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The Coyotes could have packed it in before the first puck dropped on the 2022-23 season.
They had every excuse.
They were forced to play in a 5,000-seat arena because the City of Glendale was no longer interested in a year-to-year arrangement for this ill-conceived, ill-tempered marriage.
The roster that GM Bill Armstrong assembled was widely viewed as one of the worst in the salary-cap era, with The Athletic offering this assessment: “This team was designed to fail, and they were designed spectacularly for that vision. That was the case last season, too, but the 2022-23 edition of the team is even more hopelessly desolate.”
The late start on finding a new home and building the necessary team spaces forced them to play 20 of their first 24 games on the road.
At media day, their top defenseman doubled down on his desire to be traded, making it clear to all that another rebuild was not how he wanted to spend the prime of his career.
The Coyotes were the butt of jokes all over the hockey world.
And then one of their top two scorers went down with a long-term injury in the first period of the first game.
When they staggered out of the gate, losing four of their first five games and allowing six goals in each of those losses, the analysts nodded knowingly. The more pathetic ones experienced a glow of schadenfreude. This was what everyone had expected.
But a funny thing happened on the road to best Connor Bedard odds. The Coyotes refused to play along.
This is not to suggest that Arizona is a playoff contender. It is not. Nor is it as objectively bad as analysts predicted. Since that 1-4 start, the Coyotes are a respectable 9-12-5, and they have been competitive on most nights, playing 13 one-goal games.
“There’s a lot of pride in that room,” forward Christian Fischer said. “The rest of the stuff is just outside noise.”
There are myriad reasons for the Coyotes’ unexpected play. Karel Vejmelka has been superb in goal. Fischer and veteran Nick Bjugstad have been irrepressibly positive forces in the room. Clayton Keller is a point-per-game player. Shayne Gostisbehere represents the most one-sided trade win in Coyotes history. Lawson Crouse is thumbing his nose at critics who thought his 2021-22 season (and the contract that he gained from it) was an outlier.
Scrap-heap defensemen Troy Stecher, Josh Brown and Patrik Nemeth have refused to go quietly into that hockey night. JJ Moser is growing before our eyes. Matias Maccelli is the franchise’s first legitimate Calder Trophy candidate since Keller in 2018. Coach André Tourigny and his staff have found ways to mask significant deficiencies and mute other teams’ strengths. And Armstrong, despite his best intentions, can’t help his desire to bring in players with good character.
It’s not the perfect scenario. In fact, it may end up dooming the Coyotes to more wheel spinning if they don’t land some lottery luck and pick in the top three this season where franchise centers Bedard, Adam Fantilli and Leo Carlsson await.
While national media suggest that Arizona is not where those players belong, the specter of the Chicago Blackhawks, fresh off the disgusting Kyle Beach scandal, claiming another top draft prize is revolting. In 2007, the Blackhawks jumped four spots to claim Patrick Kane while the Coyotes were relegated to Kyle Turris. This season, the Blackhawks aren’t even trying; looking all the world like the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres.
Getting the best odds to draft Bedard or Fantilli was the goal of this season for management. If the Coyotes fail in that quest because the team is too competitive, it’s fair to wonder what this was all about. You don’t win without franchise centers. Whether it’s Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Anže Kopitar, Nicklas Bäckström, Steven Stamkos or Nathan MacKinnon, the past decade-plus has hammered home that unequivocal point.
But there are still 51 games left in the season so let’s worry about the repercussions this spring.
As the team enters the holiday break after a game against the LA Kings tonight at Mullett Arena, let’s take a moment to appreciate a group of men who refuse to be what everyone wants or expects them to be. Let’s take a moment to appreciate these hard-working Coyotes. Let’s take a moment to appreciate a group that takes pride in its work no matter the obstacles arranged before it.
If nothing else, these Coyotes are worthy of our respect.
Top photo via Getty Images
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