The Arizona Coyotes haven't made the playoffs since 2012, when they made the conference final for the franchise's most successful run ever. Now, after years of rebuilding, they're back...or are they?
Thanks to the NHL's 24-team Return to Play format, the Coyotes will indeed play hockey once it is deemed safe for the league to restart. But as the 11th-ranked team in the Western Conference, Arizona will have to beat Nashville in the qualifying round before they get to the literal first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nonetheless, for a franchise that has come up short for such a long time, the Coyotes aren't going to dwell on format.
"You play the regular season to play for the Stanley Cup," said center Derek Stepan. "And we get a chance to play for the Cup."
Both GM John Chayka and coach Rick Tocchet called it all a matter of semantics, with Chayka pointing out that seven NHL teams were left out of the tournament and Tocchet pointing out the great unknown of those final regular season games that were never played due to the pandemic.
"We could have gone 12-0 and gotten a bye," Tocchet said. "That's how I look at it."
If the 2019-20 season had never been interrupted, there was certainly a chance the Coyotes would have been on the outside looking in once again. Arizona had three teams to leapfrog just to get into the second wild card spot and the Coyotes did not have games in hand on any of those teams. For a team that made a massive acquisition in recent Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall during the campaign, it would have been pretty disappointing to see the Coyotes miss the playoffs again (the same of which could be said for the Florida Panthers in the East, another franchise that has teased on-ice growth for years but hasn't quite delivered).
Arizona does have players with plenty of post-season experience however and getting the rest of the crew in that pool could be crucial for real development.
"There's nothing like playing in a series, where you line up against the same guy every night," Stepan said. "You find a deeper compete level that is hard to explain."
Having said that, Stepan - who made six straight post-season forays with the New York Rangers, including some deep runs before coming to Arizona - doesn't want the team's youngsters to treat this year's tourney as a learning experience.
"This isn't a learning process, this is about winning the Cup," he said. "We've gotta have that mentality."
Now the challenge is getting everyone back on track after the long layoff - though we still don't quite know when that will be. Chayka said players won't be asked to rush back to Arizona right away, while Tocchet mused about the challenges of the initial limited on-ice workouts for his charges.
"The bottom line is that I won't be around the rink," he said. "They're probably happy about that."
Once games do begin in earnest, however, there likely won't be much time to think.
"There's no dipping your toe in this," Tocchet said. "We're diving in right away. It's a short runway and you have to be ready."
If there was one benefit to the layoff, it's that many teams got healthier and Arizona is no exception. Star goalie Darcy Kuemper got a chance to rehab a lower-body injury, while veteran sniper Phil Kessel had the opportunity to heal up from some nagging ailments. Conor Garland and Jakob Chychrun will also likely be healthy once the games start.
Now the focus is on returning to the ice under safe conditions - and preparing for a date with the Predators. It may not be the way the Coyotes pictured their next step in development, but it's an opportunity they are happy to have.
"We're in a playoff tournament format to win the Stanley Cup," Chayka said. "That's a positive."