The Phoenix Coyotes, left for dead after a summer of bankruptcy court hearings, have a message for the other 29 teams in the NHL: the reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. With two away wins in a row to start the season, the Desert Dogs let it be known that they are alive and well, thank you very much. However, before the team that was projected to finish last in the Western Conference goes overboard on overconfidence, let us check in with reality.
Are the Coyotes suddenly a team of play-off calibre? Are they capable of competing with the top teams in the NHL, night in and night out? Is it possible that they are about to pull off the most unlikely of worst-to-first comebacks and win a Stanley Cup? Probably not, very doubtful and not a chance. Despite a convincing 6-3 victory over the Los Angeles Kings in their season opener and, better yet, a 3-0 win on the road over the defending Cup-champion the Pittsburgh Penguins in their second game, plenty of obstacles remain squarely in front of the Coyotes - as their two subsequent losses indicate.
First of all, they are undermanned. They lack quality players and depth at every position. The off-season circus that surrounded the Coyotes was poison in many regards, but especially in the way it hampered the team's ability to attract free agents. If you are an NHL player with multiple offers, would you choose to go to Phoenix? No, you would not. The Coyotes' signings of Adrian Aucoin, Taylor Pyatt and Robert Lang were, at best, underwhelming.
Then there is instability element. Without an owner in place, the NHL is overseeing things and making financial decisions. Wayne Gretzky, the club's minority owner and head coach for the past four seasons, was a no-show at training camp and quit the job as the bankruptcy process played out. Gretzky reportedly lost upwards of US$22 million (Dh80.9m) when a court ruled against the previous Coyotes owner, Jerry Moyes.
Finally, there are the fans. Or more accurately, the lack of them. The Coyotes' inability to draw at the gate has led to annual losses in the tens of millions of dollars, year after year after year. They have not been in the play-offs since 2002, and local support has dwindled as the losing seasons piled up. Whatever could go wrong in Phoenix, has. Their home opener was a perfect example of Murphy's Law in action: the Coyotes slashed ticket prices to ensure a sell-out (from $175 down to $25 in the lower bowl, and down to $15 in the upper reaches of the rink), and then promptly put everyone to sleep in a 2-0 loss to visiting Columbus.
But, as the two wins to start the season show, it is not all bad in Phoenix. They might be dogs, but they have their pride. From that perspective, it all starts with franchise lifer Shane Doan, a classy veteran who leads by relentless action and example. Doan is not the only good player enduring a bad situation. The Coyotes have a number of promising youngsters who, in a different locale, would be looked on with hope.
Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal are burgeoning top-line centres, and they are joined up front by young forwards Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Kevin Porter and Viktor Tikkhonov. If they are coached along capably - which is to be expected under their steady new coach Dave Tippett - these are players who should be leading the charge in the not-too-distant future. It is just too bad the Coyotes will not be in Phoenix when this team finally matures and comes together.