Last year, Don Maloney was voted General Manager of the year in the National Hockey League. This year he may have an even tougher job holding together the Phoenix Coyotes.
Maloney built the Coyotes hugely successful 2009-10 team primarily through deft trading and smart shopping in the free agent bargain aisle. While a few pre Maloney draft picks are impacting the team at the NHL level, the club hasn’t gotten a lot of help from more recent drafts. Hopefully that help is on the way because the budget constraints of league ownership will likely force the Yotes’ into more than desired roster turnover for the 2010-11 season.
Only a handful of people – Don Maloney, Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and a handful of NHL Governors know what the Coyotes actual player budget is for 2010-11. Since Maloney said it was an increase over last year (and we are pretty sure it was in the $44MM neighborhood last time around) I’m thinking it is in the neighborhood of $47.4. That’s midway between the cap floor ($43.4) and the cap midpoint ($51.4) And if it’s not that high, owners in waiting Anthony LeBlanc and Daryl Jones may be chewing on the NHL to loosen up the budget pocketbook a little so the Coyotes can try to keep one or two of their highly valued UFAs.
It’s not the end of the world. Even with new owners, it is likely the Coyotes will have a self imposed budget until revenue streams improve. And with a number of young players seemingly ready to challenge for NHL jobs, the budget should be manageable. Unfortunately the margin for error is not great.
Maloney is doing everything he can to stretch his checkbook. He’s already signed four restricted free agents – Adrian Aucoin, Scottie Upshall, Taylor Pyatt and Woltek Wolski. Wolski got a big contract (2 years at $3.8MM) worthy of his status as the team’s most skilled forward. Pyatt and Aucoin both accepted backloaded two year deals to help the payroll logjam and Upshall is in on a one year contract. In a perfect world the Coyotes would have liked to lock Upshall up for a longer tern but with the uncertainty of ownership and Upshall coming back from ACL surgery, it was the best deal for all concerned. The downside is that he will be an unrestricted free agent next June and may be in line for a much larger contract.
Think of it as Maloney’s version of “buy now, pay later”.
That good news has somewhat obscured the pressing issues facing the Yotes. The team has four unrestricted free agents – Matthew Lombardi, Zbynek Michalek, Lee Stempniak and Derek Morris – and all are free to sign with any team in the league on July 1st.
Michalek was always the least likely to return to Phoenix. The 27 year old defenseman has been one of the Coyotes strongest players and best values since joining the team in a trade with the Minnesota Wild. He’s in line for a whopping raise from his current $1.25MM wage to something in the $3.5 – 4MM neighborhood and will command a 4-5 year term. That’s a lot of money for a defensive defenseman. With the Coyotes depth on defense and the need to open spots for younger players, it’s unlikely he can be fit into the budget going forward. It has been widely speculated that Z will join his kid brother in Ottawa. Don’t be surprised to see his rights swapped to another NHL team in advance of the July 1 UFA marketplace.
I’ve always felt Lee Stempniak would not stay in Phoenix. A playoff rental, he took Upshall’s place on the forward lines. Stempniak has been a streaky player throughout his career, best illustrated by his 14 goals in 18 regular season games after joining the team and then being zipped in the 7 game playoff series. Thanks for your service Lee, but unless the price drops to bargain levels, he won’t be back.
If Michalek does leave, it increases the chances Derek Morris will return. I thought there was only room for one of Morris or Aucoin on the backline but Derek is a favorite of team management and a permanent Valley resident. The hard reality of the market place is that he will have to accept less money for the privilege but I don’t think there will be much of a market for his services. He may end up with a team friendly contract similar to Aucoin.
And finally, Matt Lombardi is the fourth unrestricted free agent of note. Lombardi, who came from Calgary in Maloney’s signature trade (along with the pick that turned into Brandon Gormely), is the free agent who seemed most likely to resign with the team. Losing him will hurt.
While Lombardi is a not to be confused with a number one center, he’s an excellent player who brings great speed, versatility and energy to the team. He’s a good penalty killer and scored a number of key goals last year. And he's also a part of the young veteran core that really carried the team last year.
Players with similar skills and results have gotten free agent contracts in the $3.25MM range for 3-4 years. It would seem that kind of deal could fit under the current constraints. Unless the bidding becomes prohibitive I expect Maloney will be in on Lombardi.
The Coyotes have in house replacements available but organization depth will clearly be affected. Kyle Turris, who showed signs of fulfilling his immense promise in the second half of last season, could step in for Lombardi. Don Maloney commented on NHL radio during the draft that he thought Turris would be in the NHL this year. Last year’s first draft pick, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is likely to secure a position on defense. Upshall’s return will mitigate the loss of Stempniak. If Kurt Sauer can return from post concussion syndrome, he could step in nicely for Michalek.
Free agent additions? Don’t expect much. Unless a goalscorer becomes available at bargain prices, the Coyotes seem pretty set. They have a ton of role players and need to work some younger blood into the lineup.
Trades? Not likely. Jim Vandermeer’s contract eats up an inordinate amount of cap space and he could be moved in a deal similar to the David Hale/Todd Fedoruk/Radim Vrbata trade last year. One possibility is the Coyotes regular trading partner the New York Rangers. The Rangers need a team to take Donald Brashear off their hands. Brashear is heading to the KHL but still carries a $1.4MM cap hit because he signed his contract over the age of 35. The Coyotes can accommodate the cap hit as long as no cash goes out. Vandermeer would fill a need as a 6th/7th defenseman in New York and the Rangers have plenty of money to buy him out or bury the contract in the minors. That additional wiggle room could make the difference between the Yotes’ keeping a few of their UFAs.
It will be an interesting few days but most of the Coyotes business will probably be outbound this week. It’s a shame because some very big contributors may not be here next year. But in a salary cap world, especially one muddled even more by the team’s ongoing financial uncertainty, you get the feeling that the reigning GM of the year has one or two big time performances up his sleeve. Hope he saved his greatest hits for the encore.