GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes can’t wait to open the 2009-10 season.
It means their chaotic off-season is over.
Five months after owner Jerry Moyes took the team into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the Coyotes hope the focus shifts to the ice when they visit the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night.
“It’s tough, almost like the rink is the guys’ safe haven, to just go out there and play and not worry about the extra stuff going on,” veteran defenceman Ed Jovanovski said. “It is there. You can say it might be a little distraction for the management, but for the players we’re just getting geared up and getting ready.”
The Coyotes spent the summer reading dispiriting news reports about the bitter fight for control of a team that has never turned a profit since it moved from Winnipeg in 1996.
The team’s future in the desert remains uncertain after a Phoenix bankruptcy judge rejected both offers for the team this week – a decision that eliminated Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie’s bid but left open the door for the NHL to sweeten its offer.
Balsillie wanted to move the team to Hamilton. If the league buys the Coyotes, it will try to find a local owner, but failing that it would look to relocate.
The saga took a turn last week, when Wayne Gretzky resigned as coach nine days before the opener. Gretzky is the leading scorer in NHL history, but he was miscast behind the bench.
The Coyotes quickly replaced him with Dave Tippett, who inherits what has to be among the worst positions in professional sports.
The Coyotes don’t know who their owner will be, although the NHL is funding the club.
They don’t know where they will play after this season.
Their exhibition opener drew fewer than 2,000 fans to Jobing.com Arena.
“The one thing I learned through this whole time is that absolutely nobody knows what is going on,” said captain Shane Doan, who moved with the franchise from Winnipeg.
The Coyotes finished tied for 13th in the 15-team Western Conference last season, missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the sixth straight time.
Expectations are equally low for this season.
The 48-year-old Tippett brings a winning resume to an organization that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1987, when it was based in Winnipeg. Tippett went 271-162-59 in six seasons with the Dallas Stars, and the team made the playoffs each of his first five seasons.
The Coyotes signed Tippett to a four-year deal – a contract that makes him perhaps the most stable piece in the organization.
Tippett said he does not believe the ongoing fight for control of the team will affect the Coyotes on the ice.
“There’s a lot of off-ice situations we can’t control,” Tippett said on the day he took over. “What we’re going to do is concentrate on what we have to do on the ice to earn the right to be a playoff team and earn the right to compete for the Stanley Cup. That’s what we’re all in the business for, and we look forward to that challenge.”
The Coyotes had numerous holes to fill during the off-season but didn’t make much noise in the free-agent market. General manager Don Maloney said he’s been given free rein with his payroll, but the Coyotes clearly will be keeping their expenses in check.
They hope to keep opponents in check too. If Phoenix has a strength, it’s on defence.
Jovanovski and Keith Yandle return, and they’ll be joined by NHL veterans Adrian Aucoin and Jim Vandermeer.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov starts his second full season with the team. Bryzgalov was considered a steal when the Coyotes plucked him off waivers from Anaheim two seasons ago, but last year he had a career-worst 2.98 goals-against average.
Goals may be at a premium, which doesn’t bode well for a team desperately trying to attract an audience.
Doan, a two-time All-Star, has scored 20 or more goals each of the last nine years, and last season he had a career-high 31.
The Coyotes will look for more from homegrown products Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker, who have all flashed promise. They also hope Radim Vrbata can return to the form he showed two years ago, when he had a career-high 27 goals before leaving for Tampa Bay.
“Up front is going to be kind of wait and see how we do, but our blue-line and our goaltending is solidified,” Doan said.
The NHL may run the Coyotes, but the league can’t be accused of coddling them. The schedule sends Phoenix on the road for four of its first five games.
Phoenix opens on Saturday night at Los Angeles, then heads East to take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo. After the Oct. 10 home opener against Columbus, the Coyotes visit Western Conference power San Jose.
Tippett said he senses his players are ready.
“They want to get playing hockey, do what they love to do, and I think they’re motivated to have this team have success, to maybe show some people they are a good team,” he said.