The Phoenix Coyotes seem to be dying a death of a thousand cuts. It's slow, it's painful and it inevitably means the end of the desert existence for a franchise that already has one foot out the door and the other just waiting to follow.
The future of the Coyotes has been the soap opera of the summer for the NHL, and certainly its worst nightmare. The nasty fight for control has ended up in bankruptcy court because of Blackberry mogul Jim Balsillie's bulldozing efforts to get gain a franchise to move to Hamilton, Ontario and commissioner Gary Bettman's equally stubborn efforts to keep that from happening.• Team preview | Depth Chart
In the meantime, the actual team has become a secondary issue, not only for the league but for the few fans in Phoenix still interested. General manager Don Maloney has been severely constrained in his efforts to improve what was a pretty dismal product on the ice. In the meantime the players who will be in uniform when the season starts try to put aside the very real distractions and focus on their tasks at hand.
To call this a mess would be an understatement to the nth degree.
Still the Coyotes will have to play their games this season, wherever they may be and regardless of who is calling the shots. Chances are it won't be pretty. Phoenix has failed to even challenge for a playoff spot in the four post-lockout seasons Gretzky has coached them, alternating team-building strategies by using different combinations of veterans and youngsters with nothing to show for it other than a sea of red ink. The mix for this season suggests that Phoenix is already a front-runner for the top lottery pick.
Not that there isn't some legitimate NHL talent here, starting with captain Shane Doan, defenseman Ed Jovanovski and if he can rediscover his game, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Maloney has managed to add some credible pieces in the last few months with younger veterans like Scottie Upshall, Matthew Lombardi and Radim Vrbata, and the Coyotes have managed to stock up on enough young talent in the last few drafts to make it seem like there should be better days ahead. If only someone would tell them where that will be.
Here are five things to know about the Coyotes:
1. The end of the Wayne Gretzky era in Phoenix became official Thursday but was assured this week when the organization brought in veteran coach Dave King to be an assistant. At the same time, the organization moved aside Grant Fuhr, Gretzky's former teammate in Edmonton, and brought in Sean Burke to act as the new goaltending coach. Gretzky was collecting his $8 million annual salary even though he was not taking part in the Coyotes training camp. Officially King, who has been behind the bench in Calgary and Columbus and has decades of international experience, is there to support Ulf Samuelsson, who was an assistant coach to Gretzky and is now running the show on an interim basis, but the changes indicate the Coyotes have moved on.
2. Phoenix sent highly touted kids Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikonov, both considered to be key parts of the youth movement, to the minors this week. That was a grudging admission that neither was ready for the NHL despite being there last season. In fact Maloney suggested that one of the biggest problems for the Coyotes last season was having too many young players to compete. Phoenix did add some mid-level talent with NHL experience in the offseason, but the Coyotes are also looking for better performances from fuzzy-faced players still around like Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzel and Mikkel Boedker.
3. One area of strength for the Coyotes is along the blue line, even if Jovanovski has yet to play like the All-Star he was before Phoenix signed him as a free agent in 2006. But Jovanovski is still a physical presence and the defense will be a little tougher with the offseason additions of Adrian Aucoin and Jim Vandermeer to a unit that already has Zbynek Michalek, the league's leading shot blocker, and Kurt Sauer.
4. The Coyotes are looking for big things from Radim Vrbata, who had the best season of his career two years ago in Phoenix. The 27-goal performance earned the former journeyman a big free-agent deal from Tampa Bay last summer, but like so many others, was unable to get things working in the unsettled situation surrounding the Lightning. Vrbata ended up back in the Czech league, but the Coyotes feel he is the right fit for their club because of his ability to play in a variety of situations for them.
5. Phoenix had a chance to make a big free-agent splash this summer when Alex Tanguay was available, but couldn't pull the trigger. In part that was because Tanguay was looking for a lot more money than the $1.5 million he eventually signed for in Tampa Bay, but the legal problems faced by the Coyotes made serious negotiations impossible.