Eric Belanger (l) could be trading bait this summer.
With the 2011 NHL draft in the rear window, attention now turns to the signing of free agents and trades.
In the case of the Phoenix Coyotes, the former would appear to be more feasible than player trades or blockbuster deals. That’s because the Coyotes are operating on a limited budget, and general manager Don Maloney is not in a position to pull strings on a marquee deal.
To be fair, the Coyotes sought to improve their defense in the stretch drive last season by bringing in defenseman Rostislav Klesla from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade for forward Scotty Upshall. Pundits felt the Coyotes missed Upshall’s spunk, playmaking ability and clubhouse leadership in the playoffs.
Clearly, the Coyotes’ ability to pull off a significant trade for immediate help remains remote. Head coach Dave Tippett did wonders with what he had in his two seasons in the desert. His experience and ability to handle players resulted in consecutive postseason appearances.
A more likely scenario is improvement through free agency.
With goalie Ilya Bryzgalov already dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Coyotes immediate need is in net. Maloney will try and go after Tomas Vokoum, who last season turned in a .922 goals against percentage with the Florida Panthers. That was good enough for 10th best in the league, and at 34, Vokoum may have something left in the tank.
For the recent past, the Coyotes were, and still are, in desperate need of a sniper. Last season, captain Shane Doan led the team with 20 goals, and Lauri Korpikoski and Radim Vrbata each lit the lamp 19 times. Only 10 players hit double digits in goal scoring.
Korpikoski, who emerged as a solid two-way player, is a free agent, and the Coyotes will likely lose the 25-year-old native of Turku, Finland. Vernon Fidler (6 G, 16 A, 22 PTS in 71 games) and Eric Belanger (13 G, 27 A, 40 PTS in 82 games) could also flee the desert.
Don’t count on defenseman Ed Jovanovski to return in Sedona red. The 35-year-old veteran missed 32 games last season with various injuries and did not have a point in his last 11 games dating to an assist Jan. 10 against the St. Louis Blues.
Given marginal production from forwards, their collective value on the trading floor of the NHL stock exchange is limited. The best-case scenario would be a trade-off in which the Coyotes would receive a player of similar production. This may be perhaps a seven to 10-goal scorer and a defenseman which may have had a 25 or 30-point season.
In reality, Maloney, Tippett and their assistants are essentially between a rock and hard place. The NHL, still owners of the franchise, is reluctant to engage in any major trade because there is no money for big contracts and no marquee players to deal.
There could be help from a pair of minor leaguers. The Coyotes have extended qualifying offers to forwards Brett MacLean (23 G, 27 A, 50 PTS at AHL San Antonio, and 2 G, 3 A, 5 PTS with Phoenix) and Viktor Tikhonov (11 G, 23 A, 34 PTS with AHL San Antonio).
While with the Coyotes for 13 games, MacLean showed a spark around the net, and solid fore-checking. He could have the potential to be the kind of scorer Phoenix seeks, and Tikhonov is equally physical in the attacking zone.
All of which point to the Coyotes making little noise in the trading arena. As well, the NHL will not open its checkbook for a member franchise at the expense of the other 29 clubs.
While teams are positioning player transactions and checking out the waiver wire, don’t expect the Coyotes to be terribly busy this summer.
After all, here’s a team without a true owner, an arena lease in limbo, the city of Glendale, Ariz., home of the Coyotes, continues to pay the NHL in a frantic effort to keep the NHL in desert. So Tippett continues to wonder if he will ever see a stable franchise in the Phoenix market.