STATE OF THE UNION
Contrary to popular belief, the Phoenix Coyotes don't have moving boxes scattered throughout their offices and haven't ordered a moving van any kind of escape from the Valley of the Sun.
The Coyotes are a franchise in transition, as the future could be determined in early September when they are to be sold. Until then, there are two looming questions that hover over the club's future:
* Who will the team be sold to?
* Where will the Coyotes play in 2009-10?
Like many others in the organization, those questions are on the mind of Don Maloney, but they are not front and center. What the team's general manager is most concerned with is improving his roster and turning Phoenix into a bona fide contender in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference.
It seemed as if the Coyotes were poised for a breakthrough at the All-Star break last season when they were fifth in the conference following a rousing home victory over the Detroit Red Wings. Hope was building that a playoff game would come to the desert for the first time since 2002.
How did Phoenix respond after the break? Nine losses in 10 games. It was then when Maloney said he learned a valuable lesson.
"Last year, I do believe we did make a mistake in that we tried to force too many young players into our lineup," he told NHL.com. "It turned out we were just too young. It was fine for half the season, maybe two-thirds of the season. But when things got serious in the last two months, we just couldn't compete in our division."
While the Coyotes were eager to create a group of 20-something players that would blossom into an exciting core that would lead them into the future, the process toward them becoming franchise bedrocks like present captain Shane Doan would contain its share of barriers to break through.
"We have a job to do on the hockey side and that's to put a winning hockey team on the ice. You'd like a clear plan on which to operate, but we're dealing with it. Where I'm at, we take care of what we can take care of and it'll sort itself out."
-- Don Maloney
The difference is Maloney has augmented the lineup since the trade deadline last March to take pressure off the youngsters and veterans such as Doan and defenseman Ed Jovanovski.
Matthew Lombardi, Radim Vrbata, Scottie Upshall and Petr Prucha were acquired in trades to potentially create depth at forward. Veterans Jim Vandermeer and Adrian Aucoin were brought in to add size and bite on the back end. Vernon Fiddler came over from Nashville to provide energy and win faceoffs.
If the Coyotes are to take a step forward, they'll also need Ilya Bryzgalov to play like a top-flight netminder, with assistance from either Al Montoya or Jason LaBarbera.
"We need that tandem to be at the top of our conference in their numbers and their play," Maloney said. "We need to push them to be better."
As for the current ownership battle that's currently in bankruptcy court, Maloney said operating under that uncertainty isn't much different than other years when he was handed a budget to work with, other than he's had to clear certain moves with the League, which has been running the team for a number of months.
"We have a job to do on the hockey side and that's to put a winning hockey team on the ice," he said. "You'd like a clear plan on which to operate, but we're dealing with it. Where I'm at, we take care of what we can take care of and it'll sort itself out."
In his mind, the answer to a bright future in Phoenix is simple -- win.
"To me, Phoenix is no different than Anaheim, no different than Carolina, no different than Tampa," Maloney said. "You have to win and you have to treat people with respect. Bottom line is I think we're close. Phoenix is a terrific place to play. We play in one of the nicest buildings in the League (Jobing.com Arena). Players enjoy playing here. There's probably no better lifestyle, especially in the winter.
"We do have fans. It really is a great fan base. We have very loyal fans and we have to show them that we can put out a winning product. I think if we do that, all of these other issues will take care of themselves."
In recent years the Coyotes have fast-tracked their top young players to the big club.
Not only have first-round picks Martin Hanzal, Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller and Mikkel Boedker cracked the roster, but Viktor Tikhonov, Keith Yandle and Daniel Winnik also figure to play a large role for Phoenix in 2009-10.
In fact, the Coyotes may have been too eager to introduce young players into the lineup. But while general manager Don Maloney plans to slow the process a bit, he isn't going to limit the development of his best prospects if they show they can handle the rigors of the NHL.
For instance, 2008 Hobey Baker Award winner Kevin Porter split much of last season between Phoenix and AHL San Antonio. Maloney is expecting Porter to make a strong case for an opening-night roster spot or an early NHL promotion.
"Of all the guys at San Antonio, he showed the most to us early in the year and he ended up staying in Phoenix for a while," Maloney said. "He started sitting out some games and his ice time diminished. By the end of the year, though, I really thought he figured it out.
"With young players, it's all about consistency. They can be great one minute and inconsistent the next. I'm really excited about Kevin. There's a very, very good chance he can be up with us … whether that's November or even October."
Here's a look at the Coyotes' best prospects coming up through the pipeline:
Kevin Porter -- Porter had 5 goals and 5 assists in a 34-game run with the Coyotes last season. In 42 games at San Antonio, he had 13 goals and 22 assists. He'll get a long look in training camp, and while there's more competition for forward spots this season, he could earn a job out of camp or be the first in line for a call-up.
Jonas Ahnelov -- Ahnelov might not be quite ready for an extended NHL look, but he's firmly on the Coyotes' radar following his first season at San Antonio. Big and strong, the Swedish rearguard is willing to get physical on the ice and figures eventually to make the Phoenix roster as a shut-down defender.
Chris Summers -- A late first-round pick in 2006, Summers will serve as captain in his fourth and final NCAA season at Michigan. The 21-year-old defenseman has the ability to move the puck and can skate well enough to play forward at times, but it remains to be seen if he can be a top-flight point producer.
Brett MacLean -- Some wondered whether the 2007 second-round pick could rack up the points like he did in junior hockey, when his center was John Tavares, but MacLean put those concerns to rest by scoring 21 goals at San Antonio. He's a classic power forward with soft hands in the making.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson -- Rarely does a teen defenseman make a major impact because of the demands of the position, so the Coyotes will take their time bringing this 18-year-old along, but there is no question he is eyed as a top-pairing rearguard because of his vast puck-moving skills.
There hasn't been a Stanley Cup Playoff game in the desert since 2002, but the Coyotes have been able to use their recent high first-round selections to build a young core as Martin Hanzal, Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker are now in their lineup and considered a key part of their future.
Now Phoenix intends to slow things down a bit. Because of the trade for Jim Vandermeer and the free-agent signing of Adrian Aucoin, the team can take its time allowing Swedish defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the sixth pick of the 2009 Entry Draft, to get stronger and mature over the next couple of seasons.
Ekman-Larsson had 3 goals and 14 assists in 39 games with Leksand IF, which competes in Sweden's second-tier pro league, but his most impressive statistic was a plus-44 rating that clearly displayed his two-way ability.
"He's got another year left in Europe, which is fine," Coyotes GM Don Maloney said. "He's about 175 pounds now. Physically, he just needs to mature. I think that we're in a position where we don't have to take Ekman and put him in the lineup and pray he can develop. We can leave him there for a year, two years.
"His skating ability and puck movement are what you need in a defenseman these days."
Here's a look at the seven players the Coyotes selected in Montreal:
Oliver Ekman-Larsson -- Ekman-Larsson will fulfill the final season of his contract in Sweden, but he could cross the pond in the fall of 2010 and make a run at a roster spot, especially if he puts on more weight. The skill set is already there as the 18-year-old is 6-foot-2, can skate and work a power play.
Chris Brown -- Born in Houston and raised outside Dallas until age 15, the 6-2, 191-pound Brown carved out an identity with the United States National Team Developmental Program as a tireless worker who'll make life difficult for opposing centers. The second-round pick will play for at the University of Michigan.
Mike Lee -- The Coyotes dealt a 2010 draft pick in order to grab this butterfly-style netminder in the third round. Lee is in the mix to be the starter for Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championships. He'll play next season at St. Cloud State.
Jordan Szwarz -- An assistant captain for Saginaw of the OHL, Szwarz had 17 goals and 34 assists for the Spirit last season. Not terribly big or swift, the playmaking right wing could develop into a checker who can provide some offense.
Justin Weller -- Don't expect this fourth-round defenseman to jump into the play -- Weller has no goals in two seasons with Red Deer of the WHL. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder plays with an edge and takes care of his end.
Evan Bloodoff -- A sixth-round pick, the 5-foot-11 left wing showed his willingness to compete every time he was on the ice for the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets. Looks to be more of an energy player than a scorer.