The Coyotes' locker room had become such a haven for malcontents
last month that the sight of a black snake was only fitting.
When it slithered into the equipment room one morning during
training camp, right wing Shane Doan was especially wary. "Watch
out," warned Doan, whose upbringing on an Alberta farm taught
him how to coax the serpent into a box. "That thing's deadly."
That's unfortunately not the only poisonous influence the
Coyotes have had to contend with. An unremitting string of
playoff failures have cast gloom over this franchise, which has
lost nine straight postseason series and 11 straight
series-clinching games and has never advanced past the second
round in its 20-year history (the first 16 as the Winnipeg
Jets). Phoenix wasted last year's 90-point regular season by
blowing a 3-1 first-round series lead against St. Louis.
Restricted free-agent goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who was
among the league's top five last year in wins (32), save
percentage (.923) and shutouts (8), demanded an upgraded
multiyear deal and sat out the preseason when he didn't get it.
Forward Robert Reichel, a late-season acquisition who finished
with 69 points, couldn't come to terms on a contract and left to
play in the Czech Republic. The team's future may hinge on a
Nov. 2 referendum to fund a new 18,000-seat arena that would
feature luxury boxes for 2,000 patrons. At worst a no vote would
eventually push the franchise out of Phoenix; at best it would
soon force ownership to dump high-salaried veterans such as Rick
Tocchet, Jeremy Roenick, Teppo Numminen and captain Keith
Tkachuk, who is due to earn $8.3 million in 2000-01.
Even with that expensive firepower last season the Coyotes'
power play was inexplicably the league's second-worst (12%).
With playmaking defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky gone in an off-season
trade to Anaheim, those numbers could get worse. New coach Bob
Francis says he may consider playing Tkachuk, Roenick and
Tocchet on separate lines, perhaps giving hungry youngsters
Tavis Hansen, Trevor Letowski and Juha Ylonen a chance to earn
time with established All-Stars. Francis, who played in just 14
NHL games, has shown both a willingness to experiment and a
penchant for tension-melting self-deprecation. "I wasn't an
elite player," he says. "I was small and ugly, and I had bad
The Coyotes haven't enjoyed such levity since last November, when
they went 10-0-1. Unfortunately you don't count your Cups in
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Tocchet and his salary await a Phoenix referendum.
The Coyotes were the only team last season whose top three
scorers (Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk and Rick Tocchet) each
had at least 100 penalty minutes.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 17 Centers Briere, Green are keys up front
DEFENSE 11 This unit needs to be much more physical
GOALTENDING 6 Khabibulin is one of the league's elite
SPECIAL TEAMS 19 Penalty killers Sullivan and Ylonen are
COACHING 24 Can rookie Francis turn around some selfish