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Season preview: 2014-15 Arizona Coyotes

The honeymoon is over.

As Coyotes fans filed out of Arena on April 13 after a 2-1 win over the Dallas Stars, three things were certain: the season had ended, changes were coming and the honeymoon was over for the new ownership group.

Elation from the end of the four-year ownership drama started to wane near the sale’s one-year anniversary as fans reflected on the team’s on-ice performance. Two consecutive seasons without making the playoffs, no major stars to speak of and a limited budget stared back at them.

Yes, it was nice the team stayed in Arizona, but fans yearned for a winner.

The first major change of the offseason was the transition from “Phoenix” to “Arizona” Coyotes. A name change planned for years, but finally executed.

Then, the Coyotes bought out the final three years of center Mike Ribeiro’s four-year, $22 million contract after off-ice issues became too much to handle. Ribeiro was the big prize of the 2013 offseason as he was the highest-scoring free agent available.

Sam Gagner came to the desert as Ribeiro’s replacement via trade from Tampa Bay on June 29 (Tampa acquired the forward earlier that day from Edmonton). Arizona grabbed Gagner for only a sixth-round draft pick.

It was the first move in an offseason that many expected to be a respite from years of penny-pinching and bargain signings. The Coyotes had new owners they would certainly drop loads of cash on free agents, right?

Well, no.

The Coyotes maintained a tight budget on free agency day. The haul was just fourth line center Joe Vitale, back-up goaltender Devan Dubnyk and a pair of minor leaguers. In fact, as of the start of the season, they have the lowest salary payroll in the league.

Fans were not happy.

Arizona lost one of its best goal scorers via free agency as well, after a disagreement over the inclusion of a no-movement clause sent Radim Vrbata to Vancouver.

Fans were not happy.

Once training camp came around, there was new life surrounding the team. A myriad of talented prospects were fighting for a starting role. There was youth, energy and excitement at every corner of the ice. Fans mostly forgot about free agency day as they looked toward a bright future with players like Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson and others gliding around in Sedona Red. The youth movement was on.

Not so fast.

“There has been some talk over the last several months of a youth movement,” Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney said at the start of training camp. “That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re in a winning movement.”

However, as camp rolled on, the young guys were too good to ignore. In the team’s first preseason game, Samuelsson and Domi, the team’s first round picks in 2012 and 2013 respectively, each had three points in front of the home crowd. Instead of heeding Maloney’s warning, fans made up their minds — those two players were NHL ready.

In the meantime, fellow prospects Lucas Lessio and Tobias Rieder excelled in camp and pushed for NHL roles of their own.

Then the unthinkable happened. None of them made the team.

Domi was sent back to juniors, gone for the season, while the other three will play in the AHL until they are called up.

Fans were not happy.

The Coyotes will enter the 2014-15 season with most of the team that fell two points short of the postseason last season. Their fans enter emotionally tired from the ebbs and flows of the offseason.

Arizona will compete in the same division as three 100-point teams, including the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The rest of the Western Conference is not much easier, as six teams in the Central Division are considered serious playoff contenders. The Coyotes are fighting an up-hill battle in hopes of returning to the playoffs.


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