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