One was Peter Laviolette, who had led the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup in 2006 and remains one of the game's top coaches in Philadelphia. The other was Dave Tippett, who had four straight 40-win seasons with Dallas and had spent a decade coaching in the Pacific Division with the Stars and Los Angeles Kings – something that was pretty important, given that the new coach wouldn't officially take over the Coyotes bench until three weeks into training camp.
A steady hand was needed. A like-minded approach was warranted. And amid all the chaos of a team that still doesn't have an owner almost three years later, a coach that could keep his cool and a sense of calm in the storm was essential.
"Peter is a great person and he has proven he's a great NHL coach," Maloney said. "But the more I got to know Dave and the more time I spent with him, it was clear we had a common philosophy on how to build an organization. It became crystal clear to me that Dave was the guy."
Winningest NHL coaches
Since the 2002-03 season (As of March 1. 2012)
|joel quenneville||st. louis-colorado-chicago||374|
Despite a roster devoid of household names and a few bricks shy in the skill department, Tippett won right away in Phoenix – the 50 wins in 2009-10 and 43 in 2010-11 stand as the two highest in Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise history – and the Coyotes are on pace for a similar win total this season.
Along with the success, he's also established an open-door, up-front responsible atmosphere that has given the Coyotes, despite their uncertain future, a cocoon of comfort which has allowed the team to thrive with a storm all around them.
"When you have a coach that believes in you ... guys just want to play for him," said Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, who played for Tippett in Dallas and has enjoyed a rebirth after the two were reunited in the desert. "He expects a lot from each player in the room, but that's how it should be. That's how you become successful.
"We had some skilled guys in Dallas (Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Sergei Zubov) and we had guys who knew their roles. Everyone knew what the expectation was and what was needed or it wouldn't work. I think we have a similar thing here: He tells you what he wants, what it takes to do it and nothing else is good enough."
A month ago, the Coyotes appeared to have finally fallen off the path, dropping to 12th place and looking like a team that would be a seller at the trade deadline. Veterans like captain Shane Doan, leading scorer Ray Whitney and defenseman Adrian Aucoin – all free agents this season – were candidates for the yard sale.
But Tippett stayed the course, used the All-Star break to refocus his team on the fundamentals and responsibilities he demands, and the Coyotes went 11-0-1 in February to jump not only into the top eight in the West but past slumping San Jose into the Pacific Division lead.
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Maloney points to Tippett's demand that his teams defend first, be responsible to teammates and "play the right way" even if occasional freelancing results in a great goal or big win. Tippett keeps top-secret, individual spreadsheets on his players that go far beyond the normal measuring sticks.
And if the numbers don't jibe, you're not playing well.
‘He's as fierce a competitor as anyone I've ever seen. He's a little like Al Arbour, he doesn't let things slide," Maloney said. "Whether it's Shane Doan or Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the issue is addressed, it's addressed quickly and if it's not corrected, the ice time starts to shrink.
"He's really got a finger on the pulse of his team. He can identify the things that really make a difference between winning and losing."
Because everyone is held to the same standards and penalties – and because the Coyotes can't afford to have even one or two players backslide if they want to keep up against more gifted foes – everyone in the room has an equal skin in the game. There are no favorites, but no outcasts either.
"It's all about honesty. Be honest," Tippett said. "Nothing myself or anyone on our staff does that isn't good for the whole group. It's never derogatory toward a person. It's all about moving the team forward."
Sticking to that standard allows the player-coach relationship to survive in tougher times.
"He's always talking to you, finding out what's going on, how you are feeling, where you are physically and mentally. You can tell he cares," said veteran forward Raffi Torres, who's playing his first season under Tippett. "If you're going through a bad stretch, he's not going close the door on you or bury you in the paper. He's going to let you know what you're doing wrong and how you can fix it.
"As a player, that's exactly what you want."
Wing Lauri Korpikoski spent a frustrating 2009-10 season trying to work his way among the top-six forwards and gain some power-play time. Tippett encouraged him. He set goals in practice and made it plain what he was looking for. But Tippett didn't budge until Korpikoski forced his hand last year, breaking through with a career-high 19 goals.
"When you have a coach that believes in you ... guys just want to play for him. He expects a lot from each player in the room, but that's how it should be. That's how you become successful. "
-- Mike Smith on Dave Tippett
"He made me earn it," Korpikoski said. "It took a while and it was a process to gain that trust. It was frustrating, but I'm grateful he did that. I like the way he expects you to do your job and expects every game to be good. I like the standard to be high."
Korpikoski is also a fan of Tippett's practice regime, which features purposeful, high-tempo drills with a specific purpose instead of just skating.
"You come away with something important, things that really pay off in a game," he said. "He knows when we need a tough practice with battles. And even if we've lost two in a row, he knows when the rest is more important than a punishment."
The Coyotes' leading scorers – Doan, Korpikoski, Whitney, Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney and Keith Yandle – have to create within the system. There is plenty of room for offense as long as defense is addressed first.
"You always have to have a base of defending." Tippet said. "The Edmonton Oilers teams of the early 80s were the best offensive team by a mile. But the Islanders swept them that first year (1983) because they could defend. The Oilers recognized that, so they learned how to defend with their offense and they were dominant. You're not going to win anything if you can't defend."
Even with a 30-goal scorer in Vrbata, a Vezina Trophy candidate in Smith and their strong team concept, the Coyotes will be a first-round underdog if they make the playoffs – regardless of seeding. They were taken out by the Detroit Red Wings – a team that mixes a defensive work ethic with more talent across the board – each of the last two years, and there are several teams in the West that have Phoenix overwhelmed on paper.
But the Coyotes will stick to Tippett's plan. They will stick together -- and they will defend.