Don Maloney had an impossibly difficult job. Talking up the virtues of playing in Arizona from fall through spring was “not a hard sell,” but the Phoenix Coyotes general manager couldn’t promise prospective free agents much of a future.
“We can talk all we want of what a great area it is and lifestyle and building we have, but there was always that ‘but,“’ Maloney said. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be here, we don’t know who’s going to own the team, we don’t know how they’re going to operate.”
When the Glendale city council approved an arena management deal Tuesday night, everything changed. The Coyotes will be there for at least five years, and Maloney can enter the free-agent market without the uncertainty.
“Now we feel that we’re on an even playing field with the other 29 teams in the league in regards to what we can sell,” he said. “We know we’re going to be here, we know who’s running the club and how we’re going to run it and it just makes my job much easier than it was.”
In previous summers, the Coyotes have been more focused on keeping their own players than wading deep into the free-agency pool. But don’t expect a drastically different approach, even with $18-million in salary-cap space and new owners in Renaissance Sports & Entertainment.
“I don’t see ourselves changing very much. We’re still going to be a lower-spending club,” Maloney said. “Certainly from where I sit as a general manager, the ability to have a little bit more to play with, we certainly don’t intend to race out in the next three days and blow our brains out on free agency. We still have to be very smart in how we spend our money and look for value and look for people that fit into our culture.”
More players could fit into that culture because Maloney will have more money to work with. Canadian businessman Anthony Leblanc of Renaissance Sports & Entertainment said there will be an increase in the “several-million-dollar range” with the hopes of that continuing in the next few years.
“We won’t be spending to the ($64.3-million) salary cap, but the amount of money that we’ll be spending will be going up,” Leblanc said.
Even before the arena deal ensured the Coyotes would be staying in Arizona, money was spent to keep the core in tact. Goaltender Mike Smith signed a six-year, $34-million contract, coach Dave Tippett got a five-year extension and Maloney got a long-term deal of his own.
Those were some serious commitments by Maloney and Tippett amid a lot of unknowns.
“The last four years we’ve been trying to convince people to sign with us, stay with us, take a little less to stay and then the first chance we get we’re going to run out the door — that just didn’t sit right with me, it didn’t sit right with Tipp,” Maloney said. “I think Shane Doan really set the standard of a guy taking a leap of faith to say, ‘This is my home, this is where I belong, I believe it can work and I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and show people we can make it work.“’
With a new owner in place, Maloney said it’s up him and his staff to make the Coyotes competitive on the ice. There’s no doubt he’ll still be calling the shots as Renaissance assumes control from the NHL.
“Oh good lord, we wouldn’t do anything to change the hockey operations side,” Leblanc said. “Donny Maloney, I feel, is the best GM in the business. I think Dave Tippett, I personally feel is the best coach in the business. We have no plans for the hockey operations side other than giving them a little bit more cash resources to work with.”
A little bit more might be all Maloney needs to make the Coyotes a perennial contender.
“I’ve really found that money can be a blessing and a curse,” he said. “You can race out and sign the great names and look terrific on paper in July but come October/November, you start regretting what you did. So we have to be prudent in how we spend, but it’s encouraging that we’ll have a little bit more to fool around with.”