For the last three years there’s been a trend in relation to Dave Tippett’s Phoenix Coyotes. Every September, pundits believe the talent-starved Coyotes will finish at the bottom of the standings. Every December, those same pundits have figured out they were (or will be) wrong. The same thing is happening this season.
In 2009-10, the Desert Dogs shocked the hockey world by making the playoffs (and claiming first-round home ice, no less). Through Tuesday’s action, they are on pace to be a playoff team once again, for the third straight season. Not to mention they lead a crowded Pacific Division. And all of this has been done without any stability in the front office.
“Tippett really has them buying in and playing a really good system,” Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s one of the best guys in the league in terms of understanding the game.
“All the accolades they are getting are well-deserved.”
Trotz has been in Tippett’s shoes. In 2007, the Predators faced questions about whether or not they were moving north of the border. That season (2007-08), against all odds, Trotz steered the Preds to a fourth consecutive postseason berth.
“Phoenix has that us against the world mentality right now, where they don’t know if they are staying or going,” Trotz said. “Every day you’re getting asked about the future of the franchise. When it permeates outside the rink, and your wife is going ‘We’ve got a house here’ and so on, it can have other effects.
“We were able to block that out and reassure everybody that that wasn’t going to be the case and we just played. Sometimes your sanctuary is the rink, and because of that we stayed pretty focused.”
To say the least, the Coyotes have done a remarkable job over the last three years of blocking out the off-ice distractions during a time when there are constant questions about their future.
“We’ve grown callus to it,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “It’s not as emotional as it was in the beginning. When I go home, it’s more of a joke than anything. At the same time, there’s no way you can say that it isn’t there.”
When the Coyotes were eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings in last spring’s first round, it seemed as if it would be their last game in the desert. However, the Glendale City Council stepped up in May and assured the team another season in Arizona by paying the NHL another $25 million.
“Last year it came to a head there in the playoffs with the ownership and people saying we were moving. That was a little bit frustrating,” Coyotes defenseman Adrian Aucoin said. “It’s not even a part of our daily discussions anymore and it’s been put on the back burner. Like we say all the time, there’s nothing we can really do.”
Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett added, “Last year it looked like there was an owner coming in and it was more prevalent around our team. This year our players have done a good job of blocking it out and playing the game. That’s what we focus on every day.”
The Coyotes have not missed the playoffs ever since then-owner Jerry Moyes declared bankruptcy in May 2009 (the beginning of the team’s front office troubles). The Coyotes also have not missed the playoffs ever since Tippett stepped behind the bench.
A week before the 2009-10 season was slated to start, Tippett took over in Glendale after Wayne Gretzky resigned as head coach. Doan knew right away that Tippett was the right hire.
“We were in a pretty unique situation with everything that was going on around the team, so we were fortunate to have someone like him available,” the captain said.
Doan’s first interaction with Tippett came in the 2009 World Championships for Team Canada. You could safely say it was a positive first impression.
“I couldn’t say enough good things about him,” Doan said. “He was an assistant (at the World Championships) and you could tell that his makeup and personality were of a head coach. You always wanted to be around him and hear what he had to say. So when the opportunity came when we had a vacancy, I knew he would be a great fit.
“I’m a huge fan (of his). I respect him a lot and I trust him. As a captain those are two big things.”
In Tippett’s first season with the Coyotes, in which the team picked up a franchise-record 107 points (including their time in Winnipeg), he won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Though he wasn’t nominated in 2010-11, he is in contention for the award in the first half of this season.
“Tippett is one of the top coaches that you’re going to come across. He’s outstanding, he’s detailed and he’s a good communicator,” Trotz said. “When he played he had a lot of detail in his game, and that’s how he coaches. They have a lot of detail and structure in their game. He’s put order into the Coyotes and they have taken on that very structured personality.”
The nine-year veteran behind the bench preaches a simplified read-and-react system that puts pressure on opponents, which was successful in his six seasons with the Stars and now in Phoenix. It’s such an effective system that they are almost unbeatable when playing with a lead. In fact, since Tippett took over the Coyotes are 80-9-12 when scoring first. Oh, and he’s never had a losing season as a coach in the NHL.
“(Tippett) bases our whole system on keeping things simple,” Aucoin said. “It’s really obvious when somebody doesn’t do what he asks, and normally when it’s obvious it’s been it is that simple. He makes it easy for everyone.”
Doan noted that Tippett’s ability to game plan has been invaluable. As recently as this week, the Coyotes impressively beat the Blackhawks and Predators – contrasting styles – on the road on back-to-back nights.
“He adapts well to other teams,” Doan said. “He sees what other teams are doing and has a great mind for the game. Because the system is simple, it’s easy to adjust little things in it to make it successful against other teams.”
Tippett’s system has helped Phoenix become a home for some veterans who may have been overlooked as free agents, including Aucoin.
“Myself in particular, with my age and where I’m at in my career, I think on a lot of teams it wouldn’t be that easy to be playing for them,” Aucoin said. “But because of the system and work ethic he has installed here, I’m still able to play at a pretty high level.”
A recent free agent signee that has benefitted from playing in Tippett’s system is goaltender Mike Smith. Many believe the Coyotes would struggle to keep the puck out of the net without Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes. Smith, so far, has better peripheral numbers than Bryzgalov in Philadelphia, which has made pundits appreciate Tippett’s work that much more.
“It’s amazing when a coach gives you the confidence you really want,” Aucoin said of Smith’s success. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a goalie, defensemen or forward – when someone gives you the full green light to do what they think you can do, it’s amazing how much better of a player you can be.”
Other reclamation projects have been veterans like Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney. GM Don Maloney and the front office have spent money wisely and seem to get the most out of their investments.
“Don and Dave have molded them to be successful in terms of how they play as a group,” Trotz said. “They’ve got a really good team mentality. There are teams that have a lot of star power and a lot of ego, but sometimes when you don’t have the star power you kind of develop that team concept.”
Because the Coyotes lack that star power and play a ‘boring’ system, they will always have naysayers. Despite their regular season success, pundits never seem to think the ‘Yotes can keep it up. That stuff doesn’t bother Tippett, as it shouldn’t.
“We prepare just like everybody else. We prepare to win. We don’t prepare to be last,” he said. “We come in, evaluate the group of players we have and prepare to win and play hard to win. Those predictions and polls are inconsequential to us.”
Aucoin believes teams still overlook the Coyotes at times.
“We play one of those styles of games where a lot of times the team we end up beating is always like ‘Oh, we had a bad game,’ but we force teams into that,” he said. “It’s kind of that catch 22 where a lot of teams look at our lineup and, on paper, they are better than us, so they might not be ready and end up getting frustrated because we out-play them.
“We play a system where we can play with any team. We have four lines that are somewhat similar, so it’s not like there’s one line you can do shut down. It just comes back to the way we are coached and the way we work hard.”
Until the ownership is stabilized, the Coyotes will never spend with the big boys. As a result, there will be doubters every year. Thanks to Tippett’s uber-effective system, the Coyotes will continue to prove the doubters wrong.
“I think there is a reason that he has never finished below .500 as a coach,” Doan said. “He plays the percentages right and he simplifies the game.”Photo credit: Getty Images