The news from Judge Tom's court this week have given everyone renewed optimism that the Coyotes will have new owners, a new arena lease and a new outlook within the next few weeks.
They need all of the above because preparations are underway for the opening of training camp. In Phoenix. Rookies and selected younger players will be due in Arizona on September 5th and veterans will report on September 12th.
Which leads to two important questions; Is this the team we are going to war with and who is the coach going to be?
Over the next few days, I'll look at the team, options to improve the team and the coaching situation.
General Manager Don Maloney has a done a good job shopping the bargain aisle with the free agent signings of Vernon Fiddler, Jason Labarbera and Adrian Aucoin. We love the Aucoin and Fiddler moves but are concerned about Labarbera. That could become a moot point if Al Montoya expands on the promise he displayed late last year and wins the backup goaltending job.
Maloney has also been busy at the trade desk. He swapped two players with no future in Phoenix (Todd Fedoruk and David Hale) to Tampa for Radim Vrbata. GMDM will light a candle hoping that Vrbata can regain his goalscoring magic from the first half of the 2007-08 season. Lauri Korpikoski comes in from New York for the enigmatic Enver Lisin and gritty defenseman Jim Vandermeer comes over from Calgary for Brandon Prust. Vandermeer's contract is a little rich ($2.3MM) for a bottom pair defenseman and Vrbata has to live up to the $3MM contract he got from Tampa but on merit both trades make sense. We'll trust that Maloney couldn't find a better place to spend the money.
But this still leaves Phoenix with a flawed team. Right now, Shane Doan is the only player on the roster who scored more than 15 goals last season. In fact, Lombardi (1), Vrbata (1), Prucha (2) and Mueller (1) are the only Coyotes who have ever scored 20 goals in an NHL season. No matter how you add it up, this team still needs to add goalscoring. Lots of it.
There will be much hope for internal improvement. Mikkel Boedker may be the Yotes' best young forward and he should grow into a constant 25-35 goal scorer. Peter Mueller slid backwards in his sophomore season from 22 to 13 goals. A return to form would be very helpful. Scottie Upshall has long been buried on checking lines but in Phoenix he will get a chance to play top 6 minutes. After scoring 14 and 15 goals the last two years, he could upgrade his production. And there's Kyle Turris, who may not ever become a top goalscorer but hopefully will develop playmaking skills that enhance his teammates.
At the end of the day, that's a lot of hope. But, it's also a lot of "if's". Other teams in the Western Conference have beefed up too. The Coyotes desperately need to make the playoffs and the roster as currently constituted would do well to fight for a playoff spot.
There are still intriguing scorers available. According to many reports, Boston may have to move young forwards Phil Kessel or Chuck Kobasew. Free agents Alex Tanguay and well traveled veterans Miro Satan and Petr Sykora are still on the market.
I spoke to a Coyote official about Kessel and in a polite way, he indicated that Kessel probably wasn't what the team was looking for. His less than pristine attitude is well known and with best friend Blake Wheeler thumbing his nose at the Coyotes and joining him in Boston, it doesn't seem likely he would be thrilled about coming to Arizona.
Tanguay certainly is an option. It's been rumored that he's been close to signing with the Coyotes on multiple occasions. In fact, one popular rumor site went as far as to say he had signed with the Coyotes but his contract was rejected by the NHL because of budget concerns. In any event there's no deal in place but he is still available.
And then there's Dany Heatley. Heatley has made it clear he wants out of Ottawa. I never even though about Heatley and the Coyotes until I looked around the league at teams that might be able to digest his contract. There aren't many.
And it's a contract with some interesting angles. Heatley carries a salary cap hit of $7.5MM. That would seemingly disqualify the Coyotes under normal circumstances, but he has already collected $4MM this year, with an additional $4MM to be paid. Over the next four years, the Coyotes would take a $7.5MM cap hit but pay out an average of $6.75MM. If the Coyotes were looking at $3MM for Tanguay, bringing in Heatley for $4MM this year (with much more in the out years) would seem to make sense under the budget Don Maloney is managing.
That's a lot of money but Heatley is a lot of hockey player. He's connected for 260 goals in 7 NHL seasons and twice has passed the 50 mark. He is a special player unlike anyone who has worn a Coyote uniform in recent years.
And if the ownership situation is settled soon, new management could weigh in here. If and when the Reinsdorf-Kaites-Tavares-Reinsdorf Jr. group gets control of the team it would make sense that they would consider loosening the purse strings a little bit. And as experienced sports promoters and managers they understand that the best way to boost lagging ticket sales is to make some big news.
The Coyotes desperately need some juice to excite the fan base. Vern Fiddler and Adrian Aucoin are nice hockey players but they are not going to sell a lot of tickets. Heatley may not even want to come to Phoenix (and he would have to waive his no-trade clause) but it's sure worth a try. He would give the franchise a marquis name that is badly lacking, great offensive production on the ice and a generous helping of sizzle to help turn the page from this summer's debacle.
What would it take to make a deal? An educated guess would be Peter Mueller, one of the team's prize young defensemen (Goncharov, Summers or Ross) and probably a 1st draft choice. (This is similar to a deal the New York Rangers supposedly had in place with Ottawa earlier this summer) Expensive, yes. Well worth the price? You bet! Ottawa wants to get younger and has a real salary cap problem. If Maloney could get all the stars aligned on this one, he would have solved the team's biggest problem with a bold and imaginative move. And he would probably carry those guys on his back to Ottawa to make the deal.
The legal and ownership issues can't be solved soon enough. Rookie camp starts in less than three weeks. Our first exhibition game is on September 15th. And opening night is less than two months away. And there's still work to be done on this roster.
We'll all feel better when the focus is back on the game and the team rather than the circus.