The playoff push is officially on in Phoenix.
The NHL-owned Coyotes became buyers at Wednesday’s trade deadline, bringing in five players while only losing one regular from their roster.
It was an extremely busy day for GM Don Maloney, who woke up in the early morning hours worried he might get shut out of the action. When all was said and done, he’d added veteran defencemen Derek Morris and Mathieu Schneider along with forwards Wojtek Wolski, Lee Stempniak and Petteri Nokelainen.
“We still need to win games … that’s really what it was all about,” Maloney said on a conference call. “We look at our roster now and say, ‘You know what, this is a legitimate team.’ We still have to rely on our strengths – it is great goaltending and strong defensive play.
“We think we match up with most teams in the conference out here.”
The Coyotes entered play Wednesday sitting fifth overall in the Western Conference – putting them on the cusp of their first playoff berth since 2002.
Morris was around for many of the tough times, spending parts of five seasons in Phoenix before being traded away at last year’s deadline. He waived a no-movement clause to pave the way for this deal and knows how important it is the team ends its long playoff drought.
“The (fans) that follow hockey there are passionate about hockey, they love their team through thick and thin,” said Morris. “Obviously, when things go bad anywhere, you don’t get quite the fan support that you feel you deserve. The people that have been there and went through the hard times have always been there, they’re passionate.
“I think it would be a nice reward for them to see that team in the playoffs and I think the support’s going to grow from there.”
Given all of the uncertainty the team went through while in bankruptcy court over the summer, few would have guessed it would be an active deadline day buyer. But the group has thrived under coach Dave Tippett, who now has a few more pieces to fit into the puzzle.
Maloney said that he didn’t have to receive permission from the NHL before making any of the moves because he was able to stay under the budget established for him by deputy commissioner Bill Daly at the beginning of the season.
The salary he added comes mostly from four players with expiring contracts: Stempniak (US$3.5 million), Morris ($3.3 million) and Wolski ($3.1 million) and Schneider ($1.55 million). The team will only be on the hook for the portion of those salaries owed over the final six weeks of the season.
“We’ve been very frugal with our payroll up to the trade deadline,” said Maloney.
He didn’t surrender any high-level picks or top-drawer prospects to make the deals: Wolski arrived from Colorado for forwards Peter Mueller and Kevin Porter; Morris was acquired from Boston for a conditional draft pick in 2011; Stempniak came from Toronto for defenceman Matt Jones and fourth-and seventh-round picks; Nokelainen arrived from Anaheim for a conditional sixth-round pick; and Schneider was acquired from Vancouver for prospect Sean Zimmerman and a conditional sixth-round pick.
The biggest name in that group is Wolski, the 24-year-old who will likely be given a spot on the team’s top line.
“It was the one name that made a tremendous amount of sense,” said Maloney. “Quite frankly, he’s a guy that we can stick into our lineup tomorrow night, he’s a proven scorer in this league, still young, still maturing, still evolving.
“In my mind, you can put 50 points on a bad year into the books with Wojtek. I think there’s tremendous upside there.”
There seems to be a lot of upside with the Coyotes in general.
Maloney noted that it’s no secret the team has to qualify for the playoffs and thought the trades were necessary to ensure that it happens.
“These are all playoff games – the next 17, 18 games,” he said. “(The deals were made with) the idea that we just don’t have the luxury of a learning curve here. I like the mix, I like the group.”