If there is one team happy that the lockout is now history, it could be the Phoenix Coyotes.
Making it to the Western Conference finals last spring, the Coyotes reached the highest pinnacle in franchise history, and, and at season’s end, were just two wins shy of playing for the Stanley Cup.
Excited, accomplished and energized, the Coyotes’ momentum from last season came to a screeching halt on the brink of training camp. Any push or momentum generated from last season’s success crashed and burned when the lockout commenced.
Now with a few personnel tweaks, the Coyotes appear ready to challenge. Stronger on the blue line and steady with Mike Smith between the pipes, Phoenix could emerge as a sound defensive team, and pundits like to say it’s defense which wins championships.
Despite the uncertainty of ownership-influenced player movement during the offseason, the Coyotes will return a core which is likely to be equally competitive to last year's unit. Perhaps the unknown factor through this scenario is the successful hockey management team of general manager Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett.
With the NHL pulling all of the ownership strings, Maloney was clearly limited in free-agent acquisition and signing players to long-term deals. Here, the exceptions may be defenseman Keith Yandle, who signed a $26 million deal before the start of last season, and captain Shane Doan, who inked a $21 million deal the day before the lockout began last September.
Picking pieces, like Antoine Vermette, Boyd Gordon and Gilbert Brule during the season, Maloney established a reputation for finding marginal players who fit ideally into Tippett’s coaching. Still, several players either became uncertain due to the ownership situation or felt their services could be appreciated elsewhere.
For example, Ray Whitney, 40 years old at season’s end, enjoyed one of his best seasons (24 goals, 53 assists, 77 points, eight power-play goals) last year, but because of the ownership quagmire, bolted for Dallas on the first day of free-agent signing last July. Gone too is forward Taylor Pyatt, who was one of the better players throughout the playoffs last season, and defenseman Adrian Aucoin, who was injured down the stretch run and into the playoffs.
For now, the players expressed relief that a shortened season is about to begin and are anxious to lace up their CCMs and Bauers once again.
"I think, as an union, we got the best deal we could possibly get, and you're happy," Doan told ESPN.com. "You're just excited to play hockey again and do what you really enjoy and have a passion. We got through it. The emotion of it, you kind of ride the roller coaster of it up and down, but you kind of sense things were going in the right direction and you want to make sure they kept going in the right direction."
While final details still need to be finalized and the document ratified and signed by the owners and players, the NHL is about to commence play within the next few weeks.
For the Coyotes, this means two essential issues.
First, whether the team under the stewardship of Maloney and Tippett reaches the heights of last spring and possibly beyond. And more importantly, with the Coyotes back on the ice, whether the ownership team, headed by former Sharks CEO Greg Jamison, can finally buy the franchise from the NHL.
For the last three seasons, the NHL owned the Phoenix franchise and insisted that the team not be moved. Commissioner Gary Bettman consistently argued that the league wanted a team in the Phoenix media market, although the local Phoenix media truly does not cover the team.
The daily newspaper, The Arizona Republic, does not travel for road games, and local radio and television stations rarely cover a regular season. One result of this lack of promotion and news is attendance remaining weak. For a regular-season contest against the Stars on Oct. 25, 2011 of last season, the game drew 6,948, and Phoenix attracted only three sellouts for regular-season games.
With the lockout now history, Jamison and his group can get on with the business of acquiring the team, face the challenge of getting fans in the building, obtain corporate sponsors and fill the luxury boxes. The league wants $175 million for the franchise, and Forbes magazine values the franchise at an estimated $134 million. Only the St. Louis Blues, at $130 million, are valued lower by Forbes.
While the offseason fortunes of the Coyotes need to be resolved, Tippett and his players prepare for a shortened training camp and now a season with considerable energy and resolve.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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