While speculation continued to surround the Coyotes off the ice during the 2011-12 season, what they experienced on the ice would have to be considered their best season since the franchise moved to Arizona.
The Coyotes captured their first division title, earning them the third seed in the playoffs which they used to eliminate both the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators en route to the Western Conference Final.
Unfortunately, that's where the season would end at the hands of the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings.
There were a lot of positives to take away for the Coyotes from last season, including a breakthrough performance between the pipes from goaltender Mike Smith who posted a stellar 2.21 goals-against average and was nominated for the Vezina Trophy.
Shane Doan – with a new four-year contract to stay in Glendale - has been an important member of this team since they moved to the desert and his leadership skills are now considered among the best in the league. With last year's leading scorer Ray Whitney suiting up for the Dallas Stars this season, he will be counted on more than ever if they Coyotes are going to repeat or improve upon a franchise best campaign.
The Coyotes acquired offensive defenceman David Rundblad in the deal that sent talented forward Kyle Turris to the Ottawa Senators. The native of Lycksele, Sweden has seen 30 games of NHL experience between those two teams and already has seven points to his name. Last year he appeared in 30 games at the AHL level and scored seven goals. The 17th overall selection in the 2009 draft could be poised to join an already deep defence corps.
Another first-round pick to watch in the Coyotes system is Brandon Gormley, who the club selected 13th overall in the 2010 draft. Another talented rear-guard in their system, Gormley has been showing off his skill primarily in the QMJHL for both the Moncton Wildcats and Shawinigan Cataractes. He is a puck moving defenceman that will be a major asset on the power play and despite a lack of NHL or even AHL experience, his time to shine could be coming soon.
A third defensive prospect who could find himself in a top-six role at some point this season is 2008 third round pick, Michael Stone. A mobile rear-guard able to contribute at both ends, Stone had 126 points over his last two WHL seasons and had 22 points in 51 AHL games in 2011-12. He dressed for 13 regular season and two playoff games for the big club last year, so he appears to be on the cusp of regular NHL duty.
If building a team from the net out is the best way to ensure a strong lineup, the Coyotes are well ahead of the game. With the emergence of Mike Smith as one of the league's elite net minders and Michalek's addition to a strong defence, the Coyotes are going to be a tough team to play all season.
Their backend features a solid combination of young, mobile d-men with stay-at-home, reliable veterans. Establishing himself as the leader of the group was Ekman-Larson, who was impressive at both ends of the ice, particularly come playoff time. Fellow youngsters Yandle, Stone, Rundblad and possibly Gormley are all offensively gifted players that should only continue to get better. Michalek should fit in well and provide the same veteran complement that Rostislav Klesla and Derek Morris supplied last season.
After a heavy workload, Smith may benefit from the prolonged break the lockout provided. He played 83 combined playoff and regular season games last season, after never plating more than 58 in either junior or pro. The Coyotes will need the 30-year-old to come back better than ever if they are to repeat the success they enjoyed in 2011-12.
Sadly, the spectre of ownership continues to hang over this franchise and everything it does on the ice. With ownership groups and court cases and committee meetings, most of the news reports about the Coyotes are of a financial nature and not about moves or improvements they make on the ice. Any obstacles facing Greg Jamison's efforts to finalize a deal to keep the team in Glendale could be another season of the players being forced to answer questions and shut out distractions. It is, however, encouraging that Doan signed his contract to stay – perhaps a sign that an effort to stay in Arizona is all but complete.
With the uncertain ownership situation, the franchise has always kept spending to a minimum, losing productive players year after year to free agency. Last off-season it was goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, this season it was leading scorer Whitney, who put up 77 points as a 40-year-old, but signed a two-year contract with the Stars. Phoenix is hoping a combination of Steve Sullivan and David Moss will be able to step in and fill the void for Whitney, in a way similar to what Smith did with Bryzgalov.
There are also questions about whether second line contributors Michael Boedker and Antoine Vermette can recapture the playoff form they showed on route to combining for nine goals and 18 points. Their ability to provide secondary scoring will go a long way to determining the team’s level of success in 2012-13.
A look at where Coyotes players went during the lockout:
Paul Bissonnette (Cardiff Devils, BHL), Mikkel Boedker (Rauma, Finnish Elite), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Portland, AHL), Brandon Gormley (Portland, AHL), Martin Hanzal (HC Ceske Budejovice, Czech League), Rostislav Klesla (Trinec, Czech League), Lauri Korpikoski (TPS Turku, Finnish Elite), David Rundblad (Portland, AHL), Michael Stone (Portland, AHL), Radim Vrbata (BK Mlada Boleslav, Czech League)