Despite bowing out in six games to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, last season was a banner year for the Phoenix Coyotes, who won the first two playoff series since moving to the desert in 1996.
A number of factors conspired against the team this season, however, as the Coyotes missed the playoffs for the first time since Dave Tippett assumed the club's coaching duties in 2009.
So how does a team that was within two wins of the Stanley Cup Final miss out on the postseason a year later? Here are some of the reasons, as well a few nuggets of optimism for 2013-14.
1. Feast-or-famine offense
The Coyotes have never been known for piling pucks into the opposing net, but the 2011-12 team that made it to the Western Conference Finals was able to score with relative consistency. This season's edition, on the other hand, occasionally scored in bunches, but usually followed that surge up with an agonizing lack of offense.
That scoring dip was especially apparent when the Coyotes played at even strength. Last season, a Phoenix team that ranked 18th in goals per game managed to rank ninth in 5-on-5 goals. This year, Phoenix's offense experienced a slight drop off from 2011-12, but their 5-on-5 goals ranking dropped all the way to 19th. To make matters worse, the Coyotes' offense completely disappeared in March, when the team was shut out four times in a span of seven games. That's shocking, considering they were blanked just six times in 82 games last season.
2. Goaltending issues
Last season's landmark performance in the desert was credited in large part to goaltender Mike Smith. In his first season with the team, Smith set a franchise mark for save percentage and tied the single-season record of eight shutouts held by Ilya Bryzgalov and Nikolai Khabibulin.
This season wasn't quite so kind.
After appearing in a career-high 67 games last season, he was held to less than half that in the shortened season, due mainly to bouts with injuries. But even when Smith was healthy, he couldn't match his impressive statistics. His save percentage dropped from .930 to .910 while his goals-against average rose from 2.21 to 2.59 -- despite the fact that the Coyotes allowed fewer shots per game this season.
With both Smith and backup Jason LaBarbera becoming unrestricted free agents this summer, the Coyotes will have some tough decisions to make regarding their goaltending.
3. Drop in forward production
Last season's Coyotes didn't have any big-name scorers up front, but they got solid production from a deep corps of forwards. This season's unit was unable to replicate that depth scoring, something that may have been preordained when Ray Whitney left for the Dallas Stars as a free agent after leading the Coyotes with 77 points.
Defensemen Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson had excellent seasons for the Coyotes and should anchor Phoenix's blue line for years to come. But other than Mikkel Boedker, most of the team's top forwards experienced a drop in production. Captain Shane Doan went from averaging 0.71 points per game in his previous three seasons to 0.53 points per game this season. But the most troubling drop-off may have been from Radim Vrbata, who tied Steven Stamkos last season with a League-high 12 game-winning goals in 2011-12. This season, Vrbata hasn't scored a single game-winner.
4. Road weary
Phoenix's strong play on the road was a key to its success last season. With a 20-14-7 road record that was among the best in the League, the Coyotes headed into the postseason off emphatic 4-1 road wins against the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild. But the team has been a much more hospitable guest this season.
Heading into its final road game of 2012-13, the Coyotes were 6-10-7 away from Jobing.com Arena, a mark that put them in the bottom third of the League. The team was also suddenly unable to score goals on the road. The 2011-12 Coyotes were around the middle of the pack with 105 goals in 41 away games, but they were also one of only eight teams with a positive goal differential on the road. This season, the Coyotes' 44 road goals are the League's second-lowest total.
That road futility crushed them when the team went 0-3-1 in a crucial March road swing, scoring just two goals combined.
5. Poor start, poor finish
The Coyotes got off to a slow start last season, going 3-3-2 to open the 2011-12 campaign. But their 2-4-1 record to start 2012-13 put the team in a hole that would be difficult to get out of in the shortened 48-game season.
Last season's team overcame the slow start by going 11-0-1 in February and finishing with five straight wins to earn the Pacific Division title. This season, they opened March with back-to-back road shootout wins against the Anaheim Ducks, putting them in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. But they proceeded to go 3-7-3 over the rest of a make-or-break month that ultimately undid their season.
Reasons for optimism:
1. The brain trust
Any team that has Tippett as a coach and Don Maloney as a general manager is going to find a way to compete. Considering this is the first time the Coyotes have missed the playoffs during Tippett's tenure, it's possible this performance was an aberration in a shortened season. Given a full offseason to work with and an 82-game schedule, this team should be able to compete again.
2. Prospects on the way
Over the past few years, the Coyotes have done a great job of developing talent. That was the case with players like Yandle, Ekman-Larsson and Boedker, and there appears to be more talent in the Phoenix pipeline. Forwards Chris Brown and Brendan Shinnimin had strong rookie seasons for Portland of the American Hockey League, as did defenseman Brandon Gormley and goaltender Mark Visentin. Second-year forward Andy Miele also enjoyed a breakout season. Coyotes fans could be seeing a few of these prospects with the big club next season.
3. To the defense
Phoenix's forwards and goaltending may be in a state of flux this summer, but the defense will not be an area of concern. Yandle is already an All-Star and Ekman-Larsson could soon join him. They lead a strong unit that will see veterans Zbynek Michalek, Rostislav Klesla and Derek Morris coming back. Add young prospects like Gormley, David Rundblad and Connor Murphy to the equation, and this unit should be good for a while.
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