The story was supposed to go like this: in the face of continued adversity off the ice, the Phoenix Coyotes would pull together to play for quite possibly their very existence and thwart the Detroit Red Wings, reaching the second round for the first time in 20-plus years. The victory would energize the fanbase, create publicity and possibly build a wave of momentum that might carry them to some ownership resolution.
That was the best-case scenario. The fairy tale ending. Instead, the Coyotes are facing an immense 3-0 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings thanks to their 4-2 loss in Game 3 on Monday night. Nothing's impossible in sports, and perhaps fate is just setting things up for an epic comeback, but if they do even come close to something that miraculous, they'll have to start by actually playing better.
Indeed, the Coyotes' implosion on the ice almost mirrors the patten we've seen off the ice. With the Coyotes' sale, we've heard several times that pieces have been in place and fans have gotten their hopes up, only to have one thing or another falter, causing the whole thing to collapse. An autopsy of each deal showed that they'd all been a house of cards, and no substantial "here's the cash" potential transaction has actually come up.
On the ice, Phoenix brought in the reputation of a hard-nosed, gritty, defensive team, but truth be told, they gave up a surprising amount of goals this year -- 24 more this year than last. Ilya Bryzgalov was streaky and the penalty kill was shockingly low for a Dave Tippett team. All of these factors have been exposed against the Red Wings, and while it seemed like the Coyotes had more depth and more poise than the squad from last year, the truth is uglier than that.
So let's project things out a little bit. Assume that the Coyotes don't repeat the Philadelphia Flyers' feat of last season by coming back down 3-0. Assume their ownership situation doesn't stabilize.
They'll enter the off-season once more with a bottom-third budget and the threat of relocation hanging over their heads. Is that a situation that will attract free agents? Will casual fans believe that the third time's a charm in the playoffs? The answer to both of these questions is probably "no."
Three things are required for any team's long-term success: stability, success, and community involvement. Community involvement means a grassroots effort, stability gives fans the confidence that hiccups can be overcome and success is both the bait and the reward for fans.
Last year, they rode the wave of being a surprise team. This year, the casual fan's perception has to be one of disappointment, and early returns on Phoenix-area TV ratings show that the public interest has dropped. If any team needed a successful playoff run, it'd be the Coyotes. Instead, the uncertainty now reaches on to the ice.
Teams that win by committee tend to burn out after a few seasons, thus creating the inevitable roster turnover. The ones that maintain success for longer stretches usually have a skilled team that buys into the committee approach. Unfortunately, you'd be hard-pressed to call Phoenix's roster top-end, and that's with all due respect to Shane Doan, Martin Hanzal, and Ray Whitney. The bottom line is that any sort of growth will have to come from within.
Kyle Turris was a highly touted draft pick, and he's showing some flash during this year's playoff run. Keith Yandle has evolved into a Norris-worthy defenseman, and perhaps he'll take the final step into a dominant player. The Coyotes, however, don't have the budget or appeal to land a big-name free agent right now, and that handcuffs the on-ice product and the off-ice reputation.
If the team falters next season and the ownership saga is still ongoing, one has to think that the team's local profile will take a harsher hit than a losing season in another locale would. The current situation is unfair for everyone: Coyotes fans, fans hoping (falsely or not) for a relocated team, the players, their families and the management that has to put together another winning squad while handcuffed by instability.
After two years, it's time for resolution of some kind.
(Short aside: For hockey fans that wonder why the league insists on trying to make the Phoenix area successful, it's because of Phoenix's standing as one of the largest metro markets in the US. This creates the potential for much more revenue if the franchise is successful when the economy swings around. You have to think big picture here, like 10-20 years as opposed to just a few years down the line.)
I've never been an advocate of moving the Coyotes, as their fanbase had shown spark during the Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Nikolai Khabibulin years, but there's only so much time you can give a situation before something has to give.
With the potential end of the Coyotes' season looking to be sooner rather than later, the focus now completely shifts to the off-ice issues that have festered for two years now. Is there a way to satisfy all parties at this point? I don't think so, but maybe there's still a storybook ending in here somewhere.
For more on the Phoenix Coyotes ongoing ownership situation, be sure stay updated with Five For Howling. For more on the series between the Coyotes and Red Wings, check in with SBNation.com's continuing coverage.