For a team that had become a picture of consistency in the NHL since Dave Tippett took over as coach in 2009, there were a number of things conspiring against the Phoenix Coyotes during the 2012-13 season.
The offense sputtered through an abbreviated schedule, and goaltender Mike Smith struggled with injuries and couldn't recapture his form from the previous year. Unable to find their footing, the Coyotes failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time under Tippett.
Despite what some might consider an anomaly, the Coyotes refuse to make any excuses.
"You've got to learn from the past. I've already had a good discussion with some of our players that missing the playoffs for this organization is unacceptable," Tippett told NHL.com. "Even though it was a shortened season and there were some outside factors involved, we're not a team that wants to make excuses. We want to get back into the playoffs. That will be our goal going into the start of the year."
The Coyotes did little to shake up their roster over the summer but addressed some major issues during the offseason. The first priority for the club was to bring back Tippett, whose contract expired after last season. They did that in June, signing the coach to a lengthy extension. From there, re-signing Smith became an imperative. On July 1, they achieved that by agreeing to a six-year extension with the goaltender who enjoyed a breakout 2011-12 season, his first with Phoenix.
By agreeing to the new deal, the Coyotes asserted they would be relying on more strong play from Smith, who last season tied for the League lead with five shutouts despite his injuries.
"We believe Mike can be one of the best goaltenders in the game. We believe we have the style and infrastructure that can put him in that category. That includes our style of play and [goaltending coach] Sean Burke's tutelage," Phoenix general manager Don Maloney told NHL.com. "We still have a lot of work to do, but at least I feel we've got the best coaching staff in the League and a goaltender I think can be as good as any. We just need to bring it out of him."
Phoenix retained much of the core that led the club to the Western Conference Final in 2012. But there was a major addition made through free agency: Scoring center Mike Ribeiro was signed to a four-year contract, reuniting the fleet-footed forward with Tippett, who coached him to his most productive seasons when they were with the Dallas Stars.
Ribeiro is the type of player the Coyotes desperately need. He'll provide skill, scoring and on-ice awareness to a team that ranked 21st in goals scored last season. He'll also improve a power play that ranked last in the Western Conference. But Ribeiro's best asset for this Phoenix team will be his ability to make other players better; last season he ranked fifth in the League with 36 assists, and in his final two seasons with Tippett in Dallas, Ribeiro ranked among the League's top 10. He should help fill the offensive vacuum created when Ray Whitney left the Coyotes to sign with the Dallas Stars after the 2011-12 season.
"He understands the game very well. He takes responsibility for being a top player and the responsibility to make good plays. But he also knows you have to play to win," Tippett said of Ribeiro. "I think his skill level is something we didn't have and needed to add to our group. I've had some real good experience with him. I think he'll be a great fit for our team."
Despite the addition of Ribeiro, there are some offensive holes to fill on the Coyotes' top two lines. Captain Shane Doan and 23-year-old Mikkel Boedker are possibilities to play alongside Ribeiro on the top line. Tippett will look to a pool of talented prospects to potentially fill some of the gaps.
COYOTES' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
The most intriguing prospect is Max Domi, whom the Coyotes chose with the 12th pick in the 2013 Draft. The scoring forward is 18 years old but has shown on-ice vision that is impressive for a young player. He is one of a number of forward prospects who could get a chance to make the jump to the NHL.
"There are a couple of guys. Both Domi and Lucas Lessio were very good at our rookie camp. Chris Brown wasn't there, but he got a taste of some action with us late in the year. I think he is ready to take the next step," Tippett said. "They're really close. It's just a matter of whether they can jump in and contribute right away."
Any young player who makes the team will be aided by a strong group of veterans that is headlined by Doan, who at 36 remains one of the game's great ambassadors. But some of those veterans will have to take a sizeable step forward if this team wants to return to the playoffs. That list starts with Boedkker, who struggled through a slump in the second half of 2012-13.
"The continued emergence of Mikkel Boedker will help us," Tippett said. "He had a very good first half of the year last season. He dropped off a little bit but he's a very good young player. I look to him to continue to grow."
A veteran core of Doan, Martin Hanzal and Keith Yandle is as solid as they come. So if Ribeiro can help upgrade the offense, and Smith can return to form in net, an influx of youthful energy could bring the Coyotes back to the Western Final.
"We don't spend much time making excuses around here. We came up short of expectations a year ago and the goal for us is to get back to the playoffs," Maloney said. "I think everybody has taken a collective sigh and stepped away for a bit and regenerated the batteries and tried to find the way to make the team better."
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