It has never been easy being a Coyotes fan. The past year has made it more difficult than ever.
The team has embarked on a much-needed rebuild, but the on-ice results are trending toward historic lows with Arizona on pace for 40 points.
Off the ice, the organization has had trouble paying its bills and has been the subject of some unflattering profiles. On June 30, it will be kicked out of the arena that it has called home since December 2003. There is no credible sense yet of what the Tempe City Council will decide on the team’s proposed arena and entertainment project along Rio Salado, and there is no coherent plan on where the team will play in the interim, if that Tempe arena is approved.
I feel you, Coyotes fans. I have covered this team for the better part of its 25-plus years in the Valley. I have seen the few highs and the frequent lows. I don’t know where all of this is headed. I admit that sometimes I am amazed at the NHL’s steadfast commitment to this city. And yet, I believe that commitment still exists as long as the league believes there is a path forward in what it considers an important U.S. market.
With that, I have compiled 12 Coyotes Christmas wishes for the upcoming year, hoping like all of you that better days are ahead.
1. A COVID resolution: I have read the science. The good science; not the crap too often cited because too many Americans do not know how to identify credible sources (my kingdom for media literacy courses in school) with peer-reviewed, methodologically sound research. COVID is going to be here a while and yearly boosters shots may become a thing. I don’t like the former but I am OK with the latter. Vaccinations have been a part of our nation for more than a century and they have been an overwhelming success. The COVID vaccination is not so new that we should not trust it. It has been in the works for a long while because scientists have been working on a SARS vaccine for a long while. The question for pro sports leagues is how much are they willing to live with COVID’s continued presence? The NFL has moved toward testing only the unvaccinated and those with symptoms. The NBA may do the same and seems reluctant to pause its season. The NHL is stuck in deliberation but needs a coherent strategy coming out of the Christmas break. There are still concerns about community spread and contact tracing that are not fully addressed through the NFL’s approach, and nobody knows what the next mutation might bring, but sports are so important to America’s mental well-being and the players just want to play. Here’s wishing we can find a way forward with minimal interruptions for the rest of this season and beyond.
2. A surge by the Montreal Canadiens: When the Coyotes acquired Colorado’s first-round pick in the Darcy Kuemper trade, most analysts understood that it would be a late-round pick because the Avs are legitimate Cup contenders. When the Coyotes acquired a first-round top-10 protected pick from Montreal in the Christian Dvorak trade, however, fans licked their chops. I said at the start of the season that I didn’t think Montreal would be a playoff team, despite its run to the 2021 Cup Final. I didn’t expect the Canadiens to contend for the top overall pick, however. Losing defenseman Shea Weber for the season (possibly for good), and losing goalie Carey Price for the pre-Christmas portion has hurt. If the Canadiens finish in the top 10 of the 2021 NHL Draft order, the Coyotes will get the lower of their two picks (Carolina’s), which also will likely be a late-round pick. For the Coyotes’ sake, a Price return and some post-Christmas magic would help. We’re not talking about a playoff run. We’re talking about a run that gets the Canadiens to, let’s say No. 11 in the draft.
3. An honor befitting Matt Shott: You can make the argument that no individual has done more to grow the game of hockey in Arizona than recently deceased Coyotes senior director of hockey development Matt Shott. Among so many other things, Shott was a champion of girls and women’s hockey. I think it would be a really cool gesture if the Coyotes created and named an amateur hockey fund in Shott’s honor.
4. Lottery luck: The Coyotes have never drafted higher than No. 3 in their 25 years in the Valley. You can cite a laundry list of other reasons for the team’s lack of success in Arizona, but this one ranks near the top. Look at the Cup winners of the past 15-20 years and you can almost always find that watershed moment in the draft where they landed their key piece. You know what you find in those top two spots? Franchise players. Want some of those names? At No. 1: Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Marc-André Fleury and Joe Thornton. At No. 2: Jack Eichel, Patrick Laine, Andrei Svechnikov, Aleksander Barkov, Tyler Seguin, Victor Hedman, Drew Doughty, Evgeni Malkin, Daniel Sedin. No team has suffered more lottery misfortune than the Coyotes (the Canucks rival them, but they did get the Sedins in 1999). Coyotes fans are wishing for some overdue Coyotes lottery luck.
4. A reward for the scouts: When the dust had settled on GM Bill Armstrong’s asset acquisition this offseason, the Coyotes had eight picks in the first two rounds of the 2022 NHL Draft. Coyotes director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski and associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski likened it to Christmas for scouts. There has been a lot of chatter about Armstrong’s execution in Step 1 of the rebuild process (he hopes to acquire more assets this offseason), but Step 2 is Armstrong’s bread and butter: drafting. He has assembled the most complete scouting staff in this organization’s history. That’s not a knock on past staffs that boasted some capable people. It’s a nod to the ownership’s willingness to invest in an area too often neglected in the past. Scouting is the lifeblood of any organization, but especially one with less money to spend under the cap. Scouts don’t get much attention despite their critical role in a franchise’s success, but this scouting staff will take center stage at the draft this summer, and they are putting in countless hours of behind-the-scenes work to prepare for that potential watershed event.
5. A strong World Junior Championship for Dylan Guenther: Guenther is the Coyotes’ only prospect at the WJC. While the Islanders and Lightning have none and the Bruins, Avs, Caps and Canucks have just one, all of those teams except the Canucks have enjoyed recent playoff success, so it’s not a flattering look at the state of the Coyotes prospect pool. While Coyotes fans await the results of the next two drafts and their impact on that prospect pipeline, Guenther could provide some feel-good moments for a Canadian team that is favored to win the title at Guenther’s home rink in Edmonton. Like Barrett Hayton before him, maybe Guenther can provide some goal-scoring magic.
6. An All-Star promise: Remember that 2005-06 All-Star Game in the Valley that was canceled due to the NHL’s participation in the 2006 Olympics? Remember how it was supposed to happen again in 2011, but ownership uncertainty forced its move to Carolina? The NHL has not repaid the Valley for two broken promises, and I can promise you that it never will as long as the Coyotes are playing in Glendale. So how about this? Commissioner Gary Bettman gets on the phone with Tempe and promises them an All-Star Game and maybe even a draft (if they can do it in Vegas’ heat, they can do it in Phoenix’s heat) as a carrot for approving that arena deal?
7. A happy ending for Carter Hutton: Hutton has taken a beating since he arrived in the Valley. He played poorly, he got injured and his surgically repaired ankle still does not appear ready for a return. Here’s the thing that is missed in all of the callous criticism. Hutton is an impossibly good soul who is open with his time, articulate in his responses, and friendly to a fault. Don’t forget the human side when you throw players under the bus. Yes, they are paid well to perform, but that doesn’t mean that they are immune to your barbs. Whatever Hutton decides about his future, I hope that decision will garner respect. His rise to the NHL, and his 235 games played are notable achievements. Oh yeah, he also is part owner in a really cool winery in Nashville.
8. Payoff for the middle core: I have mentioned it many times before, but it bears mentioning again. This season (2022-23 won’t be any easier) has been really tough on the Coyotes players, but none more so than the middle core of Jakob Chychrun, Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, Christian Fischer and Nick Schmaltz. I said at the start of the season that Chychrun was probably the one untouchable piece, but after watching 29 games I am not certain that any of these players will be here when the Coyotes come out the other side of this rebuild. It’s hard to endure this for any player, but for those veterans who were acquired on one- or two-year deals, they are nearing the end of their run anyway. For the younger players, the simple opportunity of being in the NHL can counterbalance that suffering. For the middle core of players, they are essentially forfeiting two to three seasons of their prime without hope of playoff contention. That can wear on players’ psyches and impact their game. Crosue and Fischer will be restricted free agents at the end of the season, and both have market value. Chychrun’s contract makes him extremely attractive, while Keller’s improvement could interest some teams despite his contract. Whatever happens, it would be fitting to see a resolution that makes this good group of guys happy.
9. A new arena in Tempe: The Coyotes may be on the naughty list after failing to pay taxes and other bills throughout the year. They’ll have to do some work to convince Tempe that they have mended their ways. Squeezing vendors may be an effective business strategy in other industries. It does not work in professional sports where civic relationship building is every bit as important as profit, and where every misstep earns more negative media coverage. Coyotes ownership said that it had learned its lesson after past missteps. It now appears to be facing a two-strike count at the plate.
10. A return to the Coliseum: I have said it before and I will say it again. If Gila River Arena is not an option after this season, the best local, interim solution for bridging the gap to the new Tempe arena is Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Playing at Chase Field is not an option in the short-term and playing at small venues would pose a logistical nightmare for the players, coaches and staff. The Coliseum needs a lot of work – and the time to complete it – but it is the only viable local option, and many in the Coyotes’ hockey circles already know this.
11. A home for all desert dogs: Most of you know that I love dogs. I am involved on a modest level with Maricopa County Animal Care & Control. If you’re thinking about getting a dog – and I highly recommend having a dog because they increase your happiness and life expectancy – please consider adopting one from a local shelter. There are so many good dogs in need. If not an adoption, please consider fostering, volunteering or donating because the shelters are overrun, understaffed and woefully underfunded. More info here.
12. Holiday and post-holiday cheer: You forge a lot of relationships when you cover a team as long as I have covered the Coyotes. There are so many good people within this organization, and within the greater Coyotes community. Objectivity aside, I hope you all enjoy a well-earned and restful break. And when hockey resumes, I hope everyone can find small victories in what will no doubt be a challenging season.
Happy holidays, everybody!