GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Phoenix Coyotes went into the 2010-11 season with an uncertain future, a roster not a whole lot different than the year before and very little financial flexibility.
The future doesn't look any clearer headed into this season, but the roster and the bottom line are looking better.
Building off consecutive playoff appearances despite having no owner, the Coyotes were busy in the off-season, locking up key young players and adding several veterans—and still have some money left to work with in case they need to bring in someone else.
"It's different than last year," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "We have room to add a good player right now—we're significantly under what the NHL approved—so in that sense, we're in great shape."
The Coyotes have done well on the ice the past seasons, reaching the playoffs despite being run by the NHL while the ownership saga played out.
Now they want to take the next step.
Ousted in the first round each of the past two seasons, including last year's disappointing sweep by Detroit, the Coyotes want to reach the next tier, become one of those teams that make consistent deep runs in the playoffs.
They certainly were aggressive in their approach.
Phoenix locked up several of its key young players, signing all-star defenceman Keith Yandle to a long-term deal, along with forwards Radim Vrbata, Lauri Korpikoski and Mikkel Boedker. The Coyotes also were aggressive in bringing in new players, adding goalie Mike Smith, veteran forwards Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon, along with signing Hoby Baker Award winner Andy Miele.
The Coyotes also traded for forward Daymond Langkow, who will likely be reunited with captain Shane Doan on the top line, giving the team even more veteran influence.
"I think we've got a lot of depth, character, skill, a good mix of that," said Langkow, who played for Phoenix from 2001-04 before being traded to Calgary and back. "As long as we stay healthy as a team, I think we'll be all right."
Goaltending is a key for every team, but it will be under the microscope a little more in Phoenix after the team wasn't able to re-sign free agent Ilya Bryzgalov.
The Russian goalie was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2009-10 and one of the Coyotes' top off-season priorities after going 36-20-10 with a 2.48 goals-against average last season. Talks between the two sides never got very far, though, and Phoenix traded his rights off to Philadelphia, where Bryzgalov signed a massive deal.
That leaves the goalkeeping duties in the hands of Smith and Jason LaBarbara, Bryzgalov's backup last season.
A big goalie known for his creatively painted masks, Smith fought injuries as Dwayne Roloson's backup in Tampa Bay last season, going 13-6-1 with a 2.90 goals-against average in 22 games. He played 83 games the previous two seasons with the Lightning and was a backup for current Coyotes coach Dave Tippett in Dallas from 2006-08.
Smith will compete with LaBarbara, another big goalie who went 15-11-4 in two years as Bryzgalov's backup after stints with three other teams.
"Obviously, our goaltending has to be good for us to do well this year, but (I'm) very confident with the depth in goaltending," Maloney said.
Playing better defence in front of the goal will certainly help whoever plays between the pipes.
Often lamented for their lack of offence, the Coyotes were actually better on that end last season. What Tippett and Maloney both want is for them to be better defensively.
Too often last season, the Coyotes relied on Bryzgalov to bail them out, giving up odd-man rushes and open shots on goal. Some of it was the push to get into the offensive zone to create chances, but there were also breakdowns that resulted in far too many good chances.
"I thought there were too many nights last year where we relied on our goaltender too much," Tippett said. "To be a very good team, you can't do that. There were games where I didn't think our defensive game was where it needed to be and that's going to be a focal point."
The ownership issue, which the Coyotes figured would have been taken care of by now, still hasn't cleared up.
Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer appeared to have a line on buying the team, only to back out when the conservative watchdog group Goldwater Institute got involved and threatened a lawsuit if a deal went through. Rumored to be headed back to Winnipeg, where the franchise moved from in 1996, the Coyotes will stay in the Valley of the Sun for at least another season after the City of Glendale forked over US$25 million for the second straight year.
Two groups, including one led by former San Jose Sharks President and CEO Greg Jamison, have put in bids to buy the team, but no deals appear to be imminent.
That leaves the Coyotes in limbo for the third straight season, trying to keep their focus on the ice while looking over their shoulder at who the owner might be and where the team might be headed, if anywhere.
"We're going to do what we do and that's play hockey," Tippett said. "All indications are still people are talking, (there's) situations that could come that would allow an owner to step in here. We're all hoping that will happen, but right now we're here to concentrate on playing hockey."
They've had plenty of practice.