Coyotes will again be value shopping in free agency

Coyotes fans should not expect the team to go after big-name free agents like names like Thomas Vanek (above), Marian Gaborik or even Ales Hemsky.

Brad Penner/Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Coyotes general manager Don Maloney still awaits a payroll budget from the team’s ownership group, but in a conference call this week he made it clear one season of new ownership will not drastically alter the team’s operating philosophy.

When approaching free agency, Maloney said the Coyotes must continue to look at "mix and chemistry and character and maybe sacrifice some talent and skill and look for value. We’re really going to have to be patient."

Co-owner Anthony LeBlanc at last week’s town hall meeting said he would not be surprised to see a bump in the team’s payroll this season. But it won’t be significant enough to raise the Coyotes among the league’s higher-spending teams.

"I think it’s fair to say we’ll be toward the bottom portion of the league," Maloney said.

It would be a surprise if defensemen Connor Murphy and Brandon Gormley do not make the club out of training camp. That should settle the blue line depth along with Oliver-Ekman Larsson, Zbynek Michalek, Keith Yandle, Michael Stone, David Schlemko and Chris Summers. Although the team may need to find a new backup goalie or promote one of their prospects (less likely this season) if Thomas Greiss signs elsewhere, goalie Mike Smith returns, so the main changes will come up front, where the Coyotes need to find more offense.

Both Maloney and coach Dave Tippett mentioned Portland prospects Lucas Lessio, Tyler Gaudet and Tobias Rieder as possibilities at the town hall meeting. Last year’s top pick, Max Domi, also should get a very good chance to make the club.

But when it comes to free agency, the Coyotes likely won’t pursue the bigger names like Thomas Vanek, Marian Gaborik or even Ales Hemsky, if that $5.5 million asking price persists. Price is clearly a factor, but Maloney also preached the desire to get players on the right side of 30 years old. 

Maybe the team will try to re-sign free agent Radim Vrbata or find another player in the next tier of free agents. But the Coyotes have to juggle their financial restraints and desire to build a solid foundation with an impatient fan base that won’t stomach a third straight playoff-less season

More Coyotes

"There’s not one or two players that we could add that would magically take our season ticket base up to 15- or 16,000, where we know it has to be to have sustainable success," Maloney said. "It’s a work in progress."

So Maloney will straddle a line he has straddled for most, if not all of his tenure as Coyotes GM.

"We can’t look at our group now and say we’re going to turn around and play in the finals," he said. "But we think if we make the right decisions, we can be a playoff team next year. And once we get there, just like we saw a couple years ago, anything can happen."

The Coyotes promoted Tim Bernhardt to director of amateur scouting, and Jeff Twohey to assistant director of amateur scouting this week. Bernhardt, who had held Twohey’s new postion, replaces Rick Knickle, who was fired after the season ended.

"I think Rick is a good talent evaluator, however I just felt he wasn’t suited in the head role of running a staff," general manager Don Maloney said. "After watching for a couple years I wasn’t satisfied with his performance. 

"I’ve known Tim for a long time. He’™s obviously a natural person to promote to run our staff. If you look at his track record, he did a real good job with Dallas acquiring assets, and that’s what we think he can do for us."

Bernhardt, 56, worked for the Dallas Stars from 1993 through 2011 and was their director of scouting for the final 14 years. Among the draft picks he oversaw were Steve Ott (2000), Mike Smith (2001), Jussi Jokinen (2001), Trevor Daley (2002), Loui Eriksson (2003), James Neal (2005), Matt Niskanen (2005) and Jamie Benn (2007).

Twohey, 53, spent the past two seasons as general manager of the Oshawa Generals. He served as an amateur scout for the Coyotes from 2010 to 2012.

Maloney said Bernhardt has been "very" involved in preparations for the upcoming NHL Draft, June 27-28 in Philadelphia, in which the Coyotes hold the No. 12 pick in the first round.

"The thing about the draft is you’re not always going to mine gold in the first round," Bernhardt said. "You’re going to have your misses there, but the key is the body of work and to try to work through seven rounds of the draft because there are players there and you just have to find them. That’™s what we did in Dallas and that’™s what I’m most proud of.

"There’s players that we’re looking at (with the 12th pick) and we’re confident in those players. We’ll be happy to get any of them, and maybe if they’™re all there then maybe you move back. We have a good group of players in behind them that we’re confident with."

Maloney said last week the Coyotes are open to moving down in the first round and picking up additional picks.

Maloney is part of the NHL’s competition committee for the first time in his career. At the GM meetings this week in New York, several rules tweaks or changes were posed that still need approval from the NHL Board of Governors and the Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association. If approved, the rules would go into effect next season.

The recommendations include changes to the rules for overtime, faceoffs after icings, amendments to the separation of the hash marks outside faceoff circles and increasing the size of the trapezoid behind the net.

— The overtime rule would require teams to change ends after regulation in order to create the long-change effect that exists in the second period. In the second period, teams have to defend the goal farthest from their bench. Historically, there have been more goals scored in the second period of games because of defensive breakdowns and difficulty getting tired players off the ice because of the distance they need to travel to make a line change on the fly.

— The hash marks on the outside of the in-zone faceoff circles would be extended from 3.5 feet to 5 feet apart — the dimensions used by the International Ice Hockey Federation.

— Only one player would be eligible to take a faceoff after an icing to eliminate stall tactics employed by the tired defensive team, which often sends a wing into the faceoff circle to deliberately commit an infraction and buy rest time for his club because teams are not allowed to make line changes after icing the puck. The faceoff-eligible player would be allowed one faceoff violation, but a second violation would result in a two-minute bench minor penalty for delay of game.

— The trapezoid, which is currently 18 feet along the goal line, would be increased to 22 feet along the goal line to allow goaltenders more room to play the puck. Coyotes goalie Mike Smith is one of the best puck handlers at his position, so he is a big fan of this change.

"Yes, I’m in favor of them removing the trapezoid completely!" Smith quipped via text message. "Was that the question?"

Despite some highly publicized instances during the postseason (and Smith’s well-publicized views on the topic), the committee did not recommend expanding video review to include goals scored on plays that might involve goalie interference.

Maloney said this week that no hire is imminent for the vacant assistant GM post, a stance reaffirmed by Coyotes spokesperson Rich Nairn on Thursday. Maloney has confirmed that there is one leading candidate that, as of June 6, had been the only person interviewed. That person is believed to be former Sabers GM Darcy Regier, but Maloney has declined to name the candidate.

With no GM posts open, it is unclear what might be holding up the process, whether money or Regier pondering another job, but if it doesn’t work out, Maloney said there are four or five other potential candidates.

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter