Five years ago today, Dwight King scored the series-clinching (still controversial) goal in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals for the Los Angeles Kings, eliminating the Arizona Coyotes and ending the most successful season, and era, in team history.
Today, little about the organization has remained the same, and unfortunately, little of the promise displayed that year ended up materializing, both on and off the ice.
So, in honor of this bittersweet fifth anniversary, let’s take a look back at the development of the organization during the last half decade.
On the Ice
Expectations were pretty high after the Conference Finals run, especially after Shane Doan signed a four-year contract extension that summer ensuring that Ray Whitney was the only piece of the division-winning core to not return to the team for the 2012-13 season.
As NHL.com’s 2012-13 pre-season power rankings, which ranked the Coyotes 12th, put it:
“Gone is Ray Whitney, the Coyotes' leading scorer from last season with 77 points in 82 games. It's yet another reason to dismiss them, but they still have a Vezina-worthy goaltender in Mike Smith and coach Dave Tippett behind the bench. Their defense is enough to keep them in the mix to open the season, but it will be up to Steve Sullivan, Antoine Vermette and Mikkel Boedker to pick up the offensive slack as the season progresses.”
As it turned out, Steve Sullivan couldn’t fill the wizard-sized hole Whitney left behind (Sullivan scored 12 points in just 33 GP). Meanwhile, Mike Smith started to suffer from inconsistency for the first time in Arizona. A seven-game losing streak in mid-March left the Coyotes with a mountain to climb to clinch a fourth straight postseason appearance, and while they earned a point in 12 of their last 15 games, the team finished the season in 10th place, four points out of the playoffs.
Another seven-game losing streak late in the 2013-14 season denied the Coyotes a playoff spot again, as they finished just two points out of a wild-card spot in the West. (Mike Smith was injured playing against the Rangers, which placed a young Thomas Greiss in net and the play of team started to slip.)
In 2013-14, Arizona had five players collect more than 45 points: Keith Yandle (53), Radim Vrbata (51), Mikkel Boedker (51), Shane Doan (47), and Mike Ribeiro (47). By the end of 2015, only Doan and Boedker were still with the organization, with neither of them breaking the 40-point barrier that year.
By then, Smith had long lost his “Vezina-worthy” form: in 2011-12, his GAA was 2.21, save percentage was .930, and he recorded eight shutouts; in 2014-15, those numbers were 3.16, .904, and zero. Yes: the Coyotes franchise record-holder for shutouts had none in a year he played 62 games.
With 56 points, the Coyotes finished second to last in the NHL. The only sliver of hope left for Coyotes fans was the talent-rich 2015 draft class, where either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel beckoned.
Then the draft lottery happened, laying waste to the only “silver lining” from the club’s all-time worst season. Below is a montage of how most of us probably felt that evening.
In case you were wondering, this is how SBN's hockey network reacted when the Oilers won the lottery. pic.twitter.com/OVaICdw6hN— SB Nation NHL (@SBNationNHL) April 19, 2015
Lately, the team seems to be trending upward again. The rebuilding process has yielded promising players in Max Domi, Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, and Jakob Chychrun among others, and only a few holes—albeit big ones—are left to be filled before this team becomes a playoff-caliber group again. But with just under $26 million in cap room, as well as the 7th overall pick in this draft class, the team is in position to grow and take steps forward.
Of the 20 dressed players from that fateful May evening five years ago, only Doan, Smith, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson have remained with the organization through today (Vrbata has since returned after a two-year stint in Vancouver).
Matching the magic that was 2012 will always be a tall task for an organization still scuffling in an unforgiving market, but there will always be a “2012 Pacific Division Champions” banner hanging over center ice, reminding fans of why they continue to come to the rink.
Off the Ice
Of course, despite that banner, there have been plenty of reasons for fans to stop coming to Coyotes’ games over the last five years that, unfortunately, have nothing to do with the on-ice product.
While the roster in 2012 had clear limitations for the future, the franchise as a whole seemed to finally be breaking out of its shackled existence caused by the 2009 bankruptcy.
Greg Jamison, the man behind the permanent popularity of the San Jose Sharks, was in line to rescue the team from league ownership. The ex-Sharks boss seemed a perfect fit, and repeatedly claimed he had secured the investment necessary to purchase the team.
Yet, a de facto sale deadline on January 31, 2013, came and went with only dejecting excuses announced as to why the team remained unsold.
Fittingly for the franchise, this debacle occurred a week after the team’s one and only banner-raising night.
To top off all the disappointment, the NHL’s untimely 2012-13 lockout killed all the momentum built up during the previous year’s playoff run; instead of capitalizing on what was easily the franchise’s most successful season to date, the Coyotes struggled to retain some of their longest tenured fans amid all of the continuously common uncertainty.
In July of 2013, a single vote (4-3) decided the Glendale City Council’s decision to agree to a new arena lease agreement with Anthony LeBlanc’s Renaissance Sports and Entertainment group, finally allowing the league to sell the club it had owned since 2009.
However, even amid the supposed resolution to the uncertainty, the agreement’s “relocation clause” left a black cloud hanging over the transaction. The clause basically allowed the team to leave Arizona, no questions asked, after five years or $50 million in losses.
RSE’s control of the team lasted little more than a year, when in October 2014, they agreed to sell 51% of the franchise to Andrew Barroway, the current majority owner of the team.
The sale aimed to give the Coyotes more financial freedom, hoping a partnership with the hedge fund manager would open new doors of revenue by giving them access to the NHL’s line of credit, a method that was previously unattainable due to RSE’s Canadian-based ownership.
Unfortunately, stability under Barroway never truly materialized. In the summer of 2015, the City of Glendale canceled their lease with the Coyotes, leading to the resurfacing of the age-old question: Where are the Coyotes going to play next year?
The 2012 season remains the organization’s banner moment, bringing them their only first-place finish and deepest playoff run. It remains one of the shining moments in fans’ memories, when the hockey world took notice of our team for a positive, on-the-ice, reason.
Unfortunately, today also marks the half-decade anniversary of the end of the most successful era of Coyotes hockey, bringing to a close the white outs and playoff wins, but not the questions, fears, and potentially, hope of what the next five years might hold.