November 12 2010 09:20AM
After their Cinderella regular season last year, I've come to grudgingly admire Don Maloney's Phoenix Coyotes. Sure, there's a part in all of us that can't help but cheer for the plucky underdog who succeeds despite great obstacles, but it goes a bit beyond that for me. Afterall, I was the guy picking on the Colorado Avalanche all last season.
No, what was admirable about Maloney in the desert last year is kind of what is admirable about Billy Beane in Oakland: faced with obvious budget handicaps, the 'yotes GM ignored the fact his team was broke and in the midst of an ownership imboglio and went about making smart, efficient decisions. He's the guy that landed Matthew Lombardi, Brandon Prust and a first round pick for Olli Jokinen (ugh). He hired Dave Tippett when Gretzky got out of the way. He picked up functional cast-offs like Radim Vrbata and Taylor Pyatt. He signed Kurt Sauer to a well-below value contract (for those unfamiliar, Sauer played on the Avs previously and was the player Cliff Fletcher thought he was getting when he signed Jeff Finger to his outrageous contract). At the trade deadline, Maloney swapped mushy-headed Peter Mueller for Wojtek Wolski, a guy who was driving things on the Avs beside Paul Stastny. He also swooped in and signed Eric Belanger for a song after his deal with the Capitals went sideways this summer.
None of this is of the big, splashy, free-agent signing type: just small moves that are good bets to provide some value and incremental improvement. It's the way every GM should do business *cough*, but it's of particular necessity in Phoenix given the organizations...issues.
Things aren't going quite as swimmingly for the desert dogs through the early going this year, however. Their record is the worst in the Pacific division and they are in the bottom-third in the league in terms of offense. They have been without Shane Doan and Martin Hanzal for stretches thus far, but the truth is a low budget club like PHX is always going to walk the razors edge when it comes to offense given that goals are the most expensive things for GM's to purchase.
All that said, when JLikens of the Objective NHL looked at possession stats with the score tied (to eliminate playing to score effects) and corrected for strength of schedule, the Coyotes ranked as the 5th best possession team in the league through the first month. So it's not like all the magic from last season has drained away completely.
In terms of players to watch tonight, the Coyotes future Selke candidate is 23-year old Martin Hanzal. He's a guy who has faced the big guns for years and kept his head above water. Look for him and Vrbata to be hard matched against whoever Tippett considers to be the Flames primary threat this evening (be it Iginla or otherwise).