GLENDALE, Ariz. — Don Maloney’s face was a mixture of fatigue and disappointment as he walked down the hallway in Jobing.com Arena to grab a bite to eat shortly after the NHL’s trade deadline had passed. Hump day had come and gone without any further moves from the Coyotes general manager.
There would be no big-time scorer to add to a group struggling to find the net. There would be no shutdown left defenseman to placate his coaching staff. There would be no big splash to signal the Coyotes’ arrival among the big-boy spenders.
"It was not for lack of effort," said Maloney, who joked about the impact of his lack of sleep the past few days to reporters at a press conference. "I’m fossilizing as we speak here."
If you were underwhelmed by the Coyotes’ deadline moves, you were probably in the majority. Nothing about the addition of Martin Erat suggests that Phoenix is ready to take a seat at the table with the Western Conference’s superpowers.
But here’s why it went down the way it did, and here’s why there is still reason for optimism.
First and foremost, the Coyotes were in play on a couple of big names Wednesday. Maloney would not and cannot name them, but NHL sources confirmed the Coyotes made a strong push for Edmonton forward Ales Hemsky and were also in on the bid for New York Islanders forward Thomas Vanek.
Hemsky went to Ottawa for third- and fifth-round draft picks; Vanek went to Montreal for a 2014 conditional second-round draft pick and Swedish forward prospect Sebastian Collberg. Those prices seem cheap for top-end talent, but there are other factors to consider
The Coyotes acquired a second-round draft pick on Tuesday for defenseman David Rundblad and minor leaguer Mathieu Brisebois. That is believed to be what the Coyotes offered for Hemsky, but Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish’s decision to accept two lower picks might have been influenced by rivalry.
Hemsky is a Czech, and the Coyotes have four of those already. If they had acquired him, there was a fair chance they could have re-signed him when he became an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The prospect of facing a former teammate five times a year might have made MacTavish think twice about further pursuit of a deal with the Coyotes.
With Vanek, the Coyotes believed, as many teams did, that a first-round pick was a necessity in the deal. That was a non-starter for an organization that desperately needs to build more organizational depth, particularly at the forward position.
The return on Vanek was not what the Islanders hoped, and that will surely open GM Garth Snow up to criticism since he gave up a first-round pick and Matt Moulson to land Vanek earlier this season, then appeared to make a last-ditch effort for a return.
The Coyotes had little confidence they could re-sign Vanek at the end of the season, which gives you better insight into why they did what they did.
"When we were talking about those players, it was strictly on a rental basis with the idea that maybe we’ll have a chance to re-sign them," said Maloney, again declining to name names. "That’s really where the cutoff line was. There’s a certain point where you say ‘OK, what are you going to pay for a rental?’ What are you going to pay for a guy we can try and re-sign?’
"We’re very cautious of overspending in that area for purely rentals."
The good news for the fan base is that the Coyotes were willing to spend more money. When Maloney approached co-owner Anthony LeBlanc with the players they were considering and the cost involved, LeBlanc called the executive committee for a response.
"The process was very encouraging. You walk in, 10 minutes later you get an answer, and it was the right answer," Maloney said. "It gives me hope that there’s going to be more available to us going forward if we do the job."
LeBlanc confirmed that that was the case when Maloney approached him.
"It wouldn’t have been as big of a deal if it hadn’t involved draft picks," LeBlanc said. "We would have been OK if we had to go deeper into our wallet, but giving up draft picks is a big deal, especially when with some of the players we were discussing, we felt strongly that we wouldn’t be able to re-sign them."
LeBlanc said Maloney actually had to calm the ownership group’s zeal for a deal.
"We’ve got a group of Type-A guys who don’t like losing," he said. "If it hadn’t been for Don we probably would have bought everything. The ownership group was prepared to not be very smart today, but Don really took us through the process and taught us something."
Would the Coyotes have acted differently had they known Vanek could be had for a second-round pick and a prospect? Maybe, but they aren’t exactly bursting at the seams with expendable forward prospects (which Montreal provided for New York). In fact, they need to build that stock.
"The other reality is that is we aren’t the youngest team in the NHL, so those picks are even more important to us," LeBlanc said. "Our average age is higher than the NHL average."
It’s also important to note that the teams that made big splashes on Wednesday are teams that are preparing for playoff runs. It’s every fan’s fantasy to see their team making a Cup run, but realistically, the Coyotes aren’t quite ready for that yet.
But the club did improve its chances of making the playoffs by adding Erat, the long-sought wing for the Martin Hanzal-Radim Vrbata line. If you accept the notion that there are five teams competing for the eighth and final playoff spot — a belief bolstered by the current standings and the distance Los Angeles and Minnesota have opened on those five teams with matching five-game winning streaks — then the Coyotes moves compare favorably to the other four.
Vancouver is in freefall and dealt away goalie Roberto Luongo on Tuesday. Nashville also appears to be in sell mode, having dealt original Predator David Legwand to Detroit. Dallas traded defenseman and leader Stephane Robidas without adding anything significant, and Winnipeg just lost second-line center Mark Scheifele for six to eight weeks with what appears to be a knee injury.
That may be small solace for a fan base that was hoping for so much more, but with so much speculation swirling on whether the Coyotes would be sellers at the deadline, the first-year ownership group made a commitment to something else. They made a commitment to build, and that can’t be done overnight.
"We’ve got a story to tell, and this is our story," Maloney said. We expect to be a playoff team, and if we’re not, we’re going to do something different because this is a minimal expectation for this franchise."