This week many of the SB Nation sites have examined the best teams to not win the Stanley Cup. For the Arizona Coyotes, there isn’t much competition, but I will always take an opportunity to discuss the 2011-12 Phoenix Coyotes.
Since relocating from Winnipeg in 1996, the Coyotes have advanced to the postseason eight times. In those eight times, they have only advanced beyond the first round once, during the 2011-12 season.
The 2011-12 season felt like the culmination of something special that the Coyotes had been building for years. After the team declared bankruptcy and the team brought in Dave Tippett to take over coaching from Wayne Gretzky, the team made the playoffs for the first time in 2009-10 for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
Arizona would lose in that playoff series to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7. The next season they won fewer games, but made the playoffs for the second season in a row, only to meet the Detroit Red Wings again. Detroit won four straight sweeping the Coyotes.
Things didn’t look good for the Coyotes going into the 2011-12 season. Their star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov wasn’t going to re-sign with the team, and his rights were traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Without Bryzgalov, the Coyotes signed Mike Smith who had never been a starting goaltender before. Dave Tippett was familiar with Smith with their time together with the Dallas Stars, and before the season started it was set to be a battle between Smith and Jason LaBarbera.
The Coyotes would also start their season without one of their star prospects. The Coyotes had drafted Kyle Turris 3rd overall in 2007 and as a restricted free agent Turris was holding out. He seemed to be looking for a trade, and he had already missed training camp.
Turris would eventually be traded after playing six games for the Desert Dogs to the Ottawa Senators for David Rundblad. Rundblad was another unproven prospect, although he seemed to have the skills required to be a high offense defenseman.
For most of the season, the Coyotes looked good, but not great. But things would change midway through the season. On February 4th the Coyotes would beat the San Jose Sharks 5-3. The rest of the Coyotes would not lose in regulation for the rest of the month, and their lone loss came in overtime against the Vancouver Canucks.
The Coyotes would make one more trade in February, bringing in role player Antoine Vermette for Curtis McElhinney, a 2nd-round pick in 2012, and a conditional 5th-round pick in 2013. Vermette wasn’t a superstar, but he was excellent at faceoffs and gave the Coyotes a second-line center.
Looking at the Phoenix Coyotes’ roster you aren’t going to see any superstars. The two best offensive players on the team were Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney. Coyotes fans should be familiar with those two, and
After an impressive February, the Coyotes would go on to win the Pacific Division for the first time in franchise history. For the first time in two seasons, they wouldn’t have to play the Red Wings in the playoffs as they prepared for a series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The series against the Blackhawks is notable for a few things. Mikkel Boedker scored back-to-back overtime goals, Arizona won every game in Chicago, and of course, the infamous Raffi Torres hit on Marian Hossa.
The Torres hit on Hossa is one of the defining moments of that series and Torres’ career. It led to him receiving death threats, Hossa would be out for the rest of the series and the start of the next, and it resulted in a 25 game suspension for Torres (the suspension would eventually be reduced to 21 games). Torres wasn’t a major offensive piece for the Coyotes, but he played a role extremely well and could be counted on to contribute a few timely goals and give the team room to skate.
After beating the Blackhawks on the road in Game 6, the Coyotes were next to play the Nashville Predators. The series featured far fewer controversial moments, and for two teams lead by goaltenders it started with a lot of offense. The Coyotes would come through with the first two wins of the series at Jobing.com Arena, a 4-3 overtime win and a 5-3 win.
If the series is memorable it is likely for a story that came from the Predators. It had been discovered that Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn had broken curfew before Game 2 of the series, leading to both players being suspended for Game 3. After Nashville won Game 3 both players were sat again for Game 4, which saw the Coyotes get a 1-0 win. The Coyotes would win Game 5 at home, and 17,182 fans would chant “Beat LA” during the final seconds of the game.
The Los Angeles Kings were a team that seemed to be better than their record would suggest during the regular season. They were a tough team, that was getting stellar goaltending from Jonathon Quick and some timely goals. They made the playoffs by only five points and were their path to the Cup seemed almost impossible as they would have to eventually face the three division champions.
Arizona’s final opponent before the Stanley Cup Final had not only never faced elimination, they never trailed in a series. When the time came, Arizona’s offense was unable to beat Jonathon Quick, who was playing some of the best hockey of his career. Arizona would only manage 7 goals in the series, and the surprise season had come to an end.
If the Coyotes had managed to beat the Kings that season could they have won the Stanley Cup? Almost certainly. The New Jersey Devils were another surprise team, and the fact that the Kings were so dominant makes it hard to see how another team would measure up. They were the only team in the entire playoffs to beat the Kings twice, though, so they may have given the Coyotes some trouble.
A lockout-shortened season would keep the Coyotes out of the playoffs the next season, and things would fall apart. The Coyotes would not re-sign key players like Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata, likely due to budgetary reasons, effectively losing two-thirds of their top line. Younger players like Mikkel Boedker, Lauri Korpikoski, and David Rundblad didn’t live up to their early promise and would struggle outside the Coyotes system. Smith re-signed with the team, but 2011-12 would prove to be a career-high for him. The Coyotes would eventually find stable ownership, and change their name to the Arizona Coyotes.
Eventually, it became clear that the Coyotes would need to be rebuilt. The team that went all the way to the Western Conference Finals has not seen playoff hockey since. No other Coyotes squad has come closer to winning the Cup, the 2011-12 Coyotes had skill, a little bit of luck, and perhaps, most importantly, a complete buy-in. The run to the Western Conference run has been crystallized in the Coyotes fanbase, and it remains the measuring stick to this day.