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Morgan: End of season means start of crucial summer for Coyotes

Arizona Coyotes' Shane Doan (19) waves to the crowd after the team's NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild Saturday, April 8, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. The Wild defeated the Coyotes 3-1. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The 2016-17 season ended with a familiar thud for the Arizona Coyotes in a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Saturday at Gila River Arena. Fans’ frustration is understandable and fair. It’s been five years since the Coyotes made the playoffs; five seasons since that 2012 Western Conference Final tease.

What’s unfair is to blame the current coaching and management staffs for that fall from grace.

It took three seasons for the Coyotes to finally embrace a rebuild because coach Dave Tippett created unrealistic expectations with his ability to make wine out of a roster that was still predominantly water. Tippett has made his own personnel misjudgments, most notably the Mike Ribeiro mess, but this was the first year of the Gary Drummond- Tippett-John Chayka controlled hockey operations department, and the second year of the Coyotes youth movement.

With rookies Christian Dvorak, Lawson Crouse, Jakob Chychrun, Anthony DeAngelo and Brendan Perlini all playing prominent roles this season, alongside second-year players Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Jordan Martinook, it was foolish to imagine this a playoff team, even if Mike Smith, Brad Richardson and Max Domi had stayed healthy early in the season.

The Coyotes needed time for their youth to grow, they’ll need time for next season’s crop of Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome and Christian Fischer to grow, and they need to continue to stockpile a farm system with good drafts to sustain future success.

That said, let’s be clear on something: improving your system through good drafts and improving your roster through good trades and free-agent signings are not mutually exclusive. Both Chayka and Tippett maintain they want to build the organization the right way for sustainable success, and that’s laudable, given the mistakes of the past, but that shouldn’t stop them from finding quality NHL players to accelerate the process.

You can’t keep stockpiling prospects and assets, and you can’t keep pushing your future down the road as the Coyotes always seem to do, and did again in the Martin Hanzal trade this season. If you’re committed to winning, you explore all avenues. If ownership is truly committed to this market, it won’t expect another summer of empty cap hits filled by Pavel Datsyuk and Dave Bolland — even if they landed quality young talent in return. It should expect real, live bodies to fill those slots and move this product forward.

This is a crucial summer for the Coyotes. Aside from the continuing ownership and arenas soap operas, the roster has very important holes. The Coyotes still don’t have a top pairing right-handed defenseman to play alongside Oliver Ekman-Larsson and they still don’t have a No. 1 center. They should try to find both.

Maybe Kevin Shattenkirk is hell-bent on signing with the New York Rangers, but there may be other options available in the trade routes. As an example, Anaheim has too many defensemen to protect at the expansion draft.

If the New York Islanders reach an impasse with franchise center John Tavares, the Coyotes should move heaven and earth to acquire him. He’s become as good a defensive player as he is an offensive player. If the Islanders come to their senses, maybe the Rangers will look to move Derek Stepan or the Oilers will look to move Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. They aren’t franchise centers, but as Strome and Dvorak continue to develop, the Coyotes could assume a Columbus plan of attack at the center position with depth and skill to mask the lack of a true franchise player.

Whatever the solutions, another year of “growth” isn’t acceptable. It’s time for legitimate progress. It’s time to remind Valley hockey fans what playoff hockey looks and feels like. It’s much more entertaining than arena, ownership or roster roulette, and it’s well overdue.

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter

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