GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes played the past four seasons with a chip on their shoulder, trying to prove the little team without an owner could compete with the rest of the league.
Now that they have an owner looking over their shoulder, the Coyotes have something new to contend with: Expectations.
Backed by owners for the first time since 2009, the Coyotes will finally be on the same financial and operational standing as the NHL’s other 29 teams—and will have to change their mentality because of it.
“In a lot of ways the past four years, we were kind of wards of the state, poor Coyotes, this and that,” Phoenix general manager Don Maloney said. “We never used it that way, but now I think it’s different. With strong, stable ownership, we have no excuses for lack of performance.”
The Coyotes certainly could have used the excuse.
Run by the league since former owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy in 2009, Phoenix had one of the NHL’s lowest payrolls and was forced to be cost-conscious shoppers on the free agent and trade markets.
They managed to make it work, finding players who fit into Dave Tippett’s defence-first system and grinding out wins while playing toward an uncertain future. The Coyotes reached the playoffs three straight seasons without an owner, including their first trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2012, before falling just short last season.
Phoenix’s fortunes changed this off-season when an ownership group came forward—and was actually able to pull the deal off.
IceArizona, a group led by George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc, was able to secure an arena lease agreement for Jobing.com Arena with the city of Glendale and completed its purchase of the team from the NHL.
The new owners have already paid dividends for Phoenix, allowing the Coyotes to keep top goalie Mike Smith and land top-line free agent centre Mike Ribeiro.
The next step is to use what they now have and turn it into wins.
Here’s five things to look for in the Phoenix Coyotes’ first season with an owner in nearly five years:
RIBEIRO’S IMPACT: The biggest detriment to the Coyotes while being run by the league was their inability to acquire top skill players in trades or free agency. They didn’t have the money, so didn’t bother trying to sign them. With the new owners in place, Phoenix made a huge splash during this year’s free agency period by signing Ribeiro, arguably the top player on the market. A crafty player with superb vision, he’s been a consistent producer in 14 NHL seasons, topping 50 points eight times. He had 49 points in 48 games for Washington during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and is expected to give the Coyotes a much-needed boost on their top line and power play.
SMITH’S HEALTH: Smith was signed to replace Ilya Bryzgalov in 2011 and had a superb first season in the desert, winning 38 games with eight shutouts while posting a 2.21 goals-against average. His follow-up was derailed by a groin injury early in the season and never really got back on track. Struggling with more injuries and unable to find a consistent groove, Smith finished 15-12-5 with a 2.58 GAA last season, unable to steal games to get the Coyotes into the playoffs as he did the year before. Smith is healthy heading into this season and ready to prove the six-year, $34 million contract was worth it for the still-thrifty Coyotes.
FINANCIAL FREEDOM: The trade deadline without an owner was often a dead period for the Coyotes. They just didn’t have the resources to pull off a big deal and last year ended up making deals to dump salary, trading off Raffi Torres, Steve Sullivan and Matthew Lombardi. That could change this season. Though Gosbee and LeBlanc won’t jolt the Coyotes to the top of the league’s big spenders—they figure to be middle of the pack—they will spend money if a move will make the team better.
DEFENSIVE DOGS: Phoenix’s calling card under Tippett has been defence and the Coyotes should again put up a wall at the blue line. Phoenix’s top four of Keith Yandle, Derek Morris, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek is among the best in the league. The Coyotes also have Rostislav Klesla, Michael Stone, who had a strong finish in 2012-13, David Rundblad and Brandon Gormley, so there’s plenty of depth.
WHERE’S THE O?: As has been the case for years, the big question in the desert will be where will the offence come from? The Coyotes took a big step by signing Ribeiro, but still don’t have a lot of depth up front. Radim Vrbata has had some solid scoring seasons and captain Shane Doan can still find the net, but Phoenix still will likely have to out-grindopponents instead of out-scoring them.