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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the Phoenix Coyotes opened training camp last autumn, they buzzed with optimism.

The NHL's year-long lockout had ended, leaving rosters reshuffled across the league. The Coyotes believed they had put together a playoff contender.

But as playoff teams begin their quest for the Stanley Cup, the Coyotes spent Tuesday emptying their lockers. By the time the playoffs begin later this week, the Coyotes will be flung across North America and Europe. They finished 12th in the Western Conference (38-39-5), a distant 14 points out of the final playoff spot.

"You see the playoffs starting and we're not in it; we're in here doing all this stuff," center Mike Ricci said as teammates carted sticks and gear-stuffed duffel bags to their cars at Glendale Arena. "It's hard to be positive right now."

The Coyotes' preseason optimism began to erode when Brett Hull, a likely future Hall of Famer brought in to provide veteran leadership, retired five games into the season. Injuries to goalie Brian Boucher in the exhibition opener and to Ladislav Nagy in February also hurt the team.

Then there was the February arrest of assistant coach Rick Tocchet for allegedly running an illegal sports gambling ring. The scandal touched Gretzky when it was revealed that his wife, Janet, had placed bets.

It all added up to another forgettable season for the Coyotes, whose last playoff series victory came in 1987, when they were the Winnipeg Jets.

They head into the offseason with many questions -- including whether Gretzky, the team's managing partner, will return as coach.

Gretzky Tuesday reiterated his plan to announce a decision in mid-May, after he returns to Phoenix for pre-draft meetings with team scouts. He will join Hull in a charity golf tournament in South Carolina this week, then spend a week in Virginia at the International Azalea Festival, where his daughter, Paulina, will serve as the queen.

Gretzky said he had learned a lot in his first season behind an NHL bench. "It was enjoyable, and yet it's also a difficult job in the sense that you're responsible for 23 players to be ready each and every night," Gretzky said.

But Gretzky, who played in 208 Stanley Cup playoff games and won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, said the season was ultimately a disappointment because the Coyotes' season ended in mid-April. And he promised personnel changes, although he wasn't specific.

"Obviously, when you don't make the playoffs, you sort of evaluate every situation and every piece of the puzzle," he said.

One important piece is goaltender. The club will likely try to re-sign Curtis Joseph, who played so well after Boucher went down that the club eventually decided to trade the other goalie. Joseph finished with 32 victories, including four shutouts, and a 2.91 goals-against average. The media that travels with the club named him the Coyotes' MVP.

Joseph, who turns 39 on April 29, could become an unrestricted free agent July 1, although he said he would like to return.

"I'm pretty flexible at this point in my career," Joseph said. "My preference would be to come back."

Many of Joseph's teammates felt the same way as they packed up Tuesday.

"Obviously, there's going to be changes," Ricci said. "No one knows what's going to happen."
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