GLENDALE, Ariz. – As disappointed and devastated as the Phoenix Coyotes were to bow out of the race for the Stanley Cup this season, the most successful campaign in franchise history won't soon be forgotten.
The first division title in franchise history. The first playoff series win since 1987 – and the first in eight tries since moving from Winnipeg to Arizona in 1996. And, over the course of six glorious weeks, the team had nine sold-out playoff games and was front-and-center in the eyes of Valley sports fans.
The Coyotes took one of the least impressive rosters in hockey and transformed it – with team leadership, great goaltending and impressive coaching – into a Western Conference finalist, still standing when the likes of Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Chicago and San Jose were already sitting on the sidelines.
"This group did a lot of great things with all the uncertainties surrounding it," winger Ray Whitney said. "The players we have, and the payroll we have … when you look at the word 'team', this what you see. Everybody has to contribute, everybody has to chip in or it's not going to be successful. I couldn't be more proud of a group of guys who as a group barely made it into the playoffs and got to the conference finals."
Still, the Coyotes were outclassed and overcome by the Los Angeles Kings, a talented team on an incredible 12-2 playoff march through the top three seeds in the Western Conference. For all the great strides they made, here are the five biggest reasons the Coyotes couldn't take the final strides to the Stanley Cup:
1. Lack of star and scoring power
Don Maloney was able to stretch dollars with great efficiency. Goalie Mike Smith was an incredible bargain at $2 million. Whitney put up 77 points and Radim Vrbata pumped in 35 goals for $3 million each. That's less than the Flyers paid Ilya Bryzgalov for an inconsistent, disappointing season.
But only so much can be done with a system and a work ethic. The Coyotes didn't have anything close to a legitimate No. 1 center until Antoine Vermette arrived from Columbus at the trade deadline, and they didn't have the kind of scoring power up from to compete with the top-echelon teams night in and night out.
The top line of Whitney, Martin Hanzal and Vrbata combined for seven goals in 16 playoff games and just three points in five playoff games against the Kings without a single goal. Whitney is 40 years old and a free agent. Hanzal is injury-prone and not a skilled offensive player. Vrbata was easily contained in the playoffs with extra defensive attention.
An exciting player to market would also help. When Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick arrived with the Coyotes in 1996, the team had charismatic players who won games and sold tickets. As good as Smith is between the pipes, fans rarely pack arenas to watch goalies – especially with so many other sporting options in this saturated market.
The emergence of Mikkel Boedker in the playoffs gives the Coyotes some hope moving forward, but while the Coyotes are confident in their goaltending and defense corps, scoring and skill up front is in short supply. If the proposed sale of the team to former Sharks CEO Greg Jamison is approved, shopping for some scoring punch will top the list. Maloney, who has done a masterful job with what he's had to work with, is likely champing at the bit for a chance add more pieces.
2. Injuries and suspensions
Raffi Torres for his hit on Marian Hossa in the Chicago series really came home to roost against the Kings. Torres' game would have fit like a glove against Los Angeles, and his type of game is in short supply on the Phoenix roster.
The injury to Adrian Aucoin was also a big factor in the conference finals. The 18-year veteran is a good fit alongside Oliver Ekman-Larsson and another good duo – Michal Rozsival and Rostislav Klesla – had to be separated to cover the hole. David Schlemko made a courageous return from a January surgery that was supposed to end his season, but he was never the same player. Michael Stone was a pleasant surprise as a late-season call-up, but he can replace a physical, 38-year-old veteran with 62 games of playoff experience.
The Coyotes like to say they had 10 defensemen to pick from in the postseason. But there was a big separation from the top six to a recovering Schlemko, Stone, Chris Summers and David Rundblad. Good news? The future includes 20-year-old stud Brandon Gormley to add to Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle.
3. The power play
Phoenix was 7-for-50 (14 percent) in the playoffs -- and that was actually an improvement over the regular season, when it placed 29th at 13.5 percent. The lack of skill up front shows up on the power play.
The Coyotes were forced to play Shane Doan and Whitney at the point to make up for a lack of offensive firepower at the point – Keith Yandle didn't score a single power-play goal in 98 games this season – and not having a second defenseman on the ice often led to shorthanded chances on the other end.
4. A better schedule
But the downside was an incredibly difficult early-season schedule. From Nov. 29 through Jan. 18, the Coyotes played 17 of 25 games on the road and had only one homestand of more than one game – effectively making six of the seven games at Jobing.com Arena just another a long and winding road.
The Coyotes lost 16 of those 25 games (9-11-5) and were in 12th place by the end of January before an unlikely 11-0-1 February turned their season around. But that put the team in playoff mode for four months, a pace that eventually took its toll.
5. A home-ice advantage
So much for the power of the White Out.
But those numbers weren't much different from the regular season, when the Coyotes were a .500 team at the end of January (10-10-4) before winning 12 of the last 17 on home ice (12-3-2) to finish 22-13-6 for the season. That's almost identical to last season (21-13-7) and a far cry from the 29-10-2 mark they had in Dave Tippett's first season in Phoenix – when they set franchise records with 50 wins and 107 points.
Home-ice advantage starts with an atmosphere and an attitude. This run to the Western Conference Final should help a team that ranked dead-last in attendance this season; perhaps the attitude will follow.