Arizona Coyotes’ turbulent season lays groundwork for fresh start in Utah

Arizona Coyotes players soak in the cheers from fans during their emotional sendoff game at Mullett Arena before relocating to Utah. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

TEMPE – The action never seemed to dissipate for the Arizona Coyotes this season.

What turned into a whirlwind of a season – on and off the ice – began with one of the franchise’s best starts in the last decade. The high point came at the end of November and transitioned into early December, when the Coyotes beat each of the last five Stanley Cup winners in a row (Vegas Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning, Colorado Avalanche, St Louis Blues, Washington Capitals).

Heading into the All-Star break, the Coyotes sat firmly in contention for a postseason spot. But inconsistency followed an incredible stretch, as the Coyotes struggled to find their footing again. The season’s low point? A winless February, including a 14-game losing streak that hammered the team’s postseason hopes.

On the outside looking in yet again after the regular season ended Wednesday in a 5-2 win against Edmonton, the Coyotes made the playoffs just once in the last decade, winning a series against the Predators in the 2020 NHL Playoffs and then dropping the following series in five games to the Colorado Avalanche.

Despite the low points that defined 2023-24, there is belief that living through these moments will help this young team moving forward, even as it leaves the desert that has been home for 28 seasons.

“We need to get more mature,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said. “When you’re the second youngest team in the league, the growth … we try to speed it up. In order to speed it up, we need to learn from it. I think we’re progressing.”

The Coyotes featured a roster with an average age of 25.38 years old. Only the Buffalo Sabres have a younger roster, with an average age of 25.08 years old.

But Arizona embraces its youth. Following a trade deadline that saw the Coyotes ship out four veterans on short-term deals, it became apparent that the team wanted to see what it had, especially on its AHL team, the Tucson Roadrunners.

The impact felt from young guns like Dylan Guenther, Logan Cooley and the newly added Josh Doan is one that both fans and the organization hope will last a long time. Guenther was added to the team in early January. What was initially expected to be a very short stint as a result of the suspension to forward Jason Zucker became an audition for the rest of the season. Now, 45 games and 35 points later, Guenther feels like an integral part of the team.

Cooley was a third overall pick of the organization last year. In his first full season as an NHL player at age 19, he recorded 20 goals and played in all 82 games.

Doan’s impact on the team was felt most of all. In his NHL debut, Coyotes fans lined the stands of Mullett Arena to cheer on Doan, a Valley native and the son of Coyotes legend Shane Doan. A Coyotes team that hadn’t scored more than four goals in its last 11 games before Doan was called up from Tucson suddenly netted six, including two by Doan.

In six of their next 11 games, the Coyotes scored more than four goals. In the game after Doan’s debut, Cooley knotted his first career hat-trick in an 8-4 onslaught win over the Nashville Predators.

The final stretch of the 2023-24 season for the Coyotes saw the team perform a 180-degree turn. The team went 7-4 and improved drastically in every facet of the game. This stretch, which included games against five postseason-bound teams, represented a meaningful challenge for this team and an opportunity to grow and prepare for next season, where expectations will undoubtedly become higher in Utah.

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Recent youth success became a spark plug of interest for fans who may have otherwise not concerned themselves with the remainder of a season of what could have been for the Coyotes.

“I think growing as a team has been a big deal for us,” said veteran forward Nick Bjugstad. At 31, Bjugstad is the oldest player on the team and has become a vocal leader. He recognizes the importance of this final stretch for a roster likely to remain largely the same and just as young next year.

“Obviously we went through a spurt where we were very disappointed with how we were playing and the results,” Bjugstad said. “I’d like to look at that as a good teaching point for the group that we can look back on and learn from. It’s just maturing as a group.”

Maturing is something every young team must go through to get to the top of the highest mountains. The latest adversity centered around rumors of relocation to Salt Lake City. Just before the 14-game losing streak began, these rumors came to the surface. On Thursday, the NHL confirmed the rumors.

“We’ve been through adversity. First time that the rumor came around, we shot ourselves in the foot,” Tourigny added. “I think our guys are showing how proud they are … how much they want to have success together.”

Now, as the season has finished, the Coyotes are poised for relocation to Salt Lake City. But this time around, the team had the maturity and the camaraderie to block out the outside noise – a promising sign for the future.

“From the bottom of my heart, I am really impressed with the way our players handled the situation,” Tourigny said.

As the season concluded, the Coyotes ended the emotional journey on the right foot. As fans stood on their feet at Mullett Arena, cheered and said goodbye to the players for the final time, they did so to a completely different team – a more mature team, one that had seemingly gone through a decade’s worth of ups and downs all in the space of a few months.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Coyotes forward Clayton Keller said. “The fans really made it unbelievable. They supported us through our ups and downs, all the noise … I’m really thankful for that.”

Zach Mott(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Zach Mott expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Mott has interned with the Varsity Sports Show doing camera and broadcast work.