Coyotes moving on with new owners after years of fighting financial constraints

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Don Maloney and Brad Treliving played the role of travelling salesmen for four years, hawking a foggy future over obvious defects in their product.

This was no dented refrigerator or a hot rod missing a rearview mirror.

Their commodity was an ownerless NHL hockey team: The Phoenix Coyotes.

The team was a winner, they told free agents. The coaching staff was among the tops in the business, and the system proven. And the Phoenix area? One of the country’s best places to live and raise a family.

The tipping point almost always came down to the future, though: Who will be the owner? Where will the team be?

It was not an easy sell.

“Ultimately, there had to be a leap of faith,” said Treliving, the Coyotes’ assistant general manager. “People had to commit knowing there were things out of our control that quite frankly we didn’t have the answers to.”

The Coyotes’ four-year quest to find an owner ended last month when George Gosbee, Anthony LeBlanc and the IceArizona ownership group completed their purchase of the franchise from the NHL for US$170 million.

After years of trying to sell what the Coyotes might be, they could tell players what they are: A solid team with owners who will keep the team in the desert.

“Like I’ve said forever, this is not a hard sell to get people to play hockey in Arizona,” said Maloney, entering his seventh season. “This is probably the easiest sell in the National Hockey League, but the last four years, you’re one foot in, one foot out the door, it was a lot of fancy footwork to convince people to sign here.

“Now, that’s been eliminated and we’re on the same level playing field.”

The dance to get here was an awkward one to master, filled with moving parts. The financial two-step around the NHL’s constraints may have been the hardest part.

In a certain sense, having no owner made life easy on Maloney; he had no one dictating his moves. The big problem was flexibility.

The NHL set a firm budget every year. Need a penny more than the budget? Don’t even ask.

And for four years, that budget was at the bottom of the league, limiting who Maloney and Treliving could attract.

Top-line free agents were not even considered. They were like a Ferrari behind glass to an assembly-line worker driving past in rush hour. No sense in even trying.

“Some of those top guys, we didn’t even waste calories thinking about them because of what the financial commitment would be and because they would ultimately ask that question of where we were going to be,” Treliving said. “It really wasn’t realistic.”

The narrowed options turned Maloney and Treliving into bargain hunters.

They had to look harder at players, considering not only their skill, but their personality and character. They searched for players who could fit into coach Dave Tippett’s defence-first system and had to decide if it was someone who would likely re-sign.

READ ALSO:  Penguins, Oilers & NHL show support for Ottawa tragedy with singings of 'O Canada'

They also had to make calculations based on a future they couldn’t see. Plus, while being run by the NHL, the Coyotes never knew what their budget would be for the next season.

Potential new owners had to be accounted for in team decisions: Would they strip the team down or spend to the cap? That forced Maloney and Treliving to be careful with the deals they made. With contracts so hard to move under the new labour agreement, they couldn’t commit large amounts of money to players.

As a big-market team with a small-market budget, there was little margin for error.

“If you don’t have the resources, you can’t afford to make quite as many mistakes,” Maloney said. “That’s the key for us. I always thought that teams that spend to the cap, you could get out of mistakes that way. We really can’t.”

During their four years without an owner, Maloney and Treliving had numerous conversations with players they thought would be a good fit, only to have them sign with other teams because of the ownership situation.

Some of the toughest losses were with their own players.

Phoenix lost a big one in 2010, when defenceman Zbynek Michalek left for the Pittsburgh Penguins, though the Coyotes acquired him back in a 2012 trade.

Phoenix lost goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov in 2011, when his asking price became too high and his rights were traded to Philadelphia. The Flyers ended up buying out the remainder of $51 million, nine-year contract this summer.

Forward Ray Whitney had been one of Phoenix’s best finds, but ended up leaving before last season because the Coyotes couldn’t match what he snared in Dallas.

Last season, the Coyotes traded veterans Raffi Torres, Matthew Lombardi and Steve Sullivan to gain assets for players who could potentially leave as free agents.

“Some of our own free agents, players who wanted to stay here, loved it here, loved what was going on here, but they reached a point in their career where they had free agency,” Treliving said. “They would (have) liked to be here, but under the circumstances, chose to go elsewhere.”

The Coyotes made it work despite stacked odds.

Playing with an “us-against-the-world” edge, Phoenix qualified for the playoffs three times without an owner. The Coyotes slipped up last year, hurt by a slow start to the lockout-shortened season and injuries to key players. Yet, they still managed to finish within four points of the West’s final playoff spot and now have the type of roster—particularly with the addition of centre Mike Ribeiro—that could be good for years to come.

“They managed the team great,” said Gosbee, the Coyotes’ new governor. “What they’ve been able to do in the face of all this adversity is amazing. Now, it’s our job to give them the resources and let them continue.”

It’s just the opportunity Maloney and Treliving have been waiting for.

After four years of fighting against the current, they’ve earned it.