For the fourth straight season, the Phoenix Coyotes enter a new NHL campaign uncertain over their future in Arizona.
Prospective buyer Greg Jamison is still poised to purchase the club, with reports emerging every few weeks claiming an arena deal between him and the city of Glendale is close to finalization, yet the deal has yet to materialize, bringing no end to speculation over the club’s future.
Through it all, Coyotes GM Don Maloney continues to maintain a perennial playoff contender with one of the NHL’s lowest payrolls. In fact, at $50.1 million for 2012-13, the Coyotes have the lowest payroll. Maloney has done a marvellous job getting full value for his money. Last season was a perfect example, as the Coyotes not only advanced beyond the first round for the first time since 1987 (when they were the original Winnipeg Jets), but marched to the Western Conference final.
Since 2009-10, strong goaltending and the tight-checking defensive system of coach Dave Tippett have been the hallmarks of the Coyotes success. Last season, they had the fifth-best goals-against average (2.37) and the eighth-best penalty-kill.
Maloney’s management savvy shone through in the summer of 2011, when he signed goalie Mike Smith as a free agent from Tampa Bay to a two-year deal. Critics doubted Smith would be a suitable replacement for the departed Ilya Bryzgalov, but he rewarded the Coyotes with a stellar season, winning 38 games and carrying them to the conference final.
The Coyotes blueline lost some veteran experience this summer when Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival departed via free agency, but Maloney brought back Zbynek Michalek via trade. He’ll be a go-to defender along with talented young defensemen Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Youngsters David Rundblad, Brandon Gormley and Michael Stone are poised to become full time NHLers, providing further depth to a solid defense.
Offensively, the Coyotes still need help. Last season, they finished 18th in goals and had the second-worst power play. Their scoring depth suffered a significant blow this summer when ageless left winger Ray Whitney, who led the Coyotes in points, signed with the Dallas Stars.
Maloney replaced him with 38-year-old left winger Steve Sullivan, but Sullivan isn’t as reliable offensively as Whitney.
Retaining long-time Coyote Shane Doan will help. After spending the summer considering his options as an unrestricted free agent, Doan put his faith in the Coyotes by signing a multi-year deal.
The Coyotes also possess decent offensive forwards in centers Antoine Vermette and Martin Hanzal, right winger Radim Vrbata and promising left winger Mikkel Boedker. Still, this team lacks a true scoring star, meaning it will once again lean heavily upon its goaltending and defense to win.
Maloney would love to add more scoring punch, but the ongoing uncertainty over the club’s ownership and future in Arizona doesn’t make it a preferred destination for free agents. Even if Maloney landed a scoring star via trade, his tight budget makes it difficult to absorb a big contract.
The ownership situation also sparked an off-season rumor over Yandle’s future with the Coyotes. Though the 26-year-old blueliner has four years remaining on his five-year contract (at $5.25 million per season), some observers wonder how long they can afford to keep him, suggesting he could become trade bait for an offensive forward.
Maloney acknowledged “listening” to offers for Yandle, but still considers the talented defenseman a vital part of the Coyotes.
The uncertainty over the club’s future also put contract extension talks with Smith on hold. Both sides were reportedly interested in getting a deal done, but no moves can be made until the ownership situation is resolved.
The Coyotes are a well-managed, well-coached team with strong goaltending, an improving blueline and some good forwards, but if they’re ever going to make significant improvement to take the next step toward Stanley Cup contention, they need ownership stability.
If it can’t be found near Phoenix, it might have to be found in another city.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.