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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

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.

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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.

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"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.''

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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.

However, he was aware early on that he might need to make a coaching change and so began the due diligence fairly early in the summer, zeroing in on former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett. Tippett had two years remaining on his contract after he was dismissed by the new management staff in Dallas and, as Maloney memorably stated at the press conference announcing his hiring, could have sat on his couch watching Oprah for the duration of his Dallas deal.

But Tippett wanted to get back in as soon as possible, and was willing to take a chance on the Coyotes, even with all the uncertainty surrounding the future of the franchise.

"Ideally, you'd like to have your coaching staff in place from day one, but really, you're talking about two weeks," said Maloney. "Adding Dave King - he's a wealth of knowledge. He's a great pick-up as far as I'm concerned, in terms of how we can pull together a little quicker.

"Dave Tippett, I talked to him a month before the announcement. He actually came into Phoenix that Sunday before the announcement, met with the staff five or six hours. That really started the process - let's think about what we want to put in place here. So it's been relatively seamless."

As for the temptation to go for a quick fix, Maloney laughs.

"In all candour, there really isn't a quick-fix option," said Maloney. "Because our finances are where they are, we really can't go out and say, 'let's trade two first-round picks for a star player, a Dany Heatley-type player.' That's just not going to happen. This is what we have. This is what we have to make better. But I think having a real professional coaching staff will help. The proof will be in the pudding - how we start."

Around the rinks: Milan Lucic's signing - of a three-year $12.25-million (all currency U.S.) contract extension with the Boston Bruins - is indicative of how the business operates in the new salary-cap era; and how teams are forced to make hard choices early on in a player's evolution. Essentially, the Bruins chose to pay Lucic because they project him as a core player over the long term, a Cam Neely in training, someone they believe will make a difference in winning. No matter what they may have said publicly, they didn't feel the same way about Phil Kessel's qualities - good around the net sure, but with a limited physical presence. With David Krejci taking less to sign and a raft of other players coming up for renewal next year (including Marc Savard, a potential unrestricted free agent again), the Bruins took the draft choices from Toronto and made sure that if they were going to make somebody happy, it was going to be Lucic, the potential Canadian Olympian … As the Chicago Blackhawks know only too well, the problem with signing everybody is that eventually you can negotiate yourself into a salary-cap corner - and you may end up losing a marquee name to make the numbers work … Funny how $7.14-million per year doesn't buy what it once did. After signing Brian Campbell to that contract two summers ago, largely for his abilities on the power play, the Blackhawks are now using Cam Barker, plus Patrick Sharp - a forward - as the point men on their top unit with the man advantage … Think Atlanta is glad they finished second in the Campbell sweepstakes? With Zach Bogosian looking as if he'll evolve into an elite-level defenceman, the Thrashers now have the financial wherewithal to get a deal done with Ilya Kovalchuk, who had a pair of goals Thursday night, as Atlanta's unexpectedly good start continued … Chris Chelios's desire to keep playing, at the age of 47, may take him back to the minor leagues and a chance to play with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. Chelios has 1,644 NHL games on his resume and 25 in the minors - two for Grand Rapids last year and 23 with the Motor City Mechanics of the United Hockey League back in the lockout year of 2004-05 … The Red Wings didn't ask the aging Chelios back, but they took 37-year-old Brad May off the unemployment rolls this week, to add toughness. May responded with a fight in his first game, a victory over Chicago … Colorado's 2-0 start will be put to the test on a seven-game, 13-day road trip that began with a loss in Nashville and features stops in five of the Original Six cities. Hard to imagine the Avalanche hanging in the playoff race for long this year, even with Craig Anderson off to a spectacular start … Signs of the Kings' increasing depth: Alexander Frolov, a 32-goal scorer last year and linked to Ottawa, among other teams, in off-season trade speculation, is playing on the team's de facto checking line alongside Michal Handzus, what with Anze Kopitar anchoring the No. 1 unit with a pair of newcomers, Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams; and with Jarrett Stoll getting to play with team captain Dustin Brown.

And finally: Adrian Aucoin was another of Maloney's strategic off-season acquisitions, joining the Coyotes this past summer, after they traded Derek Morris away at the deadline. Aucoin, even at the age of 36, can still play big minutes and is usually partnered with Zybnek Michalek on the team's No. 1 pair. He believes the Coyotes are way better than people think and he bases it on the team's experience level.

"A lot of our young guys are third-year guys and in your third year, a lot of things start to make more sense," analyzed Aucoin. "Your first year is a little bit of a honeymoon. Nobody really knows who you are, so usually you can get away with a lot of stuff. A lot of time it doesn't matter if the team wins or loses because you're just so happy to be in the NHL.

"The second year, you start to figure it out and it becomes a real grind. A lot of players know who you are, so they play a little harder on you.

"The third year is when a lot of guys really mature - and we have a lot of third and fourth-year guys that are at that stage right now and ready to break out. You can tell from camp that they get that."

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