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Cash-strapped Coyotes won't splurge on free agents

PHOENIX - Phoenix Coyotes general manager Don Maloney wishes he had a larger budget for next season.

What general manager doesn't?

The NHL and owner Jerry Moyes have been battling in bankruptcy court, but Maloney said representatives of the league and Moyes have agreed on a payroll that will allow the financially strapped team to be competitive.

"Would you like another 'X' amount of millions to maybe be available? Sure," Maloney told The Associated Press this week. "There's enough room in this budget to put a good team on the ice, and to continue to get better."

Maloney wouldn't disclose his projected payroll for 2009-10, but it's expected to be in line with last year's payroll, estimated at about US$43 million.

Even before the team filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, the Coyotes were not expected to be big players when NHL free agency opened on Wednesday. The club has been sticking to its latest plan to develop draft choices, who typically cost less than proven NHL veterans.

"We're not going to be able to go out and grab that scorer who is an all-star," Maloney said. "We have to develop that All-Star ourselves."

Later Wednesday, Maloney announced that the Coyotes had signed centre Vern Fiddler to a two-year contract.

The 29-year-old Fiddler had 11 goals and six assists in 77 games last season for the Nashville Predators. Fiddler has played in 305 NHL games over six seasons, all with Nashville, and has 45 career goals and 48 assists.

Then, Phoenix signed goaltender Jason LaBarbera to a two-year contract. As per club policy, terms of the deal were not disclosed.

LaBarbera, 29, posted a record of 8-10-6 with a 2.78 goals against average, a .901 save percentage and two shutouts in 28 games last season with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks.

After beginning the season with Los Angeles, LaBarbera was traded to Vancouver on Dec. 30, 2008 and went on to post a 3-2-2 record with a 2.66 GAA and a .915 in nine games with the Canucks.

In 107 career NHL games with the New York Rangers, Los Angeles and Vancouver, LaBarbera has compiled a record of 37-44-10 with a 2.97 GAA, a .902 SV% and four shutouts.

Maloney said he's been able to go about his business this summer despite the bankruptcy proceedings and a looming sale. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Maloney "has not been handcuffed by this process.

"Don has come forward with player budgets, operating budgets that were consistent with his long-term vision and plan," Daly said during a visit to the Coyotes' training facility this week.

"He's had no pushback, either from the Moyes group or the National Hockey League, so I would say that he's been given the latitude to execute on the plan he has for the growth of this franchise."

Maloney dismissed the notion that the Coyotes' personnel decisions have been dictated by finances.

"There has not been a mandate to pare down and nickel-and-dime anything," Maloney said. "We have to be prudent in what we spend, but we're no different than a lot of teams. There are a lot of teams in this league that are doing exactly what we are."

After signing a series of free-agent busts, the Coyotes decided to rebuild through the draft, a sometimes painful process. This year they focused on defence and toughness.

"We had drafted a lot of skill over the last few years," Maloney said. "We just thought, let's get some fight in here, draft some players who will go through the wall for you."

Phoenix also acquired three defencemen in trades, including 29-year-old veteran Jim Vandermeer from the Calgary Flames.

The Coyotes tied for 13th in the 15-team Western Conference last season. After a chaotic offseason, expectations figure to be just as low next season.

"We're a lot better than people give us credit for," Maloney said. "There's so much negativity around, everybody's going to pick us for dead last. It's going to be a key time for us to develop these players."


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