GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Phoenix Coyotes head into the NHL offseason with plenty of unknowns.
But for the first time in half a decade, those head-scratching questions don’t revolve around ownership groups or arena leases.
Instead, it’s the product on the ice that’s lacking stability these days.
Two long years have passed since the franchise’s first berth in the Western Conference Finals, and after a second straight season on the wrong side of the cut line, the elephant in the room remains.
Equipped with the same core group of players that led the way to a magical run in 2011-12, Phoenix has lost its identity.
Hockey is no longer executed the hard way; instead the Coyotes have simply made the game harder on themselves — blowing 24 leads in 2013-14, including 13 in the final 20 minutes of the game.
“Since Dave Tippett has been here, he’s been a terrific coach,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “As far as I’m concerned he’s the best in the game. We’ve had a real identity under him of being able to lock games down. When we’ve been leading after the second period, you basically shut your sets off and go home. We’re going to win that game.
“Our inability [this season] to maintain the lead — whether it’s the first, second or end of the third period — is troubling. And we have to figure out why that is. And I don’t have an answer for you today. You can’t say, ‘Oh our goaltending wasn’t as good or we need better defense.’ That’s not it. It’s a team identity issue — our ability to advance pucks out of our zone or the play of our wingers along the boards. So, there’s a lot to it.”
Maloney admitted the season’s failures are still fresh and that productive meetings will need to take place over the next few weeks with the coaching staff, pro scouting department and ownership group to explain just how the organization has veered so far from its successful calling card.
But even after those sit-downs conclude, Maloney has a handful of tough decisions to make.
Is it time to part with some of the team’s core players — unrestricted free agents David Moss, Derek Morris and Paul Bissonnette — and replace them with some of the young talent — Brandon Gormley, Chris Summers, Connor Murphy, Henrik Samuelson and Max Domi — that is waiting in the wings?
Or is it just a matter of making some minor tweaks to the on-ice personnel?
“Everybody talks younger, younger,” said Maloney. “To me, a guy like Brandon Gormley is younger but he’s going into his third year as a pro. A pleasant surprise was Connor Murphy, but he’ll just being going into his second year as a pro. I know everybody looks at a guy like Max Domi or a Henrik Samuelson [as potential guys who could make next season’s roster], but those guys haven’t even played a game.
“I really want to downplay the idea that they are going to come waltz in here next season and lead our team to the promised land. Will they have an opportunity? Absolutely. We just look at our group and you can’t finish the way we finished and expect next year to be different. We have to make changes. If you look at some of the players we’ve had around here for a number of years, we’ve had some level of success but not the last two years. We’re not going to wait four or five years. We’re just not going to do it. We have to figure out where our chemistry went wrong.”
The finality of the last two campaigns has also unquestionably taken a toll on Tippett, who since coming to the Valley in 2009 made it his personal mission to resurrect the Coyotes in his own image: a physical, hard-nosed team that revels in being able to grind out games.
It’s a style of play that yielded three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but has been nowhere to be seen since.
“I think the biggest emotion that you put on this season was frustration,” said Tippett. “The frustration came from a lot of the inconsistencies in our game. We’d have a game or two where we looked like we’d push ahead, but then we’d take steps back. That frustration was evident in our game.
“When you’re playing, everybody wants to win. Everyone is saying the right things. But it’s about doing. The frustration of not being able to get some stuff done was probably the emotion that was the most prevalent…It was a frustrating group.”
While talk around the franchise’s potential destination will not be commonplace as it has been over the last few summers, the complete picture as it relates to hockey-side of the business is as fuzzy as it’s been in quite some time.
The Coyotes will officially be trading in their namesake — from Phoenix to Arizona — come June, however, will that be the organization’s biggest facelift after another season left out in the cold?
“My focus was on making the playoffs,” said Maloney. “With new ownership in, let’s use whatever we can to get to the playoffs. And if it doesn’t work, let’s reset.
“And that’s where we are today.”