An Alpha Dog Whose Day Is Due: Phoenix Coyotes On And Off The Ice


If a GM builds a winning Hockey team in the desert and no one’s there to praise him, is he any less successful?

In a disinterested market in which most casual fans probably couldn’t name more than a single player on the roster – Shane Doan possibly being the lone exception (and more recently, perhaps Mike Smith, as well) – And within an organization devoid of de jure ownership (though tentatively overseen by the NHL Board of Governors) the past four years have seen Phoenix Coyotes’ General Manager Don Maloney deliberately, and somewhat quietly, work toward building a Hockey team that threatens to become this season’s Stanley Cup “shocker”.

Though such a “shocking” development may be welcomed as refreshing and well-deserved by observant and impartial fans and analysts, who have tracked Maloney’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, one can also easily envision the apprehension – A Roger Corman-like, mysterioso-themed “SHOCKING” (pulled straight from a schlocky ‘50’s horror-movie poster) – That the NHL and NBC, as well as fans in traditional Hockey markets, especially in Canada, may have already begun to experience.

Accredited Hockey sources have predictably begun the drumbeat, on the social media, of what a potential nightmare a New Jersey/Phoenix Stanley Cup Final might present for US television viewership (at least.) Never mind viewership north of the 49th parallel…

Which begs the question: “Why should the Phoenix Coyotes’ penultimate success be construed as NHL Hockey’s teetering on calamity?”

Parity All Night Long.

Pragmatic analysts will (somewhat dishonestly) employ the buzzwords of “parity” and “salary cap” as being the culprit mechanisms; the “great levelers’ that would have allowed such an undesirable reality to become a distinct possibility – The analogous to NFL football’s “On Any Given Sunday” adage.

“A level playing-field” is the current mantra used by too many to conveniently excuse some teams’ poor management and performance, and justify most other teams’ successes, in general.

Overlooked in the issuance of such banalities is the fact that the NHL operates the Phoenix Coyotes – A consortium of owners, with their many beady eyes focused on the bottom-line; recognizing that any and every decision made with regard to the Coyotes must be derived from a conscious scale of economy.

In simpler terms: “This is a club that’s destined to lose money and it will be run on the rock-bottom “cheap”, until it can finally be unloaded.”

Whereas most other franchises spend untold millions on non-cap personnel (stocking their front-offices with consulting, scouting, training and ancillary staff) and other ameliorative amenities – The Coyotes may not.

Whereas so many other ownership groups offer their respective management-teams the option of budgeting player-salaries to the cap – The NHL Board of Governors, as de facto owners of the Phoenix Coyotes, will not.

In fact, in the final (failing) season under Jerry Moyes’ lame-duck ownership, and in the three subsequent seasons, as full wards of the NHL, the Coyotes have ranked 28th, 29th, 22nd and 22nd (again) in the league, respectively, for payroll.

So, “no” – Parity is not to blame for this impending “disaster”.

The Coyotes have operated under several league-imposed constraints which have fully denied them espousing any sort of “level playing-field” paradigm.

The Top Dog.

Operating at a distinct disadvantage, though the Coyotes remain “ownerless” per se, they are by no means rudderless.

The (nonsensical) blame, if there can be any laid, falls squarely upon Don Maloney – A man who has done a masterful job of selecting key management-personnel, and imposing a value-based salary structure of his own design.

His non-splashy “Money Ball” (“Money Puck”?) business-plan has propelled the Coyotes incrementally; to progressively greater levels of regular-season competitiveness (winning the Pacific Division title for the first time ever, this season) and (to date) an unforeseen degree of playoff success.

In this regard, perhaps Maloney has done too masterful a job for most of “Hockey’s” liking.

Though operating under a somewhat restrictive budget, Maloney has otherwise been joyfully free of any sort of meddlesome or moribund ownership interference; the distractions and undue expectations that had formerly plagued the “Rescue Dogs” (and continue to hamstring so many other foundering NHL teams) – And has exploited this unique autonomy to single-handedly build a team “in his own image”, through draft, trade and free-agent acquisitions.

That’s not to say his free-form labor of love has been easy – The pool of players willing to sign relatively short-term contracts with an organization that may cease to exist at a moment’s notice is somewhat marginal.

One may speculate that such a player-demographic might be confined to journeymen, role-players, late-career veterans and castoffs. In blunt and unforgiving terms: the overlooked, the forgotten, the has-beens and the never-would-have-been’s.

In this regard, the Phoenix GM has proven himself to be somewhat of an alchemist – His current roster, with few exceptions, reads like a “Who’s Who” of “Didn’t he used to play with..?” personnel: With names like Daymond Langkow, Ray Whitney, Boyd Gordon, Taylor Pyatt, Kyle Chipchura, Gilbert Brule, Michal Rozsival, Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin, topping the list.

One must acknowledge that Maloney recognizes player-value, character and chemistry – He has systematically steered his team to this year’s Western Conference Finals without a single Kovalchuk or Hossa or Ovechkin or Malkin or Crosby or Stamkos or Doughty or Datsyuk or Toews or Giroux in the whole pack.

To wit, on this year’s version of the Coyotes, their highest-paid forward (team captain Shane Doan) registers a whopping $4.55 mil salary – Their top-paid player, defenseman Keith Yandle, commands a heart-stopping $4.75 mil. And, as further testament to Maloney’s cap-mastery and eye for talent, potential Conn Smythe candidate, G Mike Smith gouges the Phoenix coffers to the tune of $2 mil.

Top Notch.

To say that Maloney “knows his business” would definitely be an understatement – In spite of the economics and unfortunate politics (as well as the subtle and dissuasive market-forces) impacting his tenure in Glendale, he has methodically upgraded his roster, while unsentimentally jettisoning non-productive players, through numerous bold trades, over the past 5 seasons.

Straight from the “horse-trader’s” mouth: “Certainly, we’re not changing our philosophy one iota, but if there’s a deal there to make us better, we’ll certainly look at it.”

In point of fact, since having taken the reins of the stumbling franchise on May 28, 2007, Donald “Slip” Maloney has, while on the razor’s fine edge, presided over no less than fifty-one (That’s five times ten – plus one) trades.

In contrast, one would have to retrace Darcy Regier’s trade-history back to March 13, 2001 (acquiring Donald Audette) to arrive at the same number, for the Sabres’ GM.

As an extension of Maloney’s Hockey-acumen, one need look no further than his signing of former Dallas Stars’ coach Dave Tippett, to guide the team – The Coyotes have reached the playoffs in the past three seasons, since having signed Tippett; whereas the Dallas Stars have subsequently failed to reach the post-season, in the three years since having fired him.

And one need barely touch upon his hiring of (goaltending coach) Sean Burke, and what Burke has accomplished in the transformation of (twice-waived, former Tampa UFA) Mike Smith, to fully appreciate the breadth of his detail-oriented philosophy.

Taken wholly, it makes for a compelling endorsement of Don Maloney’s pedigree – A clarity of vision and decisive management-style that deserves (at this point) to be openly and unabashedly recognized as second to none; one which should be celebrated. And whose results need not be dismissed or derided.

In spite of (or perhaps, specifically as a direct consequence of) the encumbrances he has operated under, anyone even remotely familiar with NHL Hockey (and the status quo it engenders) shouldn’t help but feel some degree of admiration for his team’s current level of success…And perhaps (*gasp*) even foster the slight hope that they may follow an historic and somewhat audacious and “shocking” arc to a championship.

Regardless, should there a come a point, sometime soon (and come it will) when a new ownership group finally steps forth – be it in Glendale or Quebec City or Kansas City or Timbuktu – and decides, as a matter of policy (nothing personal) that they want to install their own “top dog” to better reflect their culture and philosophies as part of the new regime, one has to believe that Don Maloney (as a result of his unimpeachable record of success) will most assuredly become the most coveted “free agent” on the market.

In the meantime – He and the mongrel-team he’s assembled are focused upon their appointment with destiny; whether the NHL, NBC or anyone else likes it, or not.

And I, for one, like his (and their) odds.