Maloney, Coyotes a piece away from elite?

Maloney has built foundation for Coyotes with shrewd moves, but to be elite, one thing is needed.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — If Don Maloney were the general manager of the Suns, Diamondbacks or Cardinals, he’d be a rock star in the Valley. He’s photogenic, he’s likeable, he’s refreshingly candid for a man in his position and, most important, he’s very good at his job.

In five seasons as the Coyotes' GM, he has distinguished himself with a litany of shrewd financial moves, his ability to manage a tight cap yet still field a competitive team, and his ability to find hidden gems through trades or free agency.

Maloney was criticized in most corners for allowing goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to walk in free agency while he grabbed Mike Smith off the discount rack to replace him. We all know how that worked out, but the list of similar moves is staggering when viewed in its entirety.

Ray Whitney, Antoine Vermette, Rusty Klesla, Boyd Gordon and Lauri Korpikoski are just a few of the recent success stories beyond Smith. Clearly, Dave Tippett’s coaching staff and the players themselves have contributed to this success, but that just highlights another bullet point in the pro-Maloney column: He has a great relationship with Tippett -- a true partnership that is largely void of egos and power plays. The two respect each other, and because of that, they have brought this franchise to new heights, making them the best GM/coach tandem this organization has ever known.

There is a price to pay for all this success, however. Maloney has helped whet the Coyotes fans' collective appetite. Fresh (well, not as fresh as we might have been) off an appearance in the Western Conference final, the fan base is hungering for more. For the first time in a long while, there are expectations for the Coyotes beyond simply winning a playoff series.

Maloney has done wonders filling in the gaps on this roster, and the deal for center Matthew Lombardi on Wednesday was just another example. At a prorated salary of about $1.1 million (the Maple Leafs are picking up the rest), the Coyotes believe they have a top-six forward at a bargain price.

Lombardi missed 80 games two seasons ago with a neck issue and had a dreadful season in Toronto last year. But Maloney feels he was misused and was still working his way back into shape after essentially missing a season. Maloney also feels Tippett can recapture the magic Lombardi had here in one-plus seasons (2008-10) and a terrific playoff series against Detroit.

“That’s the key to this deal,” Maloney said. “The long and short of it is we just knew we had a little more insight than maybe the next team.”

With playoff success now a part of the resume, the Coyotes need to take the next step. And that brings us to a difficult-to-answer question: Is it time for Maloney to swing for the fences, to reach for the big-ticket item that will, fair or not, define the next stage of his stewardship?

There is a strong argument to be made that the Coyotes still need another elite talent up front to truly become Cup contenders. The loss of Whitney, the club’s leading scorer last season (77 points), only highlights this need. Steve Sullivan may prove to be another of those deft Maloney moves. Replacing Taylor Pyatt with David Moss, bringing back Zbynek Michalek and salvaging something out of the Kyle Turris debacle (David Rundblad) may be three more.

But where will the Coyotes find the scoring to take them to the next level? Shane Doan is a year older, Mikkel Boedker is still just 23 and Sullivan hasn’t topped 51 points in his last four seasons. Radim Vrbata clearly loves the Valley, but it’s too much to ask him to carry the offense like he and Whitney did for long stretches last season.

Lombardi may help in that regard if he can recapture his previous form. The Coyotes would be enviably deep at center and would possess great speed with Lombardi, Korpikoski, Boedker and others. But would that be enough?

Until Greg Jamison buys this team, it is, of course, a moot point. The lockout, the lack of ownership and the Coyotes’ continued cap constraints have handcuffed Maloney's efforts.  

“Would we like to add a 50-goal guy? Sure, I’d take that, too,” Maloney said. “If they can come at league minimum, that’s about the only way we can afford them.”

With Lombardi in the fold, the Coyotes can probably afford to wait until the trade deadline and evaluate their personnel for deficiencies. They’ve got solid depth up front, their blue line is one of the best in the league and Smith was arguably the NHL’s best goaltender from start to finish last season.

But if Jamison does, indeed, buy this team in the next couple weeks, and if he does infuse the added money he has hinted he will, Maloney may finally shed those maddening manacles. At that point, we will finally find out if Dealer Don is the total package.

Or maybe he will have already proved it by then.

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