As the 2011-12 season loomed, the Phoenix Coyotes were preparing for a campaign after making the Stanley Cup Playoffs but losing arguably their most valuable player. But instead of taking a step back without goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, all the Coyotes did was produce the most successful season in franchise history.
Despite sitting in ninth place in the Western Conference after the games played on March 29, the Coyotes rattled off five straight victories to close the regular season and capture the first division title in the franchise’s 32-year NHL history.
The winning didn’t stop there. The Coyotes won a playoff series for the first time since moving to the desert in 1996 and doubled the organization’s series win total before losing to the eventual champs, the Los Angeles Kings, in the Western Conference Finals.
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After their unprecedented success, it was another eventful offseason in the desert. The ownership situation is still not determined, as a group led by Greg Jamison is in the process of trying to finish its purchase the franchise.
Captain Shane Doan, the final player remaining from the team that moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg in 1996, was an unrestricted free agent and finally resigned with the club in mid-September.
When Bryzgalov left for the Philadelphia Flyers, pundits predicted a precipitous fall for Phoenix, but it didn’t happen. Mike Smith proved one of the best signings of the summer, giving the Coyotes a near-Vezina Trophy finalist performance for $2 million.
Given Doan’s importance in the dressing room and his status as the face of the franchise, he probably would have been tougher to replace. Doan was third on the team last season with 50 points -- but Phoenix’s leading scorer did leave for another club.
The Coyotes did move for a replacement, signing Steve Sullivan, who had 17 goals and 48 points for the Pittsburgh Penguins, to a one-year contract. They also signed David Moss, who had a down year with the Calgary Flames, to a two-year contract, and added Nick Johnson on a two-way deal although he should be a favorite to land a roster spot.
The rest of the forward corps is intact, and a full season of Antoine Vermette in the middle could help mitigate any drop in production from Whitney to Sullivan. Vermette was one of Phoenix’s best players during the playoff run.
Veteran defensemen Michal Rozsival and Kurt Sauer were not retained, but general manager Don Maloney took advantage of the Pittsburgh Penguins' desire to shed salary at the NHL Draft and traded for Zbynek Michalek, who played for the franchise before signing with the Penguins two years ago.
Adding Michalek strengthens what is already a big positive for the Coyotes. With Michalek and Rostislav Klesla, the Coyotes have veteran, defense-first guys on the blue line. With Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle, they have two young, offensively gifted stars at the position -- and with prospects David Rundblad, Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy, the Coyotes have another wave of talent to bolster a strong group in the near future.
Smith returns after his breakout season, and Jason LaBarbera remains his backup.
Any thought the Coyotes would struggle without Bryzgalov was quickly put to rest by Smith, and he was significantly better in the postseason than the departed astronomy enthusiast had been in two first-round defeats.
The biggest reason for optimism in Arizona is the most important person for the Coyotes is still there. After guiding a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the League to playoff berths in three consecutive seasons and now a trip to the conference finals, Dave Tippett has proven he’s one of the elite coaches in the NHL.
He has helped Phoenix withstand roster losses and deal with distractions -- and, most importantly, figure out a way to outperform outside expectations. He’s been the perfect guy to keep the team focus regardless of what is going on around it.
"Certainly getting stable ownership would push the organization forward, but my position is to take steps forward on the ice," Tippett told NHL.com. "We made strides last year, but you've got to find ways to continue to push that ahead."