As the final light over the ice at Gila River Arena shuts off, only the glow of the concourse keeps the playing surface illuminated. Players slowly begin packing up, hoping to soak up one last bit of energy from a game night. It’s the last time they will feel that thrill until October.
It’s the end of the season for the Arizona Coyotes — a season of loss, confusion and resetting. Arizona finished with the second-worst record in the NHL 24-50-8 and the second-fewest number of wins since the franchise moved to Arizona.
The 2014-15 campaign was the culmination of a fall that has been in the works for a few years.
“When you’re really noncompetitive in the league, we really weren’t real competitive the last 2.5 months, so losing kills you enough, but then when you’re not as competitive as you need to be, that’s even more frustrating,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “At least it stops now and we get a chance to fix things.”
Since winning 50 games in Tippett’s first season as head coach in 2009-10, the Coyotes have been on a slow roll downhill. Thanks to savvy signings and overachieving veterans, Tippett and general manger Don Maloney were able to patch together three consecutive playoff appearances in the duo’s first three years together.
With the NHL owning the team and the franchise on a shoestring budget, the Coyotes were held together by bandages. Now, it was not just any bandage, it was the special Band-Aid brand bandage — the one with super heroes on them. Given their circumstances, it took a Herculean effort to make the Coyotes the contenders they were.
However, at some point, the glue begins to lose its stickiness and the bandage peels off. The 2011 addition of goaltender Mike Smith pushed the bandage back on for one season, but only so much could be done. Years of poor drafting, failed prospects and lack of funds proved to be too big an obstacle to overcome in the long-term.
The 2014-15 season began with a mix of promise and confusion. Out was Phoenix and in was Arizona. Out was Jobing.com and in was Gila River. It felt like a new era of Coyotes hockey was here — new name, new crop of youthful players and a new attitude.
However, as training camp drew to a close, rumors began to surface about an investor looking to purchase 51 percent of the team. After nearly a half-decade of ownership drama, the last thing Coyotes fans wanted to hear was the group, IceArizona, who bought the team a year prior already wanting to flip them.
Around the same time, top prospects Max Domi, Lucas Lessio, Tobias Rieder and Brandon Gormley were sent to the minors, along with Henrik Samuelsson and Tyler Gaudet, killing the youth movement narrative.
Arizona opened the season on Oct. 9 by hosting the Winnipeg Jets. Coyotes fans revel in the opportunity to see their team send Jets fans home unhappy. Winnipeg spoiled the party, drubbing the Yotes 6-2. The first seed of doubt was planted.
Two consecutive wins over the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers brought the fans right back into the season — everything was going to be alright. Then the Coyotes lost six of their next seven games.
By the end of 2014, Arizona was 14-19-4 and their starting goaltender was in search of his game. Smith ended the year 5-15-2 with an .884 save percentage. While there were numerous reasons for the Coyotes’ slow start (poor penalty kill, lack of consistent offense, etc.), goaltending shouldered the majority of the blame.
Even though things were not going well on the ice, off the ice, the Coyotes had a new majority owner. Andrew Barroway, the investor interested since the preseason, completed his purchase of 51 percent of the team for $152.5 million on Jan. 2, despite reports to the contrary one month prior.
The two most dreaded words in Glendale are “out clause” and they came up quite frequently leading up to the sale’s completion. However, many fears were quelled after Barroway’s introductory press conference.
“We’re (ownership group as a whole) committed to this market and we love it here” Barroway said. “The team is here, the team is going to stay here, let’s win here.”
He doubled down on that commitment at every opportunity.
“I’m thrilled to be here, thrilled to be an owner and I wouldn’t have gone through this really difficult process of buying a team just to go flip it,” Barroway said. “I don’t think people buy teams to go make money, that’s not the goal here. You try not to lose too much money, but I certainly did not but it for a quick flip. I can’t state that more emphatically.”
The Coyotes crushed the Columbus Blue Jackets 6-3 the following night.
With focus now shifted back on the ice, the Coyotes limped into the All-Star break by losing seven of eight games.
Four games into that stretch, Arizona traded its back-up goalie, Devan Dubnyk, to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for a 2015 third-round draft pick. Dubnyk went on to lead a struggling Wild team into the postseason much in the way Smith did for Arizona in 2011-12.
Meanwhile, things began to turnaround once the All-Star festivities died down. The Coyotes got points in six, and won four, of the first eight games back. Playoff contention was still a ways away, but things were looking up.
Then the bottom fell out.
Arizona lost 20 of its next 22 games before breaking out of the slump with back-to-back overtime wins against the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres. The real change was yet to come.
In the middle of that stretch was the trade deadline. The first move came on the final day of February, as the Coyotes shipped off center Antoine Vermette to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Klas Dahlbeck and a 2015 first-round pick. It was the trade on the following day that sent shockwaves through the Coyotes’ franchise and fan base and signified a true change in philosophy.
Keith Yandle, a mainstay on Arizona’s blue line since the 2008-09 season, was sent to the New York Rangers, along with fellow defenseman Chris Summers and a 2015 fourth-round pick, in exchange for top prospect Anthony Duclair, defenseman John Moore, a 2015 second-round pick and a 2016 first-round pick. Call it resetting, call it rebuilding. The Coyotes officially started looking to the future on the first day of March.
The Coyotes’ 2014-15 fate was a fait accompli from that point forward. Arizona finished the season with losses in six of its last seven games and heads into the offseason with a guaranteed top-three draft pick.
“I think (the frustration level) is probably as high as it’s been for me,” captain Shane Doan said. “I mean that’s personal. You recognize that it’s winding down — not just the season, but everything that goes along with playing in the NHL.
“So being in the situation you’re in, I think it makes the situation even more difficult because you feel like you have to kind of start over and that’s a tough one to swallow.”
In the moment, the 2014-15 regular season is one of the worst in franchise history and little positivity can be found. Tippett called the season’s final game “an end to a painful experience.”
In the years to come, that same season could be looked at as the point in time a Stanley Cup contender began to build.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson blossomed into a superstar with his 23-goal, 43-point performance to lead all Coyotes. Tobias Rieder emerged as a key cog in the Coyotes’ machine for years to come. Even Smith turned things around and finished the season strong.
The Coyotes are overflowing with quality prospects and early picks. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it is as bright as can be.
There is little doubt this is rock bottom for the Coyotes. But from the ashes of a lost season, a champion can be born. All those inside and around the organization hope the Coyotes rise from those ashes like a phoenix, even if that name has been taken out of the team.