With the NHL Draft less than three weeks away and free agency set to open just a few days after that, the Arizona Coyotes held a press conference at Gila River Arena on Tuesday afternoon to address the state of the team.
Co-owner, president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc spoke with the media about the business side of things, while general manager Don Maloney focused on how the club plans to navigate a pivotal offseason. Head coach Dave Tippett was also on hand to discuss what exactly needs to happen to get the Coyotes back into playoff contention in 2015-16.
LeBlanc noted that majority owner Andrew Barroway was in town to meet with members of the Glendale City Council on Monday, and seemed positive about the process.
“What we discussed yesterday was how can we work closer together to make things work and grow things,” he said. “At the end of the day, this year is a great example of what happens — beneficial for the city — if we work together. The revenues that the city of Glendale have taken in this year compared to last year are already up over $1 million, year over year.”
“That’s a significant increase,” he added. “And we’re only now in our fourth quarter, so the year’s not even over yet.”
LeBlanc also definitively shot down any and all rumors that the team might have somehow breached part of the lease with the city.
“We have never breached. We are in compliance. The agreement is in full force and effect.”
He went on to note that — while there are already plenty of areas to be optimistic about, in terms of revenue — things will only continue to get better as the product on the ice improves.
That was a view shared by Maloney, who summed up the 2014-15 campaign by noting that the team essentially bottomed out on the ice — and that they’re going to do everything they can to avoid ever getting back to that point again. Working in their favor is the fact that they hold six picks in the first three rounds — including three picks within the top 33 overall selections — of what many consider one of the most loaded drafts in the last 10-15 years. On top of that, they already have one of the top farm systems in the league to build from.
“It’s exciting to me, what’s coming down the road. We have to do some good things, but we certainly feel that we can be much more competitive, get back our identity and our respectability and continue to grow this franchise.”
The picks offer the Coyotes a lot of options and, with the No. 3 selection in particular, a case could be made that they’re the team in position to really set the tempo for this draft. Connor McDavid is going to Edmonton at No. 1 and Buffalo will use the No. 2 selection on Jack Eichel. Everyone knows that, so it’s not like there’s a whole lot of intrigue there anymore. But everyone will be watching Arizona after that.
They could grab a big, skilled center in Dylan Strome — McDavid’s teammate from junior hockey, who led the OHL with 129 points last season — and fill a need there. Or they could scoop up Noah Hanifin, the Boston College product widely considered the best defenseman in his class. Mitch Marner will be available as well, offering some intriguing upside as a scoring winger who played with Coyotes prospects Max Domi and Christian Dvorak in junior — and as someone who has been drawing comparisons to Patrick Kane and Claude Giroux in the weeks leading up to the draft.
Arizona could go with any of them. Or they could move the pick, slide down a few spots, still get a good prospect and potentially add an established veteran to help right away.
“We are certainly open for business,” Maloney said, after pointing out that teams have already called him to express interest in some of the Coyotes’ many high picks. “We have lots of good assets that we can use to better our team, and we’re certainly not against using them in the right deal — keeping in mind that our long-term goal is to have a championship here in Arizona.”
That, of course, is the fine line the Coyotes hope to walk. With potential stars like Domi, Dvorak, Anthony Duclair and Brendan Perlini — among others — on the way, the future is bright. But teams like the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames showed this season that you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice the present to do what’s best for the future.
Both of those clubs had essentially hit the reset button a year ago, and were keeping an eye on the big picture. Yet both still managed to make impressive runs to the playoffs this season anyway. And a strong case could be made that they didn’t have the wealth of prospects and picks the Desert Dogs have at their disposal.
The key is hitting on those picks. And developing the young guys in the system. And — maybe above all — learning from the mistakes of other teams around the league who have stockpiled young talent… but forgot to put any quality vets around that young talent. When you’re talking about 20-year-olds who have never experienced the rigors of the NHL before, you need experienced leaders who can show them the ropes of everyday life at the highest level of the game.
Ideally, you’d have a guy like Shane Doan in your locker room.
“He’s going to be critical to our success,” Tippett noted. “We have good young players, but they have to be surrounded by some very good veteran players because young players can tend to get astray a little bit. You need a good mix if you’re going to have a good team.”
Any concerns of the captain leaving town seem to be squelched for now, as well as rumors that seemed to surface immediately after the season about Tippett’s future.
“There’s lots of speculation out there but I mentioned at the end of the year that it’s going to take a couple months to sift through things and just see where we are,” the coach said. “Basically, we’re at a couple months, you know, and — like I said — Don and I have spent a lot of time together with our pro scouts, with our amateur scouts, with ownership and I really believe that there’s a blueprint in place that can move this thing ahead in a hurry.”
That gives Arizona some extremely strong leadership — both in the locker room and behind the bench. And that’s obviously key to competing in any season, let alone one where you plan to infuse some new young talent.
Which just leaves the man in net. Fair or not, much of any club’s fortunes in today’s game falls on the goalie. Mike Smith has been great in the past, but it’s undeniable that he struggled at the start of this past season. He’s had an eventful summer already though, backstopping Team Canada to a gold medal (and a perfect 10-0 record) at the World Championships last month. And that’s an experience that could certainly help him, going forward.
“Smitty, health-wise, is great,” Tippett said, noting he spoke to his netminder recently. “Mental state of how he finished the year is great. We just need him to come in and play that way at the start of the year, and I have every belief that he’ll do that. He’s as good as I’ve heard in a long time.”