GLENDALE, Ariz. - Phoenix Coyotes general manager Don Maloney faces the tough task of maintaining the momentum of last season's surprising team while dealing with the financial restrictions put in place by the NHL.
The league still owns the franchise after buying it in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last September and has given the team a budget as it faces the potential loss of several key players after the free agency signing period begins on July 1.
Maloney said he received his budget for players in a meeting last week with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Maloney said the undisclosed figure is not a lot but is "enough to make a winner."
"We'll be at the lower end of the league but it will be more than last year," Maloney said on Wednesday. "Now the trick is going to be to put a winner on the ice with what we have to work with."
Maloney, recently named the NHL's general manager of the year, worked wonders with what he had last season. With the franchise in turmoil and doubts about the team's future in the desert abounding, the Coyotes set franchise records for wins and points. The team went from playing in an empty building when the season started to a string of raucous sellouts down the stretch before Phoenix was eliminated 4-3 by Detroit in the first round of the playoffs.
The league still wants to sell to a buyer who will keep the team in Arizona.
Ice Edge Holdings, a group of Canadian and American investors, has emerged as the only candidate to do that after a group headed by Chicago sports baron Jerry Reinsdorf withdrew from contention this week. The Glendale City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to give Ice Edge 60 days to exclusively negotiate a new lease agreement for the team to play at Jobing.com Arena.
If there's a new lease, the NHL owners will decide whether to sell to Ice Edge. Glendale has pledged US$25 million to the league to cover potential losses in the coming season if the ownership issue drags on.
Meanwhile, Coyotes president Doug Moss and Maloney have a hockey franchise to operate. They talked about the situation in a "round table" luncheon with reporters on Wednesday.
The Coyotes announced they had re-signed left wing Scottie Upshall to a one-year contract. Upshall, 26, was the team's leading scorer with 18 goals and 14 assists before going down with a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 28.
However, Maloney acknowledged it is questionable whether the team can afford to re-sign defenceman Zbynek Michalek. Michalek and forward Matthew Lombardi "are well-positioned in the marketplace to be free in a month, and they can go anywhere they like," the general manager said.
"But the good thing for us, they want to stay, they want to play," Maloney said. "They'd like to get paid, everybody likes that, but I'm somewhat optimistic we'll be able to sign the players we need to sign. And if not, we'll find the right players who want to stay and play for us."
Despite the limitations, Moss and Maloney have a whole lot more to work with than he did a year ago, when then-owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy with a plan to sell it to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie over the NHL's objections. Balsillie would have moved the team to Hamilton, a plan that was rejected by a bankruptcy judge and the league emerged as the lone bidder to purchase the team.
Understandably, there was no interest in corporate sponsorship then. Now, he said, "We've learned the phone does ring."
"People are really excited," Moss said. "The Phoenix Coyotes are relevant again."
Maloney said the team can count on a strong foundation with coach Dave Tippett, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, and team captain Shane Doan.
But he knows the Coyotes can't stand pat.
"One of the concerns I have is coming back with the same team—identical," Maloney said. "What are the chances you can continue to progress forward? I think we need to bring in a little bit of new blood in certain areas, and that's what we're going to do."
It's a precarious situation. The crowds that packed Jobing.com Arena could vanish in a hurry if the Coyotes stumble out of the gate.
"We have to still show people that we're real, we're legit," Maloney said. "We expect to be better next year. We got to the playoffs, it was wonderful, great and exciting, but we didn't win in the playoffs and that's what we're here for. We're here to win."