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Coyotes labouring through 10-game skid as playoff hopes vanish

Mattias Janmark scores on Matt Villalta Edmonton Oilers Arizona Coyotes Mattias Janmark scores on Matt Villalta - The Canadian Press

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Coyotes were built for the future but appeared to be ahead of schedule just a month ago.

The young core was playing well, the new veterans were fitting in and the goaltending was solid as they eyed the franchise's second playoff berth in 12 years.

Flash forward to now, and a double-digit losing streak not only has the Coyotes closer to the NHL lottery than the playoffs, their confidence is cratering.

“It’s easy to play when you’re confident,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said. “When you’re confident, you’re playing with energy, playing with pace, life is good, the sky is blue. When you don't have that confidence, it's all about how you carry yourself.”

Arizona general manager Bill Armstrong began a rebuilding process three years ago, jettisoning veteran players for a cache of draft picks that the franchise hoped would be the key to a turnaround.

Thought to be a year or two away from breaking through, the Coyotes spent the first half of the season appearing as if it would come this season instead.

Arizona became the first team to beat the last five teams to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive games and hovered around the edge of the Western Conference playoff picture a little over a month ago.

That goal now seems like a mirage as the losing started — 10 games and counting after a 6-3 blowout by Edmonton on Monday.

"It’s tough in the room right now; we’ve got to figure it out,” Coyotes forward Nick Bjugstad said. “It’s very frustrating, myself included. We would do anything, just about anything, for a win right now.”

Arizona's skid started, perhaps coincidentally, when the Smith Group, owners of the NBA's Utah Jazz, announced last month that it had initiated the process to bring an expansion team to the state.

Relocation rumors have swirled around the Coyotes since a previous owner took the team into bankruptcy in 2009, so the natural inclination was to include them in any future NHL plans in Utah.

The Coyotes have been adamant they plan to stay in the Phoenix area and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has been a strong supporter of keeping the franchise in one of the nation's largest markets. Owner Alex Meruelo has been searching for land for a new arena in Arizona.

The players have consistently said the relocation rumors don't affect how they prepare or play on the ice, but Arizona is 0-9-1 since the Smith Group announcement.

"It’s a tough league. There’s no easy nights,” Bjugstad said. “You've got to stick together and you can’t dwell on the past too much. You want to try to come to the rink with energy and positivity.”

It's been tough lately.

The Coyotes have struggled to score almost since the day they arrived from Winnipeg in 1996 and this season has been no different — Arizona is 25th in the NHL with 2.87 goals per game.

Goaltending, a strength early on, hasn't been the same during the streak.

Tourigny started the season by saying he would go with whichever goalie was playing the best between Connor Ingram and Karel Vejmelka.

Ingram was the guy early, putting him in the discussion to play in the All-Star Game. He went through a bit of a rough stretch, allowing five or more goals twice in four games.

Vejmelka has been good at times, inconsistent others.

He was solid in relief after Ingram suffered a lower-body injury against Minnesota on Feb. 14, but allowed nine goals the past two games. Vejmelka was pulled in a 5-1 loss to Carolina on Friday and was replaced by rookie Matt Villalta, who allowed five goals against the Oilers in his first NHL start.

Arizona's defensive coverage also has been spotty; the Coyotes have allowed at least four goals seven times during their losing streak.

“We're going through an extremely tough situation,” Tourigny said. “We’re the second-youngest team in the league and we’re growing, we’re learning and sometimes learning is through pain. We’re going through that right now. It’s really frustrating.”

The Coyotes' downward trend has put them in a difficult spot, perhaps too much to overcome to salvage this season.

The good news: Arizona still has that talented core and, despite their setbacks this season, could still be on track to turn things around.