The Arizona Coyotes' season might be lost, but it certainly isn't over. Not just yet.
Moments after his team's 1-0 loss Monday in Los Angeles against the Kings, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett wasn't making any excuses. Though he acknowledged the Coyotes' effort against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the message was clear.
"For all the players on our team, it doesn't matter if they're young or old, now is the time where you either are part of the solution moving forward or you're part of the problem," Tippett said. "This is an evaluation to figure out where everybody is."
Things didn't get any easier after that for the Coyotes, who fell 5-2 on Thursday to the Colorado Avalanche, 3-1 on Saturday to the Pittsburgh Penguins and 3-1 to the Vancouver Canucks, making for eight straight losses and 18 out of their last 19.
Stuck at 50 points with nine games remaining, the Coyotes have the Western Conference's worst record and are poised to complete their worst season since moving to the desert from Winnipeg in 1996-97. It's official: The Coyotes' rebuild is in full swing.
Following a trade deadline that yielded a return of picks and prospects in exchange for three crucial veterans -- forward Antoine Vermette and defensemen Keith Yandle and Zbynek Michalek -- the Coyotes are left with a picked-apart roster. With roughly half their players entering free agency this summer, it's clear in the locker room that there are still jobs to be won or lost for next season.
"You just stay focused on your job. You only get so many NHL games in your career. The way you play each one dictates how many more you're going to get. So you better take care of them," captain Shane Doan said earlier in the week. "If you get caught up in worrying about what's going on, you kind of miss the opportunity. So you better enjoy it because it's pretty special, and when it's gone, you can't get those games back."
A franchise figurehead who is the club's all-time leader in games, goals, assists, points, shots and penalty minutes, Doan might take the losing harder than anyone. And not just because the 38-year-old is one of six players remaining from the Coyotes team that enjoyed the deepest playoff run in franchise history just three years ago -- a run that ended with a five-game series loss to the Kings in the 2012 Western Conference finals.
"It's tough because Doaner is so competitive. I'm sure he doesn't like the situation that we're in and doesn't have too many years left in his career," said goaltender Mike Smith. "To have a season like this is frustrating for everyone. But for our captain, I think he's taken it pretty hard."
The foundation of some of the top teams, most notably the Chicago Blackhawks and Penguins, was built on periods of prolonged losing. It's a model the Coyotes are looking to emulate. Of course, that doesn't make playing out the final month of a losing season any easier.
"There's still a lot of pride in the players. They want to play because they're competitors. They're lucky enough to be playing one of the best games on earth," said former NHL player Craig Johnson, who now coaches at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in California. "It's a privilege to play in the NHL. You don't want to disrespect it."
In parts of 10 seasons, Johnson occasionally experienced the unenviable task of playing for little more than pride. But he also became familiar with the leadership core attempting to keep the Coyotes focused. As a longtime member of the Kings, he faced off several times against Doan and played under Tippett, who was an assistant coach in Los Angeles for three seasons.
"I guarantee you Shane Doan is competing just as hard now as he would if the team was first overall and guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. That's the type of guy he is. Dave Tippett's not going to give up, either," Johnson said. "They're good at what they do. [Tippett] is one of the best coaches in the league and Doan has always been a top forward. They're going to do what's right."
The ultimate silver lining on this disastrous season could be the chance to draft one of two impressive prospects in forwards Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. But the Coyotes' chances at a top pick in an enticing 2015 draft notwithstanding, there are other signs of hope.
Smith's play has improved markedly since struggling most of the season. That improvement could mean a return to form for a goaltender who just 13 months ago was a member of Canada's gold-medal team at the Sochi Olympics.
The Coyotes are also sitting on a strong prospect pool that now includes forward Anthony Duclair and defenseman Klas Dahlbeck, acquired at the deadline from the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively. Young defensemen Connor Murphy and Brandon Gormley have also earned more ice time and an opportunity to develop.
Once those prospects get a long look during training camp in the fall, they'll have one of the game's great leaders in Doan there to mentor them.
"He's such a great leader for young kids to learn from. He's such a great role model," Smith said of Doan. "To have this many young guys around the locker room with a guy like that, who has been a captain in this league for as long as he has, it's a tremendous way to come into the league."
For the time being, that's little consolation for Doan, who will turn 39 at the start of next season. Until this lost season officially ends, there is still work to be done.
"We've got to find ways to contribute more offensively with the lineup we have," Doan said. "We've got lots of games left. This is your livelihood."