't be the team's only issues. There were four major reasons why the Desert Dogs are sitting home this postseason.
1. Lackluster Defense - Giving up 2.6 goals per game, they would end up fifteenth in the league as opposed to being fifth the year before, giving up only 2.37 goals per game. The penalty kill which had ranked eighth (85.5%) in the NHL during the 2011-12 season would end its 2012-2013 season 22nd in the league (79.9%). Smith's save percentage numbers would drop from a career high .930 last season to a below career average .910 this season.The reason for the poorer than expected defensive numbers could be attributed to the slightly condensed schedule which both GM Don Maloney and Coach Dave Tippett alluded to during the season and in their season ending press conferences on Sunday.
Certainly when it came to breaking in a new defensemen in the 6/7 slot, a full training camp and more practice time would have been helpful. Michael Stone emerged slowly to become the defensemen to fill the role. However, his early struggles and those of the other two players who attempted to fill the role, David Rundblad and Chris Summers, hurt the team slightly. However, to pin the Yotes troubles just on this situation would be unfair. Stone wasn't the only person who made mistakes. The majority of defensive miscues made by the Coyotes were made by veteran players.
2. Lackluster Offense - The way the team was built, there were never going to be an abundance of goals coming to save the team. The Coyotes ownership problem caused GM Don Maloney to once again look for bargains to fill holes. This year the bargain bin didn't produce as much as it has in the past. Steve Sullivan was not even a poor man's Ray Whitney and Matthew Lombardi never seemed to fully get on track, partly due to injuries. Of course, even in those years when Phoenix put up their better offensive numbers, they were a middle of the pack offensive squad. The franchise's lack of high-end skill continued to make for close games, ugly power plays, and little margin for error.
3. Road Record - While many of have pointed to the team's seven game losing streak in the middle of the season (five of of which were on the road) as the biggest reason the team didn't make the playoffs, there were signs even earlier that a poor road record would be the team's undoing. In February, they lost late leads in back to back road games against two of the West's bottom dwellers, Calgary & Edmonton. However, those blown leads were in games where the Coyotes were missing 2/3rds of their top line.
4. Injuries - During their full 82 game season run to the 2011- 2012 Pacific Division title, the Coyotes only had 153 man games lost to injury. This season they had 117 man games lost due to injury in only 48 games. The numbers alone don't even tell the full story. The injuries the Coyotes suffered this season were to key players like Smith, Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata, and Zbynek Michalek. As a matter of fact, in the Western Canadian games mentioned above in the Road Record section, the Coyotes were missing Vrbata and Hanzal in both games, as well as top-six defensemen Derek Morris and David Schlemko. Part of having a successful year for most teams in most sports is staying relatively healthy. Unfortunately, injuries plagued the Coyotes much of this year.
5. Ownership - The team and it's fans once again thought they might have resolution to the ownership drama which has surrounded the team by the end of January. It appeared as if stability was on the horizon with Greg Jamison's lease deal with the City of Glendale. Alas, for a second time a suitor couldn't close the deal and an uncertain future for the franchise remains. With no owner GMDM was forced to stick with a budget set by the NHL and therefore was hamstrung in his ability to improve the team. See #2.
While the season may not have turned out the way the players, coaches, management, and the fans may have wanted it to, there were a number of bright spots along the way. Most of these positives came from younger players which bodes well for the team's future.
1. OEL Becomes a Top Pairing D-Man. Oliver Ekman-Larsson was voted the team's MVP by the media, and it was well deserved. He led the team in TOI/G (25:05), Corsi Rel QoC, and assists all while playing against the toughest competition of any player on the squad. All of this at 21 years of age.
2. Chad Johnson Surprises. The Penguins draft pick who the Rangers organization gave up on had arguably the best goaltending performances of the season for the team. He went 2-0-2 in his four starts with an amazing .954 save percentage. The only drawback is that he's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent come July 5.
3. The Colonel. Like Johnson, Rob Klinkhammer was a depth signing who was expected to spend his time in the AHL all season. However, due to the Coyotes injury problems, Klinkhammer was called up several times only to be sent down without playing in a game. Finally on March 9 he was called up and inserted into the Coyotes lineup. In 22 games he netted 11 points and solidified the teams third line. The 26-year-old forward likely got himself an NHL contract for next season with his play. Also, like Johnson he's a UFA come July.
4. Mikkel Boedker's Potential. His play wasn't consistent, a fact GM Don Maloney alluded to in his press conference on Sunday, but the Mikkel Boeker with top-six offensive skills reared his head at times this season. His finished the season with a career high in assists in a season with 34 fewer games than normal and was on pace to set a career high in shots and goals if this had been an 82 game season. He looked to shoot more this season and used his speed as a weapon more often, which helped draw penalties.
The 2012-2013 abbreviated regular season never quite felt right, even more so for those who follow the Desert Dogs. Hopefully after an off-season which should clarify the future of the franchise, the 2013-2014 NHL season will bring about a return of the Whiteout to the Valley of the Sun.