Coyotes GM optimistic amid off-ice struggles

What a difference a year can make.

For Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney, the summer of 2008 was one of hope and excitement #&151; young players like Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris were poised to take the next step forward, while the acquisition of All-Star center Olli Jokinen seemed to fulfill the team’s longtime need for a No. 1 pivot.

Fast-forward one year and things seem quite different. From bankruptcy to an ugly battle for potential team ownership between the NHL and Research In Motion founder Jim Balsillie to fan uncertainty about whether the team will even remain in Phoenix, it’s as undesirable a situation as you can get.

But it’s the hand Maloney has been dealt, and he’s working it as best he can. In fact, he sees day-to-day work in most areas as status quo.

“Regarding the hockey operations department, very little has changed regarding our offseason activities,” Maloney says. “Like any other offseason, I had an operating budget approved by ownership (in this case, the NHL and a representative of [team owner Jerry] Moyes) and I worked within that budget. If issues arise outside the budget, I would require approval from both parties.”

That level of day-to-day normalcy trickles down to the entire hockey staff, from head coach Wayne Gretzky — who, despite media speculation, will be behind the bench — all the way through the locker room, including captain Shane Doan.

“Shane is a great pro and understands we can only react to what we can control,” Maloney says. “Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding the Coyote franchise at this time, we will ice a team, so coaching/scouting duties remain the same.”

Scouting, budgeting, preparation for free agency and training camp — all of that falls under normal parameters. But what about the areas Maloney can’t control? The franchise’s name has been dragged through ugly waters as summer hockey talk focused on money-loss figures and market-viability debates (not surprisingly, it was a pretty popular topic in Hamilton, Ontario, where Balsillie would like to move the team). The casual Phoenix-area fan might roll his eyes at the Coyotes right now, but Maloney’s vision for success hasn’t strayed: stay the course, create a winner from youth and build the fan base from the die-hards out.

“We have a very loyal fan base who believe in our program and understand we have to continue to be patient for long-term success,” he says.

Maloney quickly cites the one thing that almost always cures a team’s poor market reputation: “I believe we are a better team than a year ago and, with a big season, we will make up for all the unrest this past summer.”

More with Maloney

Check out Mike Chen’s full Q&A with Coyotes GM Don Maloney right here.

Maloney’s optimism about his roster isn’t just a message for fans; it’s also what he communicates to free agents. While the Coyotes didn’t grab any of the big names this summer, they didn’t stand pat either. Instead, key moves were made to add appropriate depth within the team’s budget.

“We feel we are close to winning, as do the free-agent players we have signed,” Maloney says. “In addition to our fantastic arena, Phoenix is one of the nicest places to live in the country, so I did not have to sell our situation, even with all the uncertainty.”

Some might scoff at Maloney’s assessment of his roster, but those folks might have forgotten the Coyotes held the No. 6 seed at last year’s All-Star break, with eyes on possibly getting home ice. That proved to be a turning point as inconsistency burst the young Coyotes’ bubble. However, young is the operative word there. While the team had veterans like Doan and Ed Jovanovski, much responsibility was given to players with little NHL experience. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride.

“We were too young and ran out of gas in the stretch drive. The bulk of our forward group was made up of first- and second-year players,” Maloney says, noting the need to give the younger guys some breathing room. “With the additions of (Radim) Vrbata, (Scottie) Upshall, (Mike) Lombardi, (Taylor) Pyatt, (Vernon) Fiddler, and (Petr) Prucha to our forward group, our young players (Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, Turris, Viktor Tikhonov, Kevin Porter) will be able to continue their maturation, yet we will not live or die based on their play.”

Is there reason for optimism? It sure seems like it, but that message gets lost in the constant headlines about dollar figures and legal notes. The ownership battle has given the team’s reputation a hard check against the glass, and many people simply forget the on-ice future is bright — and almost here. The names that Maloney cites — Mueller, Turris, Tikhonov, and others — all excelled at lower levels and have the potential to be effective NHL players for years to come.

Even if the team starts strong, the ownership battle will dominate the news as it drags through training camp and the preseason, if not longer. Considering that, it’s somewhat surprising the lone outside bidder hasn’t even attempted to reach out to Maloney or the team’s hockey staff.

“I have not had communication with the Balsillie group. I have met with both the Reinsdorf and Ice Edge Holding groups, but on a general basis rather than specific operating methodology,” Maloney says.

Of course, both of those bids dropped out, but Maloney can take some solace in knowing both groups felt the team was on the right track and supported his long-term plan. Should the NHL win control of the franchise, Maloney will have to deal with yet another group as the league tries to sell the team on its own terms. Should Balsillie take over, it remains uncertain what direction the founder of the company that makes the Blackberry would want to take.

In the meantime, Maloney stays focused on what he can control, namely the direction of the team on the ice.

“We will improve in many small areas (faceoffs, penalty-killing, goals-against) while our young players continue to physically and mentally mature,” Maloney says.

He sees the team’s roster as a product of inherent talent, coachable skills and patience, all leading to a cautiously optimistic view of the 2009-10 season — or as Maloney simply puts it: “I am excited about this team and our playoff chances this season.”