It was the first real run of its kind for the Phoenix Coyotes' franchise, making it to the Western Conference Final. Unfortunately for them, it only went so far, as they were knocked out in five games by the Los Angeles Kings after a 4-3 overtime Game 5 loss. Added to the Coyotes' valiant effort was the drama they had to go through this season regarding ownership and location issues. They've focused everything on the ice, and it helped them get to their best season yet.
Most teams have had trouble focusing solely on the game when facing the issue of relocation. For instance, the Atlanta Thrashers were also a victim of problems with ownership. They hardly played in front of a full home crowd and were unable to render themselves marketable. In turn, it hurt their appeal to free agents and they couldn't develop into a seriously competitive hockey team. By the time of their demise, the Thrashers were never able to overcome the distractions that came with staying in Atlanta.
The Coyotes, on the other hand, have gotten increasingly better at handling the distractions. Most of that is because their lack of ownership had been much more pronounced over the years and the team was being heavily fought over by those that wanted to move the franchise back to Winnipeg, as was expected after last season's exit at the hands of a Detroit Red Wings sweep. As a result, they pretty much had no other option but to get better under the circumstances.
Fast-forward to the 2011-12 season and a Winnipeg move has already occurred, so the new talk was of a relocation to Quebec City, with many were preparing for another "new" Canadian team in the NHL. Other cities like Seattle also showed interest in an NHL team and, once again, the Phoenix Coyotes were (and still are) being brought up.
Reflecting the off-ice situations, Phoenix went through an uninspiring first half to the season, hovering around .500 with crowds rarely more than their season average of 12,420. Still, they remained competitive and got enough from players like Radim Vrbata, who led the league in game-winning goals, to balance out the scoring. With these benefits, the Coyotes also balanced out their home and road efforts. This all helped them significantly down the stretch when the team got hotter, thanks to the much improved performances from their goalies, mainly Mike Smith, who turned it on big-time in February and late March/early April.
The effort put forth late in the season gave the Coyotes enough steam to run through the playoffs and surprise many with their deep run, including a six-game series victory over the Chicago Blackhawks and an even more convincing five-game set with the Nashville Predators. Unfortunately, they met up with a much more complete team in the Kings, who used their on-ice advantages to defeat the Coyotes.
Despite the loss to L.A., there is a lot of upside to the foundation of the team in Phoenix. The Coyotes have kept around long-term veterans like Shane Doan, Daymond Langkow, Rostislav Klesla and Ray Whitney. Yet they have a young core including future star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and other players such as Vrbata and Keith Yandle. They are even set for further down the line with prospects like Brandon Gormley and Michael Stone to help keep the blueline fresh going forward. The Coyotes might even be set with a possible franchise goalie in Smith.
Along with the players, the Coyotes' coaching staff is well armed as well. Dave Tippett's defensive system fits many of the players on the roster who excel in grinding and the two-way game. They have a general manager in Don Maloney who is willing to pay the money for a player when needed, like Antoine Vermette. There is even a goalie coach in Sean Burke who has turned untapped talents in net into players like Ilya Bryzgalov and Smith.
Still, as with any team that does not win the Cup, Phoenix will need to make adjustments to remain more competitive in a deep run in the playoffs. However, a team with an identity and trust in each other goes a long way -- something even some teams that don't have to worry about relocation issues should consider for their squads. This season's Coyotes may not know where they will play in the following months, but they have a solid foundation in terms of team makeup, preparing for anything that happens.