It's no secret things have not been going well in Arizona Coyotes land as of late. The team is in the midst of a three-game losing streak and finding new and creative ways to lose in the process. There is no lead that feels safe for Coyotes fans, and no deficit that seems surmountable.
Arizona sits 13th in the Western Conference and sixth in the Pacific Division through the season's first 24 games. They have a losing record at home and on the road, with a goal differential above only those scraping the bottom of the NHL standings barrel.
Coyotes fans are growing restless and many are looking for someone to blame. If only it were that easy.
- As much as fans would love to look to one issue, one player, one coach or manager as the person to blame, the simple reality is: the Coyotes' struggles right now is death by 1,000 paper cuts and not the byproduct of a single individual.
- In the span of a couple offseasons, Arizona lost its best playmaker (Ray Whitney), goal scorer (Radim Vrbata) and penalty killer (Boyd Gordon) and have failed to replace them. Mike Ribeiro (more on him later) and Sam Gagner were the closest things to a Whitney replacement, although they played center, yet neither player has been able to attain the same level of success. Jeff Halpern was a season-long band-aid over the Gordon problem and Joe Vitale, while he has not been terrible so far this season, plays a polar-opposite game. Vrbata's void is yet to be filled.
- The young defensive corps is partly to blame as well. While I love the upside of players like Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy and think Michael Stone is a solid guy in the top-six, those three (throw David Schlemko and Chris Summers in there as well) are yet to match the level of play the Coyotes had from Rostislav Klesla, Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival in the past. Do they have the potential to get there and be better than those players, yes. Are they there now, no.
- Then there is the issue of goaltending. After Mike Smith nearly single-handedly carried the Coyotes to the Western Conference Final in 2012, he's been a very average goalie overall and far below that this season. If I've said it once I've said it 1,000 times -- that run, in my opinion, gave the team a false sense of how good they actually were in relation to future success. Smith's inconsistencies have hurt a team that so heavily relies on its goaltending to make up for its average possession numbers and modest scoring ability.
- While many are tired of hearing about it, the Coyotes are still in the recovery stage from more than a decade of poor drafting. Look up drafts from 1997-2007 and see how many of those guys are playing at a high level for other teams and see how many of those drafted by the Coyotes are still in the league.
- Some fans have begun calling for the heads of head coach Dave Tippett and general manager Don Maloney. Let's begin with Tippett. Given the team's current roster, what coach in the world would get significantly better results? Even if you subscribe to the theory that he should be playing more young guys, it's hard to imagine a scenario where Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson, Tyler Gaudet, Lucas Lessio and others make a significant enough impact this season to change the team's fortunes. Tippett's job is to win now, he has to coach that way -- relying on more veterans.
- Others look to Maloney and say the blame should be placed on him for not putting together a team that can compete or having enough young guys on the NHL roster for a rebuild. While the GM certainly has to shoulder a large portion of the blame, Maloney's biggest flaw in my mind was setting unattainable expectations -- the team has a pattern of doing that lately.
- I have a hard time imagining the front office thought the Coyotes team as constructed was a solid playoff team. Yet they painted themselves into a corner by proclaiming that the team will make the playoffs and solidified that thought by sending down their prospects. I wrote about how the Coyotes have an identity problem. Either choose to push for the playoffs or choose to make this season a transitional one and work in the youth in top-nine roles (note: sending Domi back to London in this scenario would still make the most sense for financial reasons). The Coyotes tried, and failed, to play both sides and it has angered their fan base.
- While off the ice issues had a major effect, setting unattainable expectations is what caused the fans to turn on Mike Ribeiro. The Coyotes championed him as a true No. 1 center without any intention of actually playing him as such and knowing he was not one to begin with. Ribeiro is an offensively gifted center that plays sheltered minutes and loads of power play time. He has never been, and never will be, a true No. 1 center. So between his inability to live up to those expectations and his off-ice troubles, the team is now paying a player millions of dollars to compete against them in the Western Conference.
- The simple fact is the team's talent level is no where near where it was three, four or five years ago and they are transitioning into an era of youth that is just on the horizon. The team's failure to admit that, coupled with other financial worries Coyotes fans have in regards to attendance and the team moving, has angered and bewildered the fanbase. Many had not only resigned themselves to the fact the team may play poorly this year, but they were willing to embrace it as long as there was a youth movement. Instead the Coyotes elected to raise expectations to an unattainable level and are feeling the heat because of it.