Top Shelf: On ice and off, Coyotes falling on hard times

By The Sports NetworkDec. 12, 2014 at 1:18 PM
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The future of professional hockey in Arizona has always seemed bleak, but the present isn't looking so great either.

A change in name from the Phoenix Coyotes to the Arizona Coyotes has done little to spark a franchise that in recent years was able to perform admirably on the ice even when the financial future of the club was far from stable.

Currently, the Coyotes are sitting 28th in the overall league standings and they hold the same spot in terms of attendance. At least they're finally consistent.

With a 10-16-3 record through 29 games, Arizona needs to get on track quickly if it wants to avoid missing the playoffs for a third straight season. However, if the Coyotes fail to pick up the pace they are on track to post the franchise's lowest point total in a full season since moving from Winnipeg to the desert following the 1995-96 season.

None of this should be all that shocking, considering the Coyotes have been operating on a shoestring budget for years now. The club is 27th in the league in payroll and is over $47 million under the salary cap ceiling.

General manager Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett have previously shown the ability to get the most out of a bad situation, but the formula clearly isn't working in 2014-15.

The Coyotes were hardly impressive to start the season, but they seemed in decent shape back in early November while sporting a 6-6-1 record out of the gates. However, the club has gone 4-10-2 since then and has failed to pick up a single home win during that stretch, going 0-6-2 in front of sparse crowds at Gila River Arena to post the longest home skid in franchise history.

On top of it all, reports out of the NHL Board of Governors meeting earlier this week in Boca Raton, Florida suggest the deal to sell the franchise to Andrew Barroway may be falling apart. Keeping the Coyotes in Arizona for the long-term seemed like a bad bet when the team was performing well on the ice and the club's recent poor play is unlikely to push things in a positive direction.

While making the playoffs for three straight seasons from 2010-12 -- Tippett's first three seasons as the Coyotes head coach -- the low-scoring club succeeded thanks to strong defense and goaltending. This season, the offense, defense and goaltending are all struggling at the same time, and it seems there is no easy fix for Arizona.

The Coyotes are scoring just 2.24 goals per game this season while sporting a team goals against average of 3.24 as franchise goaltender Mike Smith continues to struggle less than two seasons into a lucrative six-year contract. Obviously, that is not a recipe for success.

"We're frustrated and disappointed," Tippett said after a 5-1 home loss to Nashville on Thursday. "There are a lot of guys in that dressing room who care and want to do better. We're not getting the results we want, so the frustration continues to build. But until we turn that frustration into mental resolve to get the job done, it will continue to pile up."

Of course, the club's financial uncertainty is not helping. As Barroway's ownership bid sits in limbo while awaiting league approval, the Coyotes are in a holding pattern of sorts when it comes to making deals to improve or shore up their current roster.

"It does sort of, I don't want to say halt the process, but slow down the process in regards to anybody we might want to talk contractually going forward," Maloney admitted earlier this week to the Arizona Republic.

Despite there dire situation, there are few NHL fans who feel sorry for the Coyotes. Commissioner Gary Bettman's quest to prove a hockey team can survive in the Phoenix area has been an unpopular one, especially in places like Quebec City who are champing at the bit for another chance to support an NHL franchise.

If the Coyotes continue to add on-ice woes to their fiscal problems, it may not be long until Quebec City, or another locale better suited for an NHL franchise, will swoop in and rescue the franchise. It happened for Winnipeg when the Atlanta Thrashers proved to be a failure, and history could repeat itself in Arizona.

Blaming the coach doesn't seem to be an option for the Coyotes either, as Tippett signed a five-year extension following the 2012-13 season. It's hard to argue he didn't earn that deal, as Tippett not only won the Jack Adams Award in his first season with the Coyotes, but also led the club to a Pacific Division crown and a Western Conference finals appearance in 2012.

Now it appears that 2011-12 was a high water mark for Tippett's Coyotes and with the franchise's money problems still a going concern it will be difficult to get back to that level.

Even in Arizona there are repercussions for not performing up to expectations, a fact not lost on the Coyotes GM. If you put a losing product on the ice nobody wants to hear about your financial woes.

"We're in a results business, not a Kumbaya business," said Maloney.


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