DAN BICKLEY

NHL’s 24-team playoff format is a gift for the Arizona Coyotes

May 26, 2020, 5:19 PM | Updated: May 27, 2020, 9:00 am

Arizona Coyotes right wing Clayton Keller (9) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal agains...

Arizona Coyotes right wing Clayton Keller (9) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders in the first period during an NHL hockey game, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Hockey is a conundrum in the Valley. We’re a NHL market frowned upon by traditionalists and the East Coast elite. Our climate is a fever dream to frostbitten prospects and descendants from the Great White North. We’ve spawned a No. 1 overall pick in the draft, one of the greatest team captains in history and a robust grass-roots movement.

Yet, the Arizona Coyotes have never had a fighting chance, always swimming in red ink, always playing in one flawed location after another.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Gary Bettman gave our franchise another reprieve.

When hockey resumes this summer, the Coyotes will be a playoff team. They will play a best-of-5 series against the Nashville Predators, which is far more than they deserved when a pandemic shut down the sport on March 12.

The gift comes at a tenuous time. The Coyotes are spinning in the wrong direction. The new owner, Alex Meruelo, is a billionaire. But like most rich dudes, he’s not insensitive to losing money. He’s merely the latest to confront the frustrations and losing propositions of playing weeknight hockey games in Glendale.

He parted ways with team president and CEO Ahron Cohen, a decent guy attempting to become our hockey version of Derrick Hall. After vowing to stand for the community, he was one of the first major professional owners to furlough a large number of employees.

His first lap with the franchise has been a rocky road, from a team that cratered in the standings; to a host of under-producing players; to impending and hefty fines from the NHL for recruiting violations. He has barged into the dressing room at least once, according to a trusted source, giving players a taste of his unhappiness.

Chalk it up to rookie mistakes and wealthy petulance. But the Coyotes owner also needs a new arena in the near future if the team is to remain Arizona. His options are dwindling. And his political capital has waned during the pandemic, following his treatment of lower-level workers.

Meanwhile, Taylor Hall is a free agent. Despite his mediocre production in 2019-20, the former MVP will cost a lot of money going forward. He also hails from Calgary and must love the perks of living in Arizona.

I’m guessing Hall does not want to leave and that he’s looking for reasons to remain in Arizona. But what will Meruelo’s appetite for payroll look like in the near future?

With all the mounting losses and negative publicity, Meruelo can’t be blamed for not re-investing in the direction of this team. Phil Kessel has sorely under-performed. Hall hasn’t been special for two years. The goaltending is great but prone to injuries. And given their current situation, how long until General Manager John Chayka finds another employer?

A long, strong playoff run could change all of that. It won’t recoup all the financial losses suffered this past season. Not when the Coyotes will be playing the Predators at a neutral site without fans, in what Bettman called, “Hub City Two.” But it could reverse the negative energy surrounding this organization, creating excitement for the future, the kind a new owner surely craves.

Face it. Most billionaires don’t buy sports franchises for the money. They purchase the fame, the platform and the celebrity status. This is what the Coyotes must give their newbie owner when the NHL returns. They must give him a taste of glory. And for all their bad luck since moving to Arizona, a run at the Cup is very possible.

In early January, after a four-game winning streak, the Coyotes were tied for second-place in the Western Conference. They looked like a Stanley Cup contender. They lost eight of their next nine games. The season was suddenly lost. So, too, seemed the future.

Now comes this break from Bettman and an expanded play-in playoff format. Seriously:

Would you bet against the Coyotes? A team with pedigreed, underachieving offensive weapons and two dominant, healthy goaltenders? In a short series?

Along the way, we have learned that having a billionaire owner isn’t always a panacea or magical cure. But Bettman’s reprieve might be exactly the break we need, at another breaking point in organizational history.

There is an old joke in hockey, and we happen to be the punchline. Who’s the only NHL market to cheer Bettman and boo Wayne Gretzky?

That’s Arizona. That’s us. As it should be.

So thank the commissioner once again, hockey fans. Bettman doesn’t hear a lot of on-the-job praise and we owe him our gratitude. The most hated man in hockey continues to be our unexpected ally, an Arizona friendly, everything David Stern was not.

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