GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes improved from 24 to 35 wins and from 56 to 78 points this season, but there was a clear message sent from Arizona management on Monday: Finishing a distant fourth in the Pacific Division (35-39-8) and missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight season isn't good enough.
General manager Don Maloney was fired Monday after nine seasons, during which the Coyotes reached their highest summit in making the Western Conference Final in 2011-12, but haven't had a playoff appearance since.
The emergence of rookies Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Jordan Martinook, and an organization stocked with talented forwards on the way has optimism high. Captain Shane Doan, who turns 40 when he returns for his 21st NHL season in October, was mindful that the climb to where Arizona wants to go has just begun.
"We have some talent here and we improved in some areas, but we have a long ways to go and that's the way it is," Doan said. "We had some players establish themselves as contributors to an NHL team and that's a great step. But it's just one step and we have to be better."
Arizona had several long-term injuries, most notably to goaltender Mike Smith, which took the steam out of a good start that had them in playoff position at the All-Star break. But improvement is needed. The Coyotes have nine players under contract for next season and it will be a busy offseason for Maloney's replacement. More changes are coming.
WHAT THEY SAID: "This is something we don't want to experience again. Hopefully, this is the last year we are sitting here talking about the end of a season this early. We have to remember this feeling." -- forward Max Domi
THE BURNING QUESTION: The Coyotes have a foundation on defense with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who had his second straight season with 20 or more goals (21 goals, 34 assists). But who is going to play with him?
The drop off after Ekman-Larsson is steep. Connor Murphy had his best season and appears capable of handling a top-four role, but Klas Dahlbeck, Zbynek Michalek and restricted free agents Kevin Connauton and Michael Stone are more suited for third pairing and depth. The Coyotes need to find top-four defensive help through free agency, the trade market or perhaps with the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
INJURIES: What was already an area of concern became a bigger one when Stone tore two ligaments in his left knee in a 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 26. He will miss training camp and likely the beginning of the 2016-17 regular season. Forward Joe Vitale, who is signed through next season, sustained eye and head injuries in the only game he played this season Oct. 17, and has not shown much improvement since. Goalie Anders Lindback is recovering from a torn Achilles and hopes to be back on the ice in June.
WHO COULD GO: Doan said he fully expected the 2015-16 season to be his last but after a Renaissance season and a team-leading 28 goals, all expectations are he will return.
Alex Tanguay, 36, showed good chemistry with Duclair and Antoine Vermette after arriving in the Mikkel Boedker trade Feb. 29. He had 13 points in 17 games and drew rave reviews from the coaching staff. Age is a concern and there may not be room for him among the top-six forwards if the Coyotes add during free agency and promote more young talent.
Center Boyd Gordon is a favorite of coach Dave Tippett and a dependable faceoff man, defender and penalty killer. But a strong season from Brad Richardson (career-high 31 points) and new faces at center could make his second tour in Arizona a short one. Veterans like forward Kyle Chipchura, defenseman Nicklas Grossman and Lindback likely are casualties as the Arizona youth movement continues.
WHO COULD ARRIVE: After another top-four defenseman, the Coyotes need a top-line center and have two top-flight prospects projected to be ready as soon as the fall.
Dylan Strome, the third overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, had 111 points in 56 games for the Erie of the Ontario Hockey League this season. Christian Dvorak, a second-round pick in 2014, led the OHL with 52 goals and was second with 121 points for London. If both prove ready there could be a logjam at center with Martin Hanzal, who had his best scoring season but was again troubled by injuries, Vermette and Richardson all under contract.
The Coyotes don't have a top-flight defense prospect in the wings. Stone is questionable to begin the season. Free agency spending or trade additions will likely come in hopes of adding talent there.
2016 DRAFT PICKS: The Coyotes have two first-round picks; their own lottery pick at No. 7 and the New York Rangers' first-round pick acquired in the Keith Yandle trade, among their six picks. Unless the ping pong balls that moved the Coyotes out of the No. 2 spot in 2015 fall in their favor -- they have a 6.5 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick -- any thoughts of adding Arizona-born Auston Matthews to their stable of talented young forwards will disappear.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Domi, Duclair, Martinook and goalie Louie Domingue established themselves as NHL players and in the case of Domi and Duclair, who combined for 38 goals and 96 points, budding stars. Hanzal, Richardson, Stone, Ekman-Larsson and Tobias Rieder all established career highs in either goals or points. If Strome and Dvorak have the kind of impact Domi and Duclair had this season, the Arizona offense could be a strong point moving forward.