In the waning moments of the NHL season, the last game of the Phoenix Coyotes season against the Dallas Stars was forming into one of intense proportions – a play-in game of sorts. Winner goes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and loser goes home.
Well, the Phoenix Coyotes got their win, a 2-1 victory to end the season. The only problem – it was their only win in the month of April. Since playing Minnesota for the seven seed on March 29th, the Coyotes lost six straight, losing control of their destiny and eliminating the chance to bring playoff hockey back to Glendale after a year hiatus.
So what happened?
This observer tends to lean towards an identity crisis. In the early going, this was a team that was scoring at an uncharacteristically high rate, but was seeing instability in net in the meantime. When Mike Smith settled down, the offense then began to disappear. Then the defense wasn’t holding up their end of the bargain, a trend that was present most of the year. With the 26th ranked penalty kill unit in the league, it felt at times that every mistake resulted in a puck in the net. Such a trend goes against what Coyotes fans are used to.
It seems like just yesterday the Coyotes were among the league’s best in terms of stinginess. If the Coyotes had a one or two goal lead, it was all but a foregone conclusion that it was a victory. That was not the case in 2013-14, especially down the stretch. Countless blown leads and lazy defensive efforts distinguish this team from its past counterparts, and is not what Coyotes fans have grown accustomed to in hockey under Dave Tippett. Hopefully the Coyotes will take steps toward returning to that style this upcoming offseason.
But first, let’s take a look at some of the standouts from the 2013-14 Phoenix Coyotes season.
Every acquisition is considered a quiet acquisition in the desert. Even the signing of Mike Ribeiro was relatively hushed, despite being one of the better available free agent options. So if the name Newell Brown does not ring a bell, I am not in the least bit surprised. Not very many assistant coaches are recognized. But his hiring may have been the single greatest signing in the Coyotes offseason, and it garnered huge results this season.
Released from Vancouver around the same time Alain Vigneault was shown the door, Brown came in with a reputation as a power play mastermind, a reputation which he ultimately delivered on. After being 29th and 25th on the power play the last two years, the Coyotes were fourth in the NHL in 2013-14, converting on almost 20 percent of their chances. Newell Brown is a large part of that improvement, which the organization hopes carries over to next season.
One of the many beneficiaries of assistant coach Newell Brown’s offensive contributions, Mikkel Boedker had himself a career year in 2013-14. With 19 goals, 31 assists and 50 points all setting career highs for the young Dane, Boedker did his part after signing a “show-me” deal at the beginning of the season. Already one of Phoenix’s key core players, his strides forward set himself up for a contract year in 2014-15.
Fellow defenseman Keith Yandle may lead the team in points, but no player has been the complete package that Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been this season. That is reflected in his all-around stats – he is in the top 50 among NHL defenseman in goals (5th with 15), assists (26th with 29), points (14th with 44), hits (47th with 134) and time on ice (6th with 25:54 per game). That last stat is the most telling. OEL was asked to do everything in Tippett’s system, a task he responded to as well as one could expect. Whether it was on the top power play pairing or the penalty kill, number 23 was all over the ice and making things happen for the Coyotes.
It is only a matter of time before the Swede becomes a regular in the Norris Trophy conversation. If he were playing somewhere outside of the desert, he probably already would be.
Most disappointing players
There, I said it. Mike Smith was not the goalie the Coyotes needed him to be in 2013-14. That is not to say that he was awful – quite the opposite. There were stretches where Mike Smith was the same goalie that carried the ‘Yotes to the 2011-12 playoffs. February comes to mind; Smith had a 1.40 goals against average and an otherworldly .955 save percentage in the month. Granted, it was separated by the Olympic break, but it still was nice to see Smith find his groove chasing a playoff spot.
I’m not holding his latest injury (where a Rangers player sat on him) against him, but it was disappointing that the starting goaltender was not more involved in the month leading up to the playoff chase. Hence my word choice – disappointing, not horrible.
Among NHL defensemen, only Erik Karlsson and Duncan Keith amassed more assists then Phoenix’s own Keith Yandle. Among all skaters, only Nicklas Backstrom and Clade Giroux have more power play assists than Yandle. Why, then, is Keith Yandle a disappointment in 2013-14?
Yandle demonstrated this season that offensively speaking, he is an elite playmaker. Defensively, though, Yandle just may be one of the most frustrating players to watch. For every pinch to generate a Coyote shot on goal, he overextends and gives a scoring chance to the other team, or commits a turnover in the defensive zone. So it is no surprise his plus-minus is an unacceptable minus-23, tied for sixth worst among NHL blueliners.
I am not suggesting Yandle needs to tone down his offensive game. It is a large part of what makes him a unique and exciting player. But defensively, Yandle simply needs to be more responsible. Not that he is behind all the defensive struggles, but he needs to lead this team by example.
I found myself wanting to place Hanzal on the Three Stars list, but ultimately could not do it. 40 points is a career high for him, and he was a noticeable force to be reckoned with when he was on the ice.
Well, that’s just it – he was very rarely on the ice for the Coyotes when they needed him most. He missed 17 games due to either injury or suspension, and even when he was there, he was committing penalties at an alarming rate. His 73 penalty minutes lead the team by a sizeable margin. Some of that is reputation (and the fact that he is massive at 6’6” – every hit looks harder than it should), but it is also a lack of discipline on Marty’s part. He is still one of Phoenix’s best forwards, but he needs to stay healthy and play better fundamental hockey next season if the Coyotes want to return to the playoffs.
Chris Summers and Michael Stone
I include these together because their story is much the same – Stone’s is only starting a couple chapters earlier. After getting the call up early in the season, Stone has logged in top-four pairing minutes, stepping in for the injured Zbynek Michalek at first. The thing is he has not looked lost in the shuffle at any time this season. His emergence was a big part of why the Coyotes were able to trade away Rundblad and Klesla at the deadline.
The same can be said for Chris Summers in his early going. A much more mobile skater, the former University of Michigan captain has quickly become one of my favorite players to watch. He throws his weight around, displays a good hockey sense, and isn’t afraid to throw down. An unrestricted free agent coming up, the Coyotes would do right to keep this one in the desert.
In addition to having one of the coolest names in hockey, forward Rob Klinkhammer will end the season tied for the team lead in plus-minus. Although he was used in small doses, Klinkhammer is the kind of player Tippett covets. Defensively responsible with a hint of sandpaper in his game, Klinkhammer may never develop into a top-six kind of guy, and that’s okay. As long as he continues to play his position and stay in his lane, Klinkhammer should continue to thrive in his current role.
Derek Morris, Radim Vrbata and David Moss will all hit the unrestricted free agent market this upcoming offseason. With Gormley and Murphy potentially ready to make the jump, Morris may be expendable, but I believe he wants to retire a Coyote, so he may take a team-friendly deal. And as the Coyotes have demonstrated, you can never have too many NHL defenseman.
With plenty of young talent, Phoenix has a very short laundry list for free agency, with plenty of young guys ready to contribute, namely Max Domi. Coach Tippett has demonstrated a reluctance towards younger players, but with the 2013-14 result, some soul searching may be necessary.
Here is a potential depth chart with players already under contract for next season
Doan – Ribeiro – Boedker
Erat – Hanzal – Domi
Klinkhammer – Vermette – Korpikoski
Szwarz – Chipchura – McMillan
Lessio, Miele, Kennedy depth
Ekman-Larsson – Michalek
Yandle – Stone
Murphy – Gormley
It definitely looks better with Vrbata and Morris in the mix, but the lineup has no glaring needs, with exception possibly in the backup goaltender spot. Depth is a necessity either way, but the core for the Coyotes remains relatively untouched, and that spells good news for the Arizona Coyotes in their inaugural season.