The positive vibes have finally returned. It's been six years since the Coyotes came off a regular season feeling as good about themselves as they do these days. And while they don't have a date with the playoffs as they did in 2002 (their last postseason appearance), the progressive steps taken this season have Phoenix believing such an engagement is only a year away.
One year removed from their worst season in Arizona (67 points) and six months from being pegged a sure-shot to be the league's worst team, the Coyotes are basking in the fact they have finally found the path that leads to relevancy.
"If we just continue to stick with what we believe in and can play with a lot of discipline, we'll be in the playoffs and more next year," said general manager Don Maloney, who orchestrated the turnaround which made Phoenix the most surprising team in the Western Conference this season.
A legitimate playoff contender until mid-March, the Coyotes improved their win total by seven, their point total by 16 and finished with a winning record (38-37-7) for the first time since 2001-02.
The positives don't stop there.
Phoenix's 19-11-2 division mark was the best among Pacific teams, three of which are headed to the playoffs.
Forward Shane Doan (78) and defenseman Ed Jovanovski (51), the team's highest-paid players, each posted career bests for points as did forward Radim Vrbata (56).
Nineteen-year-old forward Peter Mueller proved to be as good as advertised, finishing third on the team in scoring with 54 points. He was also third among rookies in the same category and second in goals (22).
Fellow rookie Martin Hanzal had a solid start to his career (35 points in 72 games) while Daniel Carcillo and Daniel Winnik each proved to be pleasant surprises and won jobs as everyday players.
The team appears to have found its goaltender of the future after claiming Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers from Anaheim in November.
"We made tremendous strides in a lot of areas," coach and managing partner Wayne Gretzky said.
"We're probably still a ways (away), but we see a light at the end of the tunnel and that's exciting for our organization. A year ago, at this point in time, it was pretty doom and gloom."
All the on-ice improvement contributed toward helping the bottom line as well.
The franchise lost in the neighborhood of $30 million last season, but that number was cut by nearly 35 percent, CEO Jeff Shumway said. Part of that was due to reducing payroll from around $42 million to $37 million, but there were other factors.
"We've sold more of our advertising inventory," Shumway said. "We've sold more of our suites. We have entered into more of our corporate partnerships."
Interest within the community has been rejuvenated as well, according to president Doug Moss, who said Phoenix has already sold 500 new full season-ticket packages and the renewal rate is higher than last season. Moss did not have an exact figure but expects a record rate.
So how do the Coyotes now complete the turnaround?
Three of the most pressing areas that need improvement are scoring (they finished 21st in the league at 2.55 goals per game), starting the season fast (they were 11-14-0) and home record (their 17-20-4 mark was second-worst in the league).
Phoenix will look to better those areas next season with mostly the same roster. Its top two goalies, six of its top seven defensemen and six forwards who received regular playing time are already under contract. The Coyotes projected payroll is around $33 million, although their salary cap number is higher because it includes bonuses.
The lower limit of the cap next season is expected to be around $40 million, and Maloney said the Coyotes' payroll won't go much higher than that, partly because they expect to be an even younger team next season.
Recent draft picks Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik, Blake Wheeler and Brett MacLean, all forwards, and Nick Ross, a defensemen, very well could be fighting for jobs in training camp.
Whether Vrbata re-signs (both sides have indicated they'd like to get a deal done) will partially determine how active Phoenix is in the free agent market. But with a commitment to building from within and key restricted free agents like Carcillo all but guaranteed to be back, the Coyotes don't see much need for outside help.
"The trick for us (in the offseason) is going to be coming up with more offensive production," Maloney said. "Can we find that internally? Does it grow out of what we have here or are there going to be deals there that we can make that will help us out? That will be the summer challenge."
LOOSE PUCK: The Coyotes were unaffected by Monday's draft lottery and will pick eighth in the first round. Tampa Bay, which finished last in the league, won the lottery and will have the No. 1 choice. The draft will be June 20-21 in Ottawa.