Help might not arrive for Coyotes until trade deadline
GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s no secret that the Coyotes need help.
Help for a blue line that lacks the physical presence or penalty-killing prowess required to succeed in the rugged Pacific Division. Help for the Martin Hanzal-Radim Vrbata line that has played too long without a skilled left wing. Help for a team whose pysche is as fragile as an egg. Help for an ownership group that desperately needs to capitalize on the buzz created by its purchase of the team and its summer spending spree to keep the core of the franchise intact while adding center Mike Ribeiro.
The problem? It’s not that simple to find help.
Here’s what Canucks GM Mike Gillis had to say Friday on TEAM 1040 radio in Vancouver.
"I can tell you there is very little trade discussion going on anywhere," Gillis said. "It’s difficult to make trades when you have the cap lowered and teams’ financial resources under the cap have been used up. It’s tough to find trades that you can make that are going to improve your team. It’s tough to find anything but lateral moves and changing the deck chairs."
Sure, it’s fun to bandy about names like Matt Moulson, Martin Erat, Tomas Fleischmann, Evander Kane, David Perron, Ray Whitney, Luke Schenn, Johnny Boychuck, Mark Fistric and Anton Volchenkov.
Fans are certain they know what the Coyotes need and certain they know which players would be the best fits. Unfortunately for the diehards, the guys making the decisions have few options available to them, different opinions on what will fit and a more informed analysis at their disposal.
"There are a lot of teams like us that might not be terribly happy with the way their team is playing, that might like to do something to shake it up," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said Saturday. "When you look at our record in the last little while, we could probably use a little change. But there are a number of factors that have trended this season to make it almost like football, where you see very few in-season deals.
Maloney admits it’s been a bit frustrating for a guy who has been able to help his club when it needed roster tweaks in the past.
"I wouldn’t say there’s no trade talk," he said. "There’s all kinds of talk every day. That’s all we do. We talk to other teams about who’s hot, who’s not, who’s having a problem with who, but it really is a different market.
"With the cap being artificially lowered this year (from $70.2 million, prorated, in 2012-13 to $64.3 million this season), so many teams are up against the cap, and then when you start adding in factors like contracts, contract length, age of players and the right fit on the ice and in the locker room, it’s very difficult to consummate trades."
Maloney has no idea how long the current climate will last. He’s hoping that as more teams fall off the playoff pace while others establish themselves as contenders, the market will heat up. The NHL has enacted a roster freeze from Feb. 7-23 during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, during which no trades can be made, so the flurry of activity may not come until that 10-day window between the end of the Olympics and the NHL’s March 5 trade deadline.
"If I was a betting man, I’d say yes, that will be the way it goes," Maloney said. "On one hand, you wonder if there will be more deals before the break, but then why would you do that if you have (16) days to just sit and wait?"
There are other complicating factors in finding a trade, Maloney said, including a change in philosophy on so-called bridge contracts.
"Four or five years ago, we had more younger players coming out of entry-level contracts and getting a little bump in pay, so there were more reasonably priced players," Maloney said. "Now what I’m finding is that a young player, after three years, if he’s showing flashes, he’s going right to the $4 million, $5 million, $6 million range, and that basically takes him right out of the marketplace in terms of deals."
When you look at our record in the last little while, we could probably use a little change. But there are a number of factors that have trended this season to make it almost like football, where you see very few in-season deals.
Coyotes GM Don Maloney
Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo is an example of this trend. The 23-year-old signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal ($6.5 million average) in September right off his entry-level deal in which his cap hit was $816,666. The Coyotes made a similar move with 22-year-old defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson when they signed him to a six-year extension worth $33 million last March.
"Every team seems to have two to three of these young players with significant long-term contracts. They are very difficult players to trade, which reduces the pool of available players," Maloney said. "The ability of players to get limited or full no-trade clauses in their contract at earlier UFA ages also plays a part in reducing the available player pool."
Aside from those obstacles, there are internal questions to be weighed when looking to add a player. Maloney wonders how much the return of defenseman Zbynek Michalek will stabilize a blue-line corps that has had its defensive struggles. And while everyone has been waiting for a setup man in the Ray Whitney mold to pair with Hanzal and Vrbata, the team’s purest goal scorer, the make-up of that left wing has sparked much debate from the management and coaching staffs.
"On the one hand, you say you want to bring skill in, and yet we know how we like to play and we have a certain culture here," Maloney said. "That high-end skill guy that doesn’t play well without the puck might not fit so well with us, so that further shortens the field.
"And then, when you focus on adding a player to those two guys (Hanzal and Vrbata), you realize that one of those two guys (Vrbata) is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, so if you load up and then the other guy walks out the door, what have you done?
"Hopefully we can find a way to keep Radim, but what happens if he does leave? It’s an ever-shifting puzzle. There’s more to the thought process than just immediacy."
For the most part, Maloney is working under the premise that any deals he makes must be dollar-for-dollar, but the team’s ownership has told him that if a good deal presents itself, he can bring it to them and there are additional resources available.
"We’re opportunity-driven. We’re not shy about spending some money," co-owner George Gosbee said in a recent Q&A with FOX Sports Arizona. "We’re in a very, very good position to seize on some opportunities if they come up."
But like the hand in the game of Hearts where you have to hold your cards, those deals may not be coming any time soon. And as coach Dave Tippett noted at the beginning of the season and again Saturday night, the Coyotes have to earn the right to make more deals.
"We have to get the players that are here to play much better before you can justify doing something else," he said after the team’s 5-3 loss to the Ducks. "If I walked in here and said every player I think is just maxing right out, then you say, ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got to make some changes.’ But until we get the players to max out, which is my job and what we’re supposed to be doing, that’s as far as I look right now."