Rebuilding isn't easy in the NHL, and Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney knows "there's no quick fixes in this game." But ownership and management envision a short-term retooling process to get back into contention sooner rather than later.
"We have a lot of good pieces already," president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said in a recent interview. "I don't think it's a many-year process. I think that this team will be better next year."
The Coyotes are on their way to their worst season in more than a decade but see hope on the horizon.
It begins at next month's trade deadline, when Maloney has plenty of valuable pieces to deal. It could be a great opportunity to build on a strong group of prospects led by Canadian world junior star Max Domi.
"You hope that it's a one-year thing and next year you're better," captain Shane Doan said. "I think that the young kids that they have are talented and hopefully they learn their game the right way and play the game the right way."
Maloney has already turned backup goaltender Devan Dubnyk into a third-round pick and could trade centre Antoine Vermette, winger Martin Erat and defenceman Zbynek Michalek (all unrestricted free agents) and others such as Keith Yandle before 3 p.m. on March 2 to begin the process of infusing the organization with prospects and assets to get better for 2015-'16.
"If there is any positives coming out of this miserable season, there is opportunities to get better as an organization," Maloney said last week at Air Canada Centre. "That's what we're trying to do."
Those opportunities exist, and Maloney is primed to take advantage of selling. Doan, LeBlanc said, isn't going anywhere, but the Coyotes will entertain trade talk on just about anyone else on the roster.
"I do believe we have some players that could be very helpful to a playoff team and a team trying to win a Stanley Cup," Maloney said. "We're talking and listening and seeing if there's something that's going to help us."
Maloney's goal isn't to stockpile draft picks and wait, something the Buffalo Sabres are in the process of doing. That plan worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins 10 years ago but it hasn't gone well for the Edmonton Oilers in recent years.
With the weak Canadian dollar likely leading to a lower-than-expected salary cap, the Coyotes may be able to poach players from higher-budget teams, and Maloney wants picks and prospects available to make those moves.
Aside from goaltender Mike Smith ($5.67-million annual cap hit for four more seasons) and franchise defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($5.5-million annually for four more seasons), Arizona isn't burdened with the kind of long-term contracts that could hurt teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers.
Maloney intends to use that flexibility to improve the Coyotes' blue-line and fix some holes. Others could be filled by younger players like Domi and fellow forwards Henrik Samuelsson and Lucas Lessio, defencemen Philip Samuelsson and Brandon Gormley and goaltender Louis Domingue, who just got his first NHL win against the Montreal Canadiens.
LeBlanc sees the emergence of NHL forward Tobias Rieder and the breakout of 2014 pick Christian Dvorak (Domi's linemate in London) as reasons the Coyotes can improve quickly.
"We're pretty excited about what we have in this organization," LeBlanc said. "We think that the cornerstones of the franchise are already there."
The Coyotes will need Smith (.888 save percentage) to improve from his worst professional season and could use a franchise-changing draft pick like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or even Noah Hanifin, Dylan Strome or Lawson Crouse. But LeBlanc said the team isn't focused on the "What Ifs" of the draft.
The immediate attention is on coach Dave Tippett continuing to develop young players and then on Maloney working his magic before the deadline and in the off-season.
"We're damn lucky that we've got a guy like Don taking care of this for us," LeBlanc said. " I don't want to see this (losing) again next year. I will be excited to see what we can do to make this team better."