Maloney and Tippett making it work in Phoenix

Perched on a seat well above the ice, Phoenix Coyotes general

manager Don Maloney peers down as the tip of his reading glasses

rests between his lips, occasionally putting them on to glance at

the papers piled in his lap.

At the bottom of the arena, coach Dave Tippett barks out orders

and shouts encouragement to the players swirling around him,

sporadically mixing in digs when someone does something wrong.

Two men, separated by about 30 rows of seats, have turned one of

the most difficult situations in sports into a success story by

working closely together.

With Maloney finding players who fit the team’s needs and

financial constraints and Tippett getting them to buy into a

we’re-in-this-together approach, the Coyotes have created a buzz in

the hockey world and a once-moribund fan base by reaching the

Western Conference finals in their third season without an

owner.

”Obviously, they’re doing something right,” All-Star

defenseman Keith Yandle said after Phoenix’s practice on Thursday.

”I don’t know what they talk about when they’re together, but they

know how to put together a hockey team.”

How they’ve done it is what makes what Maloney and Tippett have

done special.

The past decade has been difficult for the Coyotes, from the

four non-playoff seasons with Wayne Gretzky as coach to the

bankruptcy filing in 2009 that led to the NHL buying the team.

The search for a new owner was supposed to be relatively quick,

but instead turned into three years of failed hopes and deals.

Caught in the middle were Maloney and Tippett, left to build a

team without the financial or organizational support of an

owner.

With the NHL holding the purse strings, the Coyotes didn’t have

the money to pursue big-name free agents or make blockbuster

trades. Even when they’ve had a line on a player, they sometimes

had to convince him Phoenix was a good fit and that the ownership

issue wouldn’t interfere with success.

There also were limitations in marketing and corporate

sponsorships, along with uncertainty about the team’s future in the

desert that weighed on everyone in the organization while creating

a blase attitude among the fans.

Maloney and Tippett made it work with a like-minded approach,

the general manager finding players that fit Tippett’s system and

the budget, the coach getting them to buy into an all-as-one

attitude.

It’s worked.

The Coyotes have reached the playoffs all three years the duo

has been together and this season earned the team’s first division

title. They also reached the playoffs’ second round for the first

time since 1987 and will play the Los Angeles Kings in the Western

Conference finals starting Sunday night, marking the farthest the

team has gotten in 33 years in the NHL.

”I think we have a very similar viewpoint for what it’s going

to take for us to win,” Maloney said. ”That’s what makes it a

good partnership.”

Maloney and Tippett were teammates with the Hartford Whalers in

the 1980s and nearly reunited in 2000, when Maloney was assistant

general manager with the New York Rangers. Tippett instead went to

Dallas – he took the job before the Rangers had a chance to call

him back – where he won two Pacific Division titles and led the

Stars to the 2008 Western Conference finals.

Tippett was fired in 2009 and when it became clear Gretzky

wouldn’t be returning to Phoenix, Maloney immediately called

him.

”It seemed like a perfect fit,” Maloney said.

Still does.

Hired nine days before the 2009-10 season, Tippett led Phoenix

to 50 wins and 107 points to break team records and into the

playoffs for the first time since 2002. He was named the NHL’s

coach of the year after the season and last year led the Coyotes

back into the playoffs despite a slew of injuries.

Playing without an owner for the third straight season, Tippett

again was Phoenix’s rock this season, his even-keel approach

rubbing off on the never-flustered Coyotes, who again fought

through injuries, a brutal first-half schedule and more ownership

uncertainty to get back into the playoffs.

Tippett has been a master tactician once the playoffs started,

bogging down Chicago and Nashville with his close-to-the-vest style

to keep the games close while juggling lines to find combinations

that work with players out due to injuries or suspensions.

But beyond his technical skills – he’s known as one of the NHL’s

best defensive coaches – Tippett’s success lies in his ability to

get players to buy into what he’s selling.

A stickler for the details, he doesn’t hesitate to tell a player

when he’s done something wrong, but doesn’t need histrionics to get

his point across. He’s a straight shooter who also happens to be a

player’s coach, someone who talks to his players not down at

them.

Tippett’s method has earned him respect from the players,

illustrated by their effort and belief in his system.

”You look at what he’s done with our team, he’s taken us from

the basement to the top of the league,” Yandle said. ”I’m sure

every team will tell you that they don’t like playing against us,

especially in the regular season. You’ve got to tip your hat to Tip

with the way he’s been able to come in here and take over this team

and get us where we want to be.”

If Tippett has been the director of this developing blockbuster,

Maloney was the producer.

Hired in 2007 after working 10 years in the Rangers’ front

office, Maloney has held one of the most unenviable positions in

hockey and managed to keep his head up the whole way.

Understanding he didn’t have the resources that other teams in

the league had, Maloney turned his attention toward players who

would fit into Tippett’s tight-checking style. Character,

competitiveness, work ethic, intelligence – those were the things

Maloney looked for while searching for new players. If they had

some talent, too, all the better.

Maloney had been shrewd with the moves he’s made, trading

without giving up the future to get key contributors like Radim

Vrbata, Daymond Langkow, Derek Morris and Rostislav Klesla. He’s

also made a few under-the-radar pickups through free agency,

including defenseman Adrian Aucoin and forwards Raffi Torres and

Boyd Gordon.

The NHL’s general manager of the year in 2009-10, Maloney made

some of his best moves this season, picking up goalie Mike Smith to

replace Ilya Bryzgalov and Antoine Vermette in a midseason

trade.

Smith, considered a question mark before the season, has emerged

as one of the NHL’s best goalies in his first season as an

undisputed No. 1 and Vermette has led the Coyotes in scoring in the

playoffs after being acquired from Columbus in a trade-deadline

deal that didn’t attract much attention at the time.

”I really respect everything he’s done because it’s a hard go

under tough circumstances,” Tippett said. ”He’s the one who has

to deal with all the off-ice circumstances to try to convince a

player to come here, which is a lot harder than my job of telling

them to forecheck a certain way. I give him full credit. He’s

certainly the backbone of what we’re trying to do here and kept

everything going in the right direction.”

The future does look good for the Coyotes.

They’re deeper in the playoffs than they’ve ever been, fans are

excited about hockey in the desert again and there’s a prospective

new owner in former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.

And with Maloney and Tippett running the show, there’s no reason

to think it won’t get better from here.