After they were embarrassed by a 7-1 score in Game 4 of their Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche, all eyes were on the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday afternoon. Would they show some intestinal fortitude and get back into the series, or would they fold and bow out of the playoffs after just five games?
The question was answered quickly, as we got what was essentially a replay of Game 4 – the Coyotes fell behind 3-0 after 20 minutes, did not muster any sort of resistance over the next two periods, and ultimately lost by six goals while looking like they did not belong on the same ice surface as their opponent. It was the franchise’s second consecutive six-goal playoff loss after having previously suffered zero such defeats since moving to the Valley of the Sun in 1996, and it brought about a merciful conclusion to what was an absolutely embarrassing series for Arizona.
Coyotes Outgunned and Outmanned
Before going any further, let’s get a few things straight. This series went the way many were expecting it to, with a talented Colorado roster making short work of an overmatched ‘Yotes squad. The Avalanche are very much a team built to contend for the Stanley Cup this season and beyond, while the Coyotes were fortunate to make the playoffs as a No. 11 seed. Still, it was a bit disheartening to see them play as bad as they did in this series, especially over the final two games, which might have been the worst 120-minute stretch of hockey in team history, all things considered.
The Coyotes were a flawed team going in, as is evidenced by the fact that they were on an 87-point pace when play was paused on March 12. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred and the full 82 games been played, Arizona was looking at about a 17 percent chance of earning a playoff spot over the season’s final 12 contests.
Earlier in 2019-20, the Coyotes were off to a good start before losing starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper on Dec. 19, as they posted a 20-12-4 record through 36 games and were on pace for 100 points. They were among the league leaders in goals against per game and, although the offense wasn’t great, they were scoring just enough every night to win. Recognizing that his team would need to score more goals to seriously contend in 2019-20, then-general manager John Chayka went out and added the best player available, Taylor Hall, to the roster.
Then, Kuemper went down, and things went sideways in a hurry. Hall was as advertised, posting 27 points in 35 games to lead the Coyotes in points per game, but he had little help, and Arizona remained in the league’s bottom-third in offense. Backup goaltenders Antti Raanta and Adin Hill were able to produce above-average goaltending in Kuemper’s stead, but, as with Hall, they received very little support from the rest of the team, and the Coyotes went 13-17-4 from Dec. 19 through the end of the season.
During the second half, Arizona was prone to long stretches of inconsistent hockey, which had been their hallmark for most of their now-dead seven-year playoff drought which began back in 2013. They struggled badly to close games out, couldn’t score a timely power-play goal to save their lives, and flat-out looked awful for the full 60 minutes on more than a few occasions.
Men Against Boys
Despite their flaws, though, many in the Grand Canyon State were hopeful that a healthy and rested Coyotes team would be able to regain the form they showed in the first couple months of the season once the postseason began. Indeed, Arizona was able to defeat the No. 6-seeded Nashville Predators in the qualifying round, but the Avalanche, a team that finished on a 108-point pace in the regular season, were able to exploit each and every one of the Coyotes’ flaws over the course of the past five games.
Arizona was unable to contain the supremely talented Colorado offense, hanging Kuemper out to dry in essentially every game of the series. He kept his team in it through the first three games, but the veteran netminder couldn’t stem the tide in Games 4 or 5, and the Coyotes were embarrassed on both occasions as a result. At the other end of the ice, Arizona seemingly went periods at a time without generating a high-danger scoring chance against a stout Avalanche defense that allowed the sixth-fewest goals against in the regular season.
For the series, the Coyotes scored a total of eight goals in five games, two of which were empty-netters. They were shut out in Game 1, scored twice on a backup goaltender in Game 3, and were lucky to score at all in Games 4 and 5. Game 2 was Arizona’s best all-around performance, but they couldn’t take advantage of any of their four power plays and lost after surrendering a late goal.
Many of the weaknesses that were present during Arizona’s second-half swoon reared their ugly heads against Colorado in this series. The Coyotes had gone 1-0-1 against the Avs in the regular season, but they were completely overmatched here and barely put up a fight. If we’re being honest, this should have been a four-game sweep. The ‘Yotes were outshot 40-14 in Game 1 and were fortunate to lose by only three goals. Game 2 was tightly contested, but the Coyotes were unlucky late and lost 3-2. In Game 3, Arizona was outshot 51-23, but Kuemper made 49 saves to give his team their first playoff win since May 20, 2012. And we all know what happened in Games 4 and 5. No need to revisit that further.
With all that said, this was indeed a tough first-round matchup against a legitimate Stanley Cup-contending team, but it’s clear that the Coyotes have a long way to go before they can be penciled in as a regular playoff team in the Western Conference.
Picking Up the Pieces
With the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs now a thing of the past, another question-filled offseason will begin in Arizona. Offseasons, also known as “arena season” in the Valley, are always tumultuous times in the desert, but we could see more change than usual take place before the Coyotes hit the ice again on opening night in 2020-21.
Head coach Rick Tocchet now has only one year remaining on his contract. His position is probably less secure after Arizona’s performance against Colorado, but one has to imagine he’ll be back behind the bench when next season gets started. Will he get an extension before then, or will he coach the team next year with no promise of a future beyond 2020-21?
The departure of John Chayka left a vacancy in the general manager’s office of Gila River Arena. Will interim GM Steve Sullivan keep the job, or will the Coyotes go out and hire an external candidate? A decision will have to be made quickly, as the draft is just 50 days away. What happens here will probably have an impact on Tocchet’s future as well – Sullivan might want to keep him on, while an external candidate might be inclined to bring in his own guy.
Then, there’s the impending free agency of superstar Taylor Hall. The Coyotes would have to do some roster reshuffling to fit Hall’s probable $8 million (or larger) cap-hit under the ceiling, but one has to imagine they’d do what it takes if Hall expressed interest in staying in Arizona.
However, after Arizona’s performance against the Avs, would Hall even want to stay? He reportedly wants to sign with a contender, and no one would mistake the Coyotes for one right now.
Overall, the next few months should be very eventful in the Valley of the Sun – stay tuned, and we’ll keep you in the loop on the latest news regarding the Coyotes.
A lifelong Phoenix resident, Louis has been following hockey since 2010, has covered the Arizona Coyotes since 2015, and has been playing hockey since 2020. So far, Louis has visited eight NHL cities, and one of his personal goals is to eventually make it to all 31 NHL arenas. For any questions or concerns, contact the writer via Twitter @LouisPannone.