The smell of defeat still resonated among the Phoenix Coyotes like fish left out overnight.
Sure, the Coyotes reached the highest point in franchise history and their play in the Western Conference finals demonstrated the resiliency of players, the exceptional coaching of staff and support of a growing legion of fans.
When the Coyotes cleaned out their lockers at Jobing.com Arena Thursday morning and opened its doors to the media, the anguish, bitterness and rage of losing to the Los Angeles Kings in five games was replaced with a strong sense of accomplishment. Consensus around the locker room agreed the building blocks are in place, but veteran voices, like coach Dave Tippett and Ray Whitney pointed out that the road to stay at the top and continue to challenge for the Stanley Cup is a formidable mountain.
Still, players generally felt good about what they achieved.
“As a team, we know now what it’s like to compete at a high level, and we want more,” said forward Mikkel Boedker. “It’s like an addiction. Sure, we’re disappointed the way things ended, but we took the right step in the next direction.”
The way Phoenix qualified for post-season play remained a testament to the players’ dedication and work ethic. Winning their final five games, three from shutouts from goalie Mike Smith to clinch the Pacific Division title, the Coyotes then needed just 11 games to eliminate Chicago and Nashville combined in post-season play.
Still, attention through the final weeks of the season focused on Vancouver, San Jose and the strong defensive effort turned by the St. Louis Blues. The Coyotes remained an afterthought and only when news of the franchise’s plight surfaced, did the Coyotes appear in any newspaper or on any web site.
General manager Don Maloney did make the one deal at the trading deadline and brought in forward Antoine Vermette from Columbus in exchange for minor league goal tender Curtis McElhinney, a second round pick in 2012 and a fifth round pick in 2013.
“When I came here, this was pretty much an unknown team,” Vermette said. “They were flying under the hockey radar screen and not many people really knew about this team.”
Quickly, the hockey world took notice when the Blackhawks, just two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, were knocked out in the opening round. Despite questions of team ownership, the absence of fans until the playoffs, and the usual plethora of injuries, the Coyotes responded to the moment in need.
“What this team achieved was beyond expectation,” said Smith. “Look, it was a heck of ride. We’re ready for more. We’ll come back, fight for another division title and challenge again for the Cup.”
Going into the offseason, the Coyotes have six players who will be free agents on July 1, and resolution of the Collective Bargaining Agreement for the future remains in the players and the league’s attention. The free agent issue is especially important to Maloney, and the priority he told the media Thursday morning is wrapping up captain Shane Doan.
A free agent on July 1, Doan, at 36, spent his entire career with the franchise. As a rookie on the 1995-96 Winnipeg Jets, he moved with the franchise to the desert to start the 1996-97 NHL season. He is regarded as the heart and soul of the franchise and Tippett identifies the native of Halkrik, Alberta as “the best captain in the NHL.”
“I have a strong relationship with Maloney and Tippett, and I don’t see any issues,” Doan said. “We’ll get it done.”
Other key members to be free agents include defensemen Michal Rozsival and Adrian Aucoin along with Whitney.
For his part, Whitney, coming off tied for the best season in his career with 77 points, said he would not consider playing here next season under the current league ownership of the franchise. In an informal dialogue with a few reporters in front of his locker, Whitney had high praise for Craig Jamison, who is heading a group to buy the Coyotes, and believes Jamison‘s group will provide strong leadership and stability.
Whitney first met Jamison when Whitney was playing for San Jose from the 1991-92 through the 1996-97 season, and said Jamison would be ideal.
“Smart man, very smart man, and genuinely a nice guy,” Whitney pointed out. “If the ownership thing is settled and Craig is here, yes, I would seriously consider coming back.”
For now, two significant issues remain on the Coyotes radar screen.
Like the 29 other teams, free agency will receive a great deal of attention. Unlike the remaining 29 teams, the dark cloud of ownership needs to be settled.
The ownership issue is critical, Maloney said at this press briefing Thursday morning. In that sense, the team’s success from this spring should be a bridge in the hopes financial stability will plug some gaps. While the core of the team will likely stay in tact, and Smith and Tippett have one year remaining on their Phoenix contracts, Maloney said Doan remains his priority.
“There are several players with whom we will talk, but we plan to keep Doan,” he said. “We would like a commitment to us, and we would like to get this done by July 1.”
That leaves just over a month to finalize important contracts, while at the same time, to try and solidify the future of this franchise as quickly as possible.
After the collision with Kings' captain Dustin Brown near the end of Game 5, Rozsival was assisted off the ice and had an MRI Wednesday.
On crutches outside the Coyotes locker room Thursday morning, Rozsival sustained a severe hit to the right knee but suffered no internal damage, according to Maloney.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.