Steve Reinprecht, Ken Klee, Dmitri Kalinin and Brian McGrattan don’t exactly represent a Murderer’s Row of potential unrestricted free agents. In fact, the Phoenix Coyotes could probably continue to lose millions of dollars and be irrelevant in their own market without those guys in the lineup.
But what about Jay Bouwmeester, Marian Hossa, the Sedin twins or Martin Havlat? Well, if the Coyotes ever had designs on signing any of those kinds of players, they almost certainly went up in a cloud of smoke when the team thumbed its nose at the NHL and went to bankruptcy court last week.
Of all the rhetoric we’ve heard surrounding the Coyotes in the past weeks, almost nothing has been made of what happens to this team’s fortunes on the ice. For all their financial peril, the Coyotes are considered to be a pretty good young team and there’s ample documentation to back that up. Based largely upon the strength of the young players who are already in the lineup, the ’Yotes finished second in the team rankings in this season’s annual THN Future Watch edition with an overall grade of ‘A.’
Defense prospect Maxim Goncharov was identified as No. 21 on THN’s list of the top 50 NHL-affiliated prospects outside the NHL and left winger Brett MacLean finished 42nd on the list. Toss in the sixth overall selection in this year’s draft in June and you have the makings of some promising young talent on the roster.
Certainly not a Stanley Cup contender immediately – or maybe even ever – but the Coyotes certainly have some good on-ice vibes going under new GM Don Maloney after the scorched-earth policy employed by former GM Mike Barnett.
Sadly, though, there is almost no possibility, at least in the short-term, that the Coyotes will be able to do anything to make themselves better. What these young players need now more than anything is a couple of proven veterans who can teach them how to win. But what UFA in his right mind would want to go to Phoenix and jump into this hornet’s nest?
I’m no lawyer or bankruptcy expert, but I have to think this saga will not be resolved very quickly. Whichever side loses will appeal and stonewall the other at every turn and the Coyotes’ on-ice fortunes are almost certain to suffer for it. And if there’s a perception that Phoenix is a lame-duck team with no chance for significant improvement, the problem just deepens.
And what of Phoenix’s restricted free agents? Going into the summer, the Coyotes have to decide on the futures of Scottie Upshall, Nigel Dawes, Keith Yandle, Enver Lisin, Daniel Winnik, Petr Prucha and Joakim Lindstrom. You’d have to think Maloney’s ability to come to deals with those players will be hindered by the fact that, for the foreseeable future, nobody really knows who ‘hones the team.’ (Obscure Slap Shot reference.)
The Coyotes currently have about $31.4 million committed to salaries for next season. But one of the cruel ironies of the collective bargaining agreement is that cap space is reserved for those who can least use it. Having an upper limit of $56.7 million is hardly an issue for the Coyotes, who obviously are overextended even in meeting the salary floor of $40.7 million, an amount that isn’t expected to go down appreciably in the short term even with the financial problems the league faces. Call it the Coyotes’ worst CBA fears realized.
The Coyotes have a decent young nucleus consisting of Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhonov and some decent help on the way, but if Phoenix has to start dumping high salaries such as those belonging to Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski and Ilya Bryzgalov, their development will be stunted even further. It’s great to have young talent, but they have to be shown the way because young players can learn how to lose just as easily as they can learn how to win.
It’s too bad, too, because as more teams get crunched at the upper end of the salary cap, there’s probably going to be some significant talent out there in free agency looking for a team with cap space where they can land. Under most other circumstances, Phoenix would be a desirable destination – not so much scrutiny, golf on off days – but not now.
No matter what happens to Phoenix in the long term, the players who are on the roster will be unaffected. They are professionals, the best players in the world and something like uncertainty over the long-term fortunes of the team likely won’t affect what they do when they step on the ice. But as long as the Coyotes are a mess, there won’t be much help coming in the way of players who would have a choice over their futures.
Suffice it to say, we shouldn’t expect the Coyotes to be active players in the free agency market this summer, unless of course, Jim Balsillie somehow gains control of the team and carries through in his plans to move the Dogs to Hamilton.
That will all begin to sort itself out when bankruptcy court resumes Thursday. But it will be a long while before the Coyotes situation is resolved and they can get on with the business of building a hockey team.
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Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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