A year ago the Phoenix Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings were playing out the final weeks of yet another disappointing season.
The Avalanche were about to miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons while the Kings and Coyotes were facing their sixth straight seasons without a playoff berth. And little improvement was expected for either club heading into 2009-10. The Avalanche were in full-fledged rebuilding mode, icing arguably their youngest roster in franchise history, the Kings were believed at least another season away from playoff contention, and the bankrupt Coyotes faced an uncertain future.
With less than three weeks remaining in this season, however, those three clubs have more than exceeded expectations and are close to clinching playoff berths in the Western Conference.
The Avalanche owe their stunning improvement to a combination of good coaching, solid goaltending and the earlier-than-anticipated rise of several promising young players.
Joe Sacco, who'd spent four seasons with the Avalanche's AHL affiliate as an assistant and head coach, was hired as their new head coach last summer, a move questioned by critics who believed the Avs should've hired a more experienced NHL coach.
But Sacco had worked well with promising young players like Chris Stewart, T.J. Galiardi and Kyle Cumiskey in the AHL, a trait he was able to carry over to a young Avalanche roster this season.
Those young players -- including Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Ryan Wilson, recently-acquired center Peter Mueller and sidelined forwards David Jones and Brandon Yip -- were key to the Avs success.
The biggest factor, however, is goaltender Craig Anderson. Acquired for a song (two years, $1.82 million per season) as a free agent last summer, Anderson statistically ranks among the league's top netminders this season.
Only Florida's Tomas Vokoun has faced more shots and made more saves and only Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov has more shutouts (8) than Anderson. Despite his heavy workload, Anderson hasn't shown signs of fatigue down the stretch.
The Kings' rebuilding efforts of the past several years finally bore fruit in 2009-10. Like the Avalanche, coaching has been part of the reason for the Kings success. Second-year coach Bryan Murray installed a more defensive-minded system, which his charges continued to buy into this season.
Another was the addition of veteran forward Ryan Smyth, acquired during an offseason trade with the Avalanche. Rejuvenated in Los Angeles, Smyth's leadership and experience had a positive effect upon the young Kings, especially sniper Anze Kopitar, who's on pace for a career best 80-point season.
The continued development of budding talent like scoring star Kopitar, team captain Dustin Brown, rugged Wayne Simmonds, blueline sensation Drew Doughty and acrobatic goalie Jon Quick have the Kings poised to clinch their first postseason berth since 2002.
A recent slump (4-4-1 heading into this week) has some observers concerned, but there's enough talent and character on this team to not only ensure a berth but also make them a tough team to face in the playoffs.
The Coyotes, however, rank as the most surprising of the three. Not only are they currently sitting above the Kings and Avalanche in the Conference standings, but heading into this week they are leading the San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division lead and are tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for first overall in the West.
Back in October when I wrote about the Coyotes' impressive 7-3-0 start, I noted the moves made by general manager Don Maloney, the defensive system of new coach Dave Tippett, the goaltending of Bryzgalov and the character of the players as factors for their improvement at the time.
Fast forward to March, 2010 and those factors remain the principle reasons for the Coyotes' impressive performance this season.
Maloney wasn't content to sit on his laurels, making several moves at the trade deadline. He shipped an under-achieving Peter Mueller to Colorado for scoring winger Wojtek Wolski and added veteran depth in forwards Lee Stempniak and Petteri Nokelainen, as well as defensemen Derek Morris and Mathieu Schneider.
Those moves were a factor in the Coyotes winning nine consecutive games following the trade deadline.
The best indicator of Tippett's success this season isn't just the Coyotes' 46 victories and 97 points (best in franchise history since it moved from Winnipeg in 1996) but how they've achieved those victories.
Last season, the Coyotes were 26th in goals-against, 28th in penalty-killing and gave up the eighth most shots. This season, they've given up the second fewest goals, possess the eighth-best penalty kill and given up the 12th fewest shots.
The Coyotes have made only marginal offensive improvement over last season, but those defensive numbers should make Tippett a slam dunk to win coach of the year honors.
Bryzgalov deserves considerable credit as well for the improvement in the goals-against numbers. He's rebounded from an average performance in 2008-09 to rank among the NHL's top goalies this season.
He's presently tied for first in wins with 39, leads all goalies in shutouts with eight and possesses the fourth best goals against average (2.28) and ninth best save percentage (.921). Those numbers are good enough to merit nomination for the Vezina trophy.
The character of this Coyotes roster, however, remains their most impressive asset this season. Given the uncertainty over the club's future in Phoenix, it would've been understandable if the players simply gave up on the season.
Led by team captain Shane Doan, however, the Coyotes refused to just roll over and die, and their efforts in recent weeks have had a positive impact upon their attendance.
Given how teams tend to tighten up defensively in the postseason, the Coyotes' style could make them a dangerous opponent in this year's playoffs.