In a decision that brought joy to approximately 14,000 people in the summer of 2013, the Glendale City Council decided by a 4-3 vote to approve an arena lease that kept the Phoenix Coyotes from leaving the desert for a new location. There would be new ownership, new revenue and new excitement for one of the least popular franchises in the NHL and perhaps all of sports.
Yet here we are one year later, and all that's changed is the name of the franchise almost no one cares about (relatively speaking), and ownership is four years from being able to exercise an out clause.
The Phoenix Coyotes are now the Arizona Coyotes, a team that has missed the postseason for two straight years and looks poised to make it a third consecutive also-ran run in 2014-15. When the talent and payroll are declining and rebranding is an organization's biggest offseason move, perhaps it's time to admit the NHL should have let Seattle have a franchise last year.
What We Learned in 2013-14
"We went into this hopeful, and we're very, very happy, very grateful not only to the councilmembers here, but all the residents and taxpayers here," Renaissance Sports & Entertainment partner Anthony LeBlanc said at the time of the council's decision. "We are looking forward to a solid partnership and making this a [success] for all those concerned."
The happenings off the ice were just as important as the happenings on the ice for the 2013-14 Coyotes; neither turned out to be very encouraging.
The Coyotes were the picture of mediocrity; they finished 37-30-15, two points out of a playoff spot in the West and 18th in the overall league standings. In terms of their underlying numbers, it's hard to have a more average season, as they lost the season-long Fenwick battle 2,665-2,663 and finished 16th in Fenwick differential.
As a whole, the Coyotes weren't terrible, but they were hardly great. The middling performance made them, once again, a weak draw at Jobing.com Arena; they averaged 13,775 fans per game in 2013-14, the lowest in the NHL, and down about 150 fans per game over the shortened 2013 campaign.
The 13,775 is actually a slight improvement over the previous 82-game season in 2011-12, when the Coyotes again finished last in average attendance at 13,306 per game.
Despite the discouraging numbers, that didn't prevent LeBlanc from taking to Twitter during the season to brag about revenue:
A wealthy sports franchise owner bragging about how much money he's making is like Brad Pitt jumping on Twitter to say, "I had sex with Angelina Jolie last night. Lots of it. Record-setting sex for the fourth time this year. Let's keep this up! #BrangelinaFans"
Optics aside, all that talk of revenue has to make the fanbase feel good about the upcoming season, unless of course those fans are paying attention to what's coming down the pike for 2014-15.
Outlook for 2014-15
The 2013-14 payroll was $62.3 million, good for 21st in the league. After an offseason that featured a buyout of Mike Ribeiro and several other moves, the 2014-15 Coyotes are 26th in the league at $57.9 million.
That's almost $5 million in salary that disappeared, which is what former Coyotes sniper Radim Vrbata received from the Vancouver Canucks to ply his trade there. The 33-year-old Vrbata had 20 goals and 51 points in 80 games for the Coyotes last season and was also a solid possession player (51.3% Corsi, +0.8% Corsi-relative).
The other significant loss for the Coyotes was Ribeiro, who had the final three years of a four-year, $22 million contract bought out this summer. Ribeiro wasn't exactly the No. 1 center the Coyotes thought they had landed, but his 16 goals and 47 points were both fourth on the team last year.
General manager Dave Maloney said the buyout was less about performance and more about Ribeiro as a person, saying this, reports Craig Morgan of Fox Sports Arizona, as he "backed a bus over" Ribeiro:
Mike had some behavioral issues last year and after looking at everything that occurred I just felt there were certain levels of behavior that we could not accept. This has nothing to do with finances. Our goal is to become a successful, winning franchise. For us to move forward, we felt we had to make this change.
The move saved the Coyotes about $6 million, and while Maloney said the buyout had nothing to do with finances, they are still spending less money to ice a team this year than they did a year ago.
Here's a look at the Coyotes' potential lineup for 2014-15.
|Probable Coyotes forwards 2014-15|
|Left wing||Center||Right wing|
|Mikkel Boedker||Martin Hanzal||Shane Doan|
|Lauri Korpikoski||Sam Gagner||Martin Erat|
|Rob Klinkhammer||Antoine Vermette||Brandon McMillan|
|Kyle Chipchura||Joe Vitale||B.J. Crombeen|
Sam Gagner was acquired to fill the role of the dispatched Ribeiro and could match the missing production. The 24-year-old Gagner has been a steady 40-point player since breaking into the league as an 18-year-old in 2005-06, and it's possible he will be rejuvenated with a new team.
Despite playing on an inept Edmonton Oilers team for most of his career, he's been a steady possession player, relatively speaking, the past four seasons.
The one name not on the above depth chart that could be the one to replace Vrbata's production is 19-year-old Max Domi, the 12th pick in the 2013 draft. His primary position is center, although if he makes the team out of training camp, he could play on the left side of the second line if the Coyotes want to minimize the defensive burden.
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, however, made it clear (via NHL.com) during the team's development camp this summer that if a player makes the team, he won't be there to learn.
"I play guys I can win with," Tippett said. "I play to win. When you get to the NHL you should play to win, not play to hope you can develop kids. Developing kids is for the American league and junior. When we put a kid in, he's in there because he can win."
The Coyotes scored 216 goals last season, tied for 19th in the league. By losing Ribeiro and Vrbata, the Coyotes also lost 36 goals from last season. Will the additions of Gagner (10 goals last season) and potentially Domi fill that void? Or will a below-average offensive team slip deeper into the goal-scoring abyss in 2014-15?
It doesn't help that the goaltending and defense isn't what they once were in the desert.
Let's watch goaltender Mike Smith score a goal.
Now let's watch goaltender Mike Smith score a different goal.
While the 2013-14 season will eventually fade into the expanse of time, the memory and joy most of the world received from #buttgoal will only grow stronger over time.
It was that type of season for the 2012 Vezina Trophy finalist; there were highs and lows, and just like the Coyotes, he finished near the middle of the pack. The average save percentage for an NHL goaltender in 2013-14 was .914, with Smith posting a .915 in 60 games, a far cry from his career-best .930 in 67 games in 2011-12.
During Coach Tippett's first three seasons, the Coyotes made the playoffs on the strength of their defense. The Coyotes finished third, 13th and seventh in goals allowed during those playoff seasons. But in the past two postseason-less seasons, the Coyotes have slipped to 17th and 19th.
|Potential Coyotes defense, goaltending for 2014-15|
|Left Defense||Right Defense||Goaltenders|
|Oliver Ekman-Larsson||Zbynek Michalek||Mike Smith|
|Keith Yandle||Connor Murphy||Devan Dubnyk|
|David Schlemko||Michael Stone|
|Brandon Gormley||Chris Summers|
There doesn't figure to be much in the way of turnover defensively, either, which doesn't bode well for the Coyotes.
Defenseman Derek Morris, who averaged 19:26 in ice time in 60 games, remains an unrestricted free agent. The 37-year-old was an average, perfectly respectable second-pairing blueliner whose departure will mean more minutes and responsibility for the likes of Michael Stone and Connor Murphy.
With Team Sweden healthy scratch Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Team USA snub Keith Yandle (Geez, Sochi Olympic teams sure hated stud Coyotes defensemen) anchoring the back end, it wouldn't be out of the question to see Yandle dealt in an effort to improve the forward group. But if it hasn't happened now, it probably won't happen until the trade deadline or next summer, if at all.
The Coyotes allowed 231 goals last season—only the Philadelphia Flyers (235) allowed more goals and reached the postseason. The Coyotes scored 216 goals last season—only the Montreal Canadiens (215), Minnesota Wild (206) and Los Angeles Kings (206) scored fewer goals and reached the postseason.
With slight to major downgrades throughout the roster, including backup Thomas Greiss (.915 career; .920 last year) being replaced by Devan Dubnyk (.909 career; .891 last year), and many Western playoff teams bolstering their rosters this summer, the only thing Coyotes fans have to look forward to this year are tweets from ownership about how much revenue the team is generating that isn't being put back into the team.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.