Now, the big decision looms
ANAHEIM -- This is how bad things have gotten for the Phoenix Coyotes.
Not even words of encouragement from blonde, fiddle-playing triplets from Poland, sporting short skirts and cowboy boots, are enough to knock the team from the wave of failure on which they are cresting.
For the second time in about 27 hours, the Coyotes erased significant leads only to stumble in the third period en route to a 6-4 loss to division-leading Anaheim.
Last season, not many could have predicted that Carolina and Edmonton would have faced off in the Stanley Cup finals. So, it got us to thinking -- who is this season's surprise story? Before the start of the season, ESPN.com picked the Phoenix Coyotes. It hasn't quite worked out the way we or the Coyotes thought, but Scott Burnside continues to chronicle the team's travels throughout the season. In Part II, he tries to find out what went wrong.
PART II -- AT THE QUARTER POLE
PART I -- THE PREDICTIONS
The loss leaves the Coyotes with a 6-14 record, and even though three quarters of the season remain, it is becoming increasingly clear that the focus of coach Wayne Gretzky and GM Mike Barnett will soon shift from what can be done to salvage this season to how best to turn the scrap of the current campaign into a sound structure for next season and beyond.
The team is now in the market for a backup netminder following David LeNeveu's fall from grace. Goaltending coach Grant Fuhr was in San Antonio over the weekend scoping out 21-year-old Josh Tjordman, but there is concern that by bringing him in to back up Curtis Joseph, they might be rushing a youngster who started the season in the ECHL and has played only two AHL games.
"Absolutely, we'd love to make a deal. The problem is in making deals, it's the same old thing. The guys you want to trade, they don't want, and the guys you don't want to trade, they want," Gretzky said. "We're not trading [Keith] Ballard, we're not trading [Zbynek] Michalek. It's not going to happen."
Still, something has to give.
"We're trying to turn over every rock we can right now. We definitely need someone to go in there and give Curtis some time. Curtis can't play every game," Gretzky said.
The team's twin losses in California this weekend will only serve to intensify the discussion around the NHL regarding the future of Gretzky as head coach.
Still, it is a measure of Gretzky's unassailable reputation in the hockey world that even quietly GMs and other coaches will not disparage him. They question the team's makeup, the decision to bring both Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick in at the start of the season and believe Nick Boynton would be able to turn his game around after a difficult season in Boston. But it is difficult to find anyone who sill say, even off the record, that they believe Gretzky should step down.
They wonder if he will. But few will suggest it is the right move.
Not that any of that matters to Gretzky, who has made it clear where he stands on the issue. So certain is Gretzky that he is the man for the job that he has never broached the subject with his players.
"I don't feel I would have to because I don't know where I would go with the ownership that I have. You can't own one team and coach another, so I don't think it needs to be addressed. I'm here for the long haul. I love it. I love the city. I love being a part of this organization," he said Sunday.
Stubborn or dedicated? When you're 6-14, it's a fine line.
"Hey, listen, last year at this time, we were in a scenario where people said we would be a 6-13 team and we were 8-9. This year, people probably predicted us to be a sort of a 10-9 team or a .500 team. At this point, we're 6-13 and it's chaos," Gretzky said before Sunday's loss. "And so what I've found the difference between coaching and being a player is when you're a player, you come in the locker room and when things are tough, you're kind of looking around and you're looking for that direction. Now, as a coach, I have to go in there and I have to give them that direction. I know players want it and that's what they need to have and so that's what I try and do each and every day. But I'm not going anywhere."
As the players prepared to head to Sunday's game, some decide to take a hotel shuttle instead of the team bus and vise versa.
"Going to switch it up a bit," one player says.
But there is no switching up what has become an almost nightly ritual for the Coyotes -- finding a way to lose. After scoring first, on the power play no less, Phoenix allowed Andy McDonald, Teemu Selanne and Chris Kunitz to run roughshod as the Ducks scored three times, twice on the power play, before the first two minutes of the second period to take a 3-1 lead.
Only three times in 20 games have the Coyotes kept opponents off the scoreboard on the power play.
Playing the Anaheim Ducks is a little like looking into the well of what might have been. When the Coyotes first moved to the desert a decade ago, they were stymied in their first playoff efforts by a young Selanne and linemate Paul Kariya of the then-Mighty Ducks. Who knows what the team's fortunes might have been had they been able to put together even a modest playoff run at that time? But they didn't.
The Coyotes have missed the playoffs in four of the past five seasons and seem destined to miss them again; the Ducks were Stanley Cup finalists in 2003, conference finalists last season and remain many observers' pick to win it all this season.
Even with a change in ownership and management and coaches in the past couple of years, the Ducks have charted a defined forward course.
In the offseason, there were hopeful comparisons for the Coyotes.
But here's a dose of reality:
Late in the second period Sunday, after the Coyotes had cut the Ducks lead to 3-2, Roenick and Nolan led a 3-on-2 rush. Nolan could not corral Roenick's pass and the Ducks turned up ice. Selanne turned defenseman Ed Jovanovski into knots before feeding Kunitz, who beat Joseph from a bad angle to make the score 4-2.
It was Selanne's fourth assist of the night and 23rd of the season (he would later add a fifth on the winner). Nolan and Roenick have combined for 13 points.
True, they have both been forced to play more minutes and in situations they wouldn't otherwise play because of the team's injuries. But both were being counted on to help shoulder the load -- it's what role players do on good teams.
Witness last season's Buffalo Sabres, who played without top players throughout the season but found contributions from unlikely sources on an almost nightly basis.
The Coyotes? Not so much.
Both Yanic Perreault and Georges Laraque have been wonderful surprises. Perreault, with a goal and an assist Sunday, has six goals and three assists in eight games since being signed by the Coyotes. Laraque is being given ice time and a purpose and has been a revelation. The former Edmonton enforcer has three goals and six assists in the last seven games. Those numbers are both a reflection on their fine play and a damning indictment of the lack of timely production from pretty much everyone else.
"Again the [Oleg] Saprykin and [Mike] Zigomanis and Laraque line carried us. And I hate to be repetitious, but that line cannot be the line that offensively carries us. And that's six or seven games in a row now. We need to get some more production out of some more people. We need to get some offensive scoring somewhere," Gretzky said Sunday night.
Nolan put down a pizza crust to contemplate the question of how to turn things around.
"I wish I had the answer," the veteran power forward said. "I understand what [Gretzky's] saying and I'm probably in that boat in needing to produce more."
Nolan had not played since late in the 2003-04 campaign before being signed this summer by Phoenix.
The Coyotes have 62 games left to play this season. But a quick check of the math shows that time has already passed the team by. A season ago, the eighth and final playoff berth was occupied by Edmonton with 95 points. The Coyotes, who have just 12 points in 20 games, would need 83 points in 62 games to reach that level. In other words, they will have to go 42-20 to make the playoffs.
Teams are already circling the Coyotes, looking to take the last piece of meat from the bone, Barnett said.
The team boasts a long list of players that could become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, including Joseph, Nolan, Roenick, Ladislav Nagy, Mike Comrie, Shane Doan and Perreault. Joseph, Nagy, Doan, Perreault and Comrie will command considerable attention as the trade deadline draws near and it will be up to Barnett to try and stockpile something promising moving forward.
Would the GM like to keep at least Nagy and Doan? Sure. But on the open market, both will want in the neighborhood of $5 million, and Barnett cannot afford to tie up $10 million on two players who have yet to prove they are front-line players, not with a long-term vacuum in goal and down the middle.
Whatever happens, these off-ice decisions will dictate the true course the club will follow.
"We're not about to give up important pieces to our future," Barnett insisted. "We can't lose sight of the big picture."
The players are aware of the dynamics, and given the team's poor play, the discussion of who might stay and who might go will soon become a part of their everyday existence.
"It's natural to wonder. What's the word? It's inevitable," said Jovanovski who, in spite of the San Jose rumor, figures to remain a Coyote for the foreseeable future.
"Management has no choice sometimes but to shake things up. It's part of the game," he said. "If guys like playing here, they've got to start playing better. And that's the bottom line."
As the players hurriedly dress before boarding the team buses that will take them to the airport and back to Phoenix sometime before midnight, someone asks, improbably, if Gretzky thinks the team has turned a corner. There is a brief pause, and for a moment, a wry grin flashes across Gretzky's visage.
"I'm not sure about that," he said. "We've played much better in the past eight games than in the first 10. From that point of view, it's a positive sign, but we've dug ourselves a hole here and it's a long way out."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.