Phoenix Coyotes Should be Heading Home with Hardware

Shane Doan and the Phoenix Coyotes will not have a representative at the 2012 NHL Awards Show

Who says that you can’t win Coach or GM of the Year multiple times?

Since its inception in the 1973-74 season, the Jack Adams Award, given to the best head coach in the regular season, has only seen five coaches win the honor multiple times (Scotty Bowman, Pat Burns, Jacques Demers, Jacques Lemaire and Pat Quinn).  Of those five coaches, only one has won it multiple times while with the same organization (Jacques Demers, 1986-87 and 1987-88 with the Detroit Red Wings).

The General Manager of the Year Award was created in 2010 and has only had two recipients, each only receiving the honor once (Phoenix’s Don Maloney and Vancouver’s Mike Gillis).

GM Don Maloney and Head Coach Dave Tippett, both of the Phoenix Coyotes organization, made a strong case this season to join an elite group of hockey minds.

Maloney had quite the full plate heading into the summer of 2011.  Fresh off a quick four-game sweep to the Red Wings in the 2011 Western Conference Quarterfinals, Maloney had eight players that were set to be free-agents on July 1.  Most notably, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and top-defenseman Keith Yandle were set to receive a big pay increase whether it would be with the Coyotes or one of the other 29 NHL teams.  To make things worse, the Coyotes were heading into their third summer without a clear-cut team owner (reportedly, the NHL had been paying the team’s bills since December 2008).

Bryzgalov had made it very aware that he wanted a large raise from his $4.25 million cap-hit, so Maloney traded his rights to the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2012 third-round draft selection and forward Matt Clackson.  The Coyotes were without a starting goaltender heading into the free-agent period.

Moving Bryzgalov freed up money to bring back Keith Yandle; he happily inked a five-year, $26.25 million contract extension.

Keith Yandle Coyotes
Keith Yandle posted a team-best 22:20 ice-time-per-game (Icon SMI)

With his budget in mind, Maloney turned to Head Coach Dave Tippett for whom he wanted as his starting netminder.  As it was, the free-agent pool offered Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tomas Vokoun, Jose Theodore and Ray Emery as the front-runners of potential NHL starters.  Tippett, along with advice from Goalie Coach Sean Burke, requested Maloney bring in an old friend instead.

Goaltender Mike Smith, coming off a four-year stint with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in which he bounced back and forth between the Lightning and AHL affiliate Norfolk Admirals, was Tippett’s suggestion.  Smith had played for Tippett in Dallas before being traded and the coach liked what he saw from him.  Maloney signed Smith to a two-year, $4 million contract.  It was a gamble but Tippett never gave Maloney a reason to not believe in his assessment of potential.

He was right to not question him this time, either.

Smith went on to post a league-wide 7th best GAA (2.21) and a 3rd best save percentage (.930), while also accumulating the 3rd most shutouts (8) and the 4th most wins (38).

Smith was not the only bright spot for the Coyotes.  Radim Vrbata, a journeyman of five different NHL clubs, including two different stints with the Coyotes, found his scoring touch much later than most NHL players.  At the age of 30, Vrbata surpassed his career-high in goals by 8, totaling 35 tallies on the season.  This was the first time that a Coyote has finished in the top-15 goal-scorers since Jeremy Roenick did in 1999-2000.

Mike Smith Coyotes
Mike Smith was one of the biggest surprises of the 2011-12 regular season. (Ric Tapia/Icon SMI)

With all of the question marks and criticism in Phoenix, the Coyotes finished the 2011-12 season with 2.37 goals-against-per-game, which was 5th best in the NHL.  More importantly, the Coyotes clinched their first Pacific Division Title in franchise history, dating back to their heritage as the Winnipeg Jets.  They finished with 97 points, earning the third seed in the Western Conference.

After all of this unbelievable success, the Coyotes did not have one finalist for any of the 11 awards that are voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, the NHL Broadcasters Association, NHL GMs and the NHL Players Association.

It is a league-wide accepted fact that the awards handed to coaches and GMs have a high degree of expectation involved; meaning that if a team far exceeds their expectations, the coach and GM stand a good chance of receiving metal at the NHL Awards Show.  The Coyotes reached the 90-point plateau and was involved in the NHL post-season for the third straight season.  When taking just their past success into consideration, expectations were barely exceeded.

With the turmoil of the off-season and the belief that the Coyotes just could not keep up their brilliant success a third straight time, the expectations lowered for the Coyotes.

The Bleacher Report suggested that the Phoenix Coyotes would not only finish last in the Pacific Division, but dead-last in the Western Conference.

The Hockey News reported that the loss of Bryzgalov will trounce the team to 14th in the West.  They also added this tidbit about Head Coach Dave Tippett:  “If he can get this team to the post-season it’ll be a Jack Adams-worthy season.”

ESPN picked who they believed would win each division; only San Jose and Los Angeles made the cut with 8 “experts.”

Brian Cazeneuve of Sports Illustrated suggested that the Phoenix Coyotes will be the biggest disappointment in the NHL because they are “no longer going to surprise their opponents this season.”

I could keep going, but I think you get my point.

The Coyotes did exceed expectations and stunned the entire league.  I believe this to be as big of a surprise season as it was in 2009-10, when Tippett and Maloney both walked away with hardware at the end of the season.