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Phoenix Coyotes forward Scottie Upshall and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov celebrate their club's 3-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night. (Gene J. Puskar/Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Phoenix Coyotes forward Scottie Upshall and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov celebrate their club's 3-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night. (Gene J. Puskar/Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Weekly notebook

Maloney keeps the faith Add to ...

The man with perhaps the toughest job in hockey is sitting in the stands, watching his Phoenix Coyotes practise and making a case for why the team he manages may not be nearly as inept as people think.

This is Don Maloney's view: That as much as the Coyotes' bankruptcy soap opera resonated in Canada - largely because there was a chance the team could have relocated there, Judge Redfield T. Baum willing - it had little impact on the day-to-day operation of the team. Sure, the Coyotes operate with a more limited budget than their richer, more solvent NHL peers. But Maloney believes it is enough to ice a competitive team.

So far, his optimism hasn't been misplaced. Heading into Saturday's home opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Coyotes are a respectable 2-1, having defeated both the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins before ending their three-game road trip with a tight 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.

You get the sense that Maloney just wants to talk hockey - a topic that hasn't been part of the conversation for much of this past year or so, when the team's financial difficulties bubbled to the surface and essentially hijacked any other news they may have made.

"You know what's interesting," began Maloney. "This is a team that was in fifth place last year at the All-Star break.

"I thought, certainly in the first half, we did it on emotion and enthusiasm. As the season went along, when we hit that adversity right after the All-Star break, we didn't have any base to fall back on. We had a couple of little injuries and we weren't deep enough just to tread water for a little while. We took a nosedive.

"I think we're more mature now. We've got nice team speed. I'm very excited about this team. I think we can be a lot better than people think."

Maloney's changes were mostly the sort of minor deals that show up in transactions, but do not command headlines or make news the way say, the Dany Heatley deal did. For example, he took Radim Vrbata back from the Tampa Bay Lightning a year after Vrbata left Phoenix as a free agent to disastrous results.

Tampa eventually farmed him out to Europe. Maloney - remembering how effective Vrbata was two years ago with the Coyotes, a season that earned him that lucrative deal with Tampa - brought him back to play on a line with ex-Ranger Petr Prucha and youngster Martin Hanzal. The three Czech-born players have hit it off in the early going, and have provided solid two-way play.

The ability to sign Robert Lang last week added depth at centre, to go with Mathew Lombardi, who came to the Coyotes last year in the Olli Jokinen deal. Lang plays with team captain Shane Doan and second-year forward Mikkel Boedker, the only one of their real youngsters to make the team out of camp.

"We've got this whole age group - Lombardi, Prucha, Taylor Pyatt, they're not first or second-year pros," said Maloney. "They're five or six-year pros. Now, are they stars? No. They're just NHL players. We hope they have good years. We think they can have good years.

"I don't think we've abandoned our long-term goal of bringing our young players along. We waited to see how (former first-round drat choice) Kyle Turris was in training camp. Can he be a productive offensive player for us? He had a back procedure done in the off-season. When he got to camp, frankly he just was not quite strong enough.

"Could he play? Sure. But to be the kind of player I know he's going to be, it's not there yet. So we were able to find Robert Lang, who is going to be a great help on the power play.

"It was the same with Viktor Tikhonov (another former first rounder). Viktor got a little stronger. But if you start looking at our right side, with Shane over there and Vrbata back and you've got (Peter) Mueller playing the wing, that's fairly deep relatively speaking.

"Peter Mueller's a different player for us. Last year, he had the ultimate sophomore-itis. He was a brooding player all year long. He's almost 15 pounds lighter. He's quick. He's lean. Handzul has a new lease on life because he's playing with his Czech teammates.

"So I think we have reason to be optimism. It's not pie-in-the-sky thinking.''

Maloney hasn't had a lot of dealings with Wayne Gretzky after Gretzky stepped down as coach and is careful not to say too much about how that whole process unfolded.

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