GLENDALE — Monday might have been the final time Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan cleans out his locker. But he said he doesn’t plan to announce anytime soon whether he wants to play next season.
The options: retire quietly and avoid a “victory tour,” or come back for another year with speculation of when his career will end.
Doan’s upcoming free agency is among the top priorities in what should be a critical offseason for the Coyotes organization.
It’s also 27-year-old general manager John Chayka’s first full offseason after being hired to the position May 17 — making him the youngest general manager in the four major professional sports. Youngest, but fully appreciative of Doan’s eminence throughout the Coyotes’ 20 years in Arizona.
“I could go on for an hour about what (Doan) means to this franchise,” Chayka said at a press briefing Monday at Gila River Arena. “It’s well documented. He is the Arizona Coyotes, and for a good reason. He’s taken on the brunt of the responsibility here at times when maybe he shouldn’t have even had to, but he’s done so with grace and class.
“As far as his future goes, it’s all about fit. Fit for him, fit for his family, fit for the organization. We’ll see where it goes.”
The longtime winger said he couldn’t help but think his career is over.
“I’m going to go back and forth probably thinking both ways,” Doan said. “I’m trying them both on, seeing how it feels. I love to play. It is so fun to play our sport, and it is the best game in the world. There’s nothing that compares to it.”
Doan played 74 of the 82 games this season. He had six goals, a sharp drop from 28 the season before.
Doan said a host of factors will impact his final decision. For one, will he still be able to compete night in and night out to his level of satisfaction? Second, is there a role available for him with a young, talented nucleus on the Coyotes? Lastly, and most importantly he said, will he finally let being a father and husband take precedence over his career?
The 21-year NHL veteran crossed paths with many players who have faced the decision he confronts now. He considered their insight.
“Anyone that I’ve played with that has retired, it’s been one of the questions that I’ve asked,” Doan said. “Everybody goes through it when you change your career. It becomes your identity, so when it changes it’s hard because it’s part of who you are.”
Beyond the Doan decision, the 2017 offseason could be one of the most important in the organization’s history. For the fifth consecutive year, Arizona missed the playoffs. And it wasn’t a near-miss. The Coyotes finished 24 points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
But they see hope in four teams who burst back into the Stanley Cup playoffs this season: the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. Their revivals came after each picked in the top six of last year’s NHL Draft. Each rode a young core to the postseason. Although the Coyotes’ spot in the first round will be determined by the NHL lottery, they are guaranteed to pick in the top seven.
To start, based on the model for success in pro sports, Chayka probably needs to find a star — something the team didn’t have this season. Its lone All-Star was goalie Mike Smith, who’s 35.
Coach Dave Tippett said Monday the team has the potential for something he hasn’t had in his eight years as the coach — top-level talent.
“To be able to really compete at the level we want to – and it’s no disrespect to the players we’ve had here – but we need better good players,” Tippett said. “Nothing against Radim Vrbata, but he isn’t at the level that Patrick Kane is or the top players in the league. You need top players to compete at the top level. We’re trying to foster these young players to be top players.”
The challenge thus lies in developing the talent on the roster. Doan said one of the biggest struggles he experienced was going from rookie to second-year player, and a second-year player to a third-year one. Developing habits and adapting to the game are part of the maturation process for every player, even on a losing team.
Right wing Max Domi, 22, talked Monday about how the team can’t shrug off being far out of the playoff picture.
“This is a feeling that we don’t want to learn to accept and continue to experience,” Domi said. “Down the road, it’s going to have to change. When you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, it’s frustrating for everyone individually and as a team.
“I think it’s exciting for all of us that the young guys played – I think they all played unbelievable. I think they were all great this year. It’s a learning curve for them and the other young guys. We’re just going to continue to grow as a group and mature as fast as possible.”
Chayka relied heavily on young players in his first season in charge and thus got a deep look at the roster.
“This season was kind of pulling a Band-Aid off and seeing where we’re at as an organization,” Chayka said. “At some point, I think, as an organization you’ve got to get a look at what you’ve got. I think we’ve gotten a good, long, hard look at our players.”
Chayka and Tippett have been encouraged from what they’ve seen. While injuries hampered young talents Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Domi, and a slump sent Anthony Duclair to the minors, the organization feels its young group of players has a chance to take a step forward. Tippett cited Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini as standouts from Arizona’s large rookie class.
Then there’s the NHL Draft, for which Tanktathon.com has the Coyotes having a 10.3 percent chance at landing the top pick.
“There’s going to be lots of opportunities,” Chayka said. “We’re looking to get better and grow this group.”
Then he seemed to think again about Calgary, Edmonton, Columbus and Toronto, and how their seasons are just really about to start.
“But at the same time, you look at those teams who took a step from last year and it’s not on the backs of free agent signings or making a big trade, even,” Chayka said. “It’s on the growth of their young players.”