(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
In total, 15 of the 33 players who have hit the ice for the Phoenix Coyotes this season have been with the club less than 16 months. 10 of those players (out of a total of 23) have played for the team in the postseason. Plus, head coach Dave Tippet's two assistant coaches are also new to the team this season. The fact that the Coyotes, as currently constructed, are set to play in the Western Conference Finals is truly remarkable. While plenty is new including playoff success for the franchise, the team's current success began to take shape back on May 29, 2007.
The day after the 2007 Memorial Day holiday, Wayne Gretzky stepped to a podium in Glendale, Arizona and announced the best personnel move he made during his time with Phoenix's hockey club. He revealed that he had hired former NHL player and executive Don Maloney to be the new general manager. When the ownership situation imploded two years later and Gretzky was forced to the sidelines, Maloney shrewdly found a coach with a philosophy similar to his own: recently fired Dallas Stars head coach Dave Tippett. As he did with Tippett, the Coyotes general manager would show time and again his ability to see the value in other organization's cast offs.
Over the past almost five years Maloney has methodically worked to improve the franchise on the ice. Only five players who suited up for the Coyotes this season, Shane Doan, Martin Hanzal, and Keith Yandle, Chris Summers, and Derek Morris were in the Coyotes organization the day the Ranger's second round pick in 1978 took over. Maloney actually traded Morris to his with former employer the New York Rangers in 2009 only to re-acquire him a year later from Boston. The other 19 players who have played for the Coyotes this post-season were acquired in one way or another by General Manager Don Maloney (GMDM). Several current players were drafted like Oliver-Ekman Larrson and Mikkel Boedker, while the majority were either signed as free agents like back-up goalie Jason Labarbera or traded for like the aforementioned Morris. What is perhaps most fascinating is how many of the players are recent additions.
Sixteen months ago GMDM made one of the five deals he's made with his old club during his time in Phoenix. He traded underperforming winger Wojtek Wolski, who the Rangers have since traded, for defensemen Michel Rozsival. Less than two months later he traded popular winger Scottie Upshall to Columbus in exchange for another defensemen Rostislav Klesla. The moves helped to shore up the team's defensive depth for last season. However, it was clear the Klesla move was made more for the future than the present given Maloney's comments at the time and the fact the Czech blueliner was under contract for three more years. From day one this season, Klesla has been the Coyotes' best defensemen in their own zone at even strength and on the penalty kill. In addition, in the playoffs he's displayed the offensive skills scouts talked about when he drafted fourth overall back in 2000.
After the 2010-2011 ended it was apparent the Coyotes needed more forward depth, especially at center. GMDM signed a number of center candidates during the free agency period including former Washington Capital Boyd Gordon, as well as Kyle Chipchura and Marc-Antoine Pouliot. Gordan was signed to replace Vernon Fiddler as a 4th line center who was skilled at faceoffs and penalty killing. Gordan has more than replaced Fiddler in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill. Chipchura and Pouloit have played both center and wing at times for the Yotes this season and Chipchura has worked himself into being a regular on the team's stellar fourth line. Maloney also signed veteran forward Raffi Torres whose grit and skill combination fit in with the team's construction. In late August, with Kyle Turris still not signed, he pulled the trigger on a deal to bring former Coyote Daymond Langkow back to the Valley.
His biggest move of the summer was the one with the most questions marks. Unable to re-sign unrestricted free agent Ilya Bryzgalov due to his contract demands, the Yotes signed NHL veteran Mike Smith to replace their former starter. Smith had a .899 save percentage the season before in Tampa Bay and had even been sent down to the AHL for a short time during the season. On the surface it looked like a serious downgrade at the one position the Coyotes' had excelled at in the two prior seasons. However, Tippett, who had coached Smith in Dallas, didn't seem concerned nor did goalie coach Sean Burke. Less than a year later Smith has surprised the hockey world by finishing the 2011-2012 regular season with a .930 save percentage in the regular season followed up with an even more astounding .948 save percentage so far this postseason.
Midway through the 2011-2012 regular season Maloney picked former first round pick Gilbert Brule off waivers from Edmonton. Brule found his way onto the Yotes fourth line. He's more skilled than the average NHL 4th liner which allows for ample scoring chances since he rarely sees other team's top defensive pairs. Though the Coyotes' had worked on shoring up their center situation over the off-season, they were not as skilled at the position as expected late in the season due to GMDM being forced to trade unhappy young center Kyle Turris to Ottawa. Five days before the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline, Phoenix's general manger traded with Columbus for a player, who like Klesla, was under contract for more than just the current season and therefore could help both in the present and future. The player was NHL veteran center Antoine Vermette. The former second round pick of the Ottawa Senators currently leads the Yotes in playoff goals and points.
The man who won the All-Star game M.V.P. in 1984 and has been to the Conference Finals as a GM once before (1993) has built a remarkable hockey team in the desert all while dealing with budgetary limitations and off-ice distractions related to the team's ownership issues. While everyone is looking to gain players with as much talent as possible, Phoenix's general manager is as concerned with how guys will fit into the locker room. As he told former Arizona Republic beat reporter Jim Gintonio prior to this year's trade deadline:
"So much of what we do here in Phoenix is mix chemistry, personalities," he said. "We pay a lot of attention. Even though a guy might on paper look like a skill-set we could use, if the personality doesn't fit we'll stay away from him."
If what is happening on the ice this postseason is any indication, Don Maloney has learned a thing or two about how to construct a team in his twenty plus years in NHL front offices.