I'd get it one piece at a time
And it wouldn't cost me a dime
--Wayne Kemp, "One Piece At A Time"
Don Maloney works under difficult circumstances. Since taking the job as General Manager of the Phoenix Coyotes, Maloney has labored under a franchise wrapped in international drama. His owner went bust, a lecherous buyer appeared, made an exorbitant, undeniable bid and was sent away by the courts. A second buyer, a sports magnate, showed up but was also sent away after asking for too much in the way of concessions. The league took control of the team and made a shady, fallback, backroom deal with a foreign buyer. The NHL fought the city, worked with the city, fought again and worked with the city again and eventually gained an arena bailout for the franchise. The arena deal allowed a mysterious but wealthy owner to step forward and stabilize the situation. Now citizens are threatening to take the city to court for the deal with the team.
Throughout all of this, Maloney built a contender one piece at a time, one under-valued player at a time in a league where Colby Armstrong signed for $3,000,000 annually, Niclas Wallin signed for $2,500,000 for a year and Ethan Moreau was claimed on waivers. After the jump, a look at the bargain bin acquisitions behind Phoenix's rise to contention.
- 3.4.2009 - TRADE - acquired Scottie Upshall in exchange for Daniel Carcillo. The Flyers were looking for cap space and Maloney was there to oblige. Maloney sent away the blight and in return landed Upshall, the talented two-way winger with goal scoring ability. Unfortunately, injuries have limited Upshall's effectiveness thus far.
- 7.1.2009 - UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT - signed Vernon Fiddler on the opening day of free agency in 2009 to a two-year contract worth $1,100,000 per year. Fiddler was a nondescript bottom-line center on a Predators playoff team and was already pushing thirty years of age. But Fiddler is an excellent defensive center with the highest-level faceoff skills, and takes on the toughest assignments on the penalty kill. He's filled the vital role of a capable defensive center in the bottom six - sound like a useful player for a team you may have heard of?
- 7.1.2009 - UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT - signed Jason LaBarbera to a two-year contract worth $1,000,000 per season. LaBarbera, Tyler Dellow's favorite league-average goaltender, was another opening day target for Maloney and the Coyotes. While the Oilers were off spending $3,750,000 per year for the next four years on Nikolai Khabibulin, Maloney stole off to the side of the room and quietly signed LaBarbera, a goaltender with 107 career games to a two-year deal to back up Ilya Bryzgalov. Since then, LaBarbera has appeared in 31 games, faced 900 shots and made 829 saves for a .921 save percentage.
- 7.13.2009 - TRADE - acquired Lauri Korpikoski in exchange for Enver Lisin. In a rare loss for Glen Sather, Maloney stole away the young bottom-line wing from the Rangers for the underachieving Russian wing. Korpikoski spent his time on the bottom line in New York, cutting his teeth under Tom Renney, then John Tortorella. In Phoenix, Korpikoski has become an ace on the penalty kill, leading the team in short-handed minutes per game (3.0) and +/- ON per 60 at -4.90. He's also scored 11 goals and chipped in with 13 assists, but the offensive is both unexpected and unsustainable, as evidenced by his 19% shooting percentage.
- 7.21.2009 - TRADE - acquired Radim Vrbata in exchange for Todd Fedoruk and David Hale. Vrbata first came to Phoenix from Chicago in 2007 when Maloney sent Kevyn Adams to the Hawks. Vrbata followed with a breakout season, 27 goals and 29 assists, against second-level competition and was a hot commodity as free agency began. Maloney was careful not to overpay, and Tampa made the mistake, as was the custom of the time, of signing the winger to play top line minutes. Vrbata was never a fit in Tampa, claiming homesickness and returned to The Czech Republic after being waived by the Lightning. When Vrbata signaled his intent to return to the NHL, Maloney was in need of some offense, so he jumped in and shipped away two replacement-level players in Fedoruk and Hale. Vrbata responded to his return to the desert last year with 24 goals and 19 assists and is on pace for 18 goals and 29 assists this season.
- 9.2.2009 - UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT - signed Taylor Pyatt to a one-year contract worth $600,000. Pyatt has been saddled with the 'Draft Bust' label for awhile now, but Maloney saw an opportunity to add size and experience to the bottom of his lineup. He brought Pyatt in to work with Dave Tippett and paid the big wing a modest salary. Tippett used him against fourth line competition and Maloney's moved paid off. Pyatt lit up his competition. Maloney re-signed Pyatt to a two-year contract with a $1,000,000 annual cap hit during the off-season, but Tippett has deployed him against third-level minutes. Pyatt is still lighting up his competition.
- 3.3.2010 - TRADE - Acquired Lee Stempniak in exchange for Matt Jones, a 4th round draft pick and a 7th round draft pick. The Maple Leafs, as they are wont to do under Brian Burke, were attempting to rid themselves of any players under 6'6" 235 lbs. Stempniak, prone to bouts of inconsistency in his early career got the reputations as a streaky, power play-only player in Toronto. Stempniak averaged .495 points per game and was a -19 in 123 games. Since moving to Phoenix, Stempniak has averaged .656 points per game and is a +22 in 67 career games. Stempniak liked the desert so much, he chose to stay in Phoenix for the nominal cap hit of $1,900,000 per year.
9.14.2010 - UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT - signed Eric Belanger to a one-year contract for $750,000. In 2009, Maloney signed Robert Lang to a one-year deal to bring stability to the center position. Lang was a well-rounded veteran capable of playing in nearly all situations and with a variety of wingers. In 2010, Maloney signed Belanger to a one-year deal to bring stability to the center position. Belanger is a well-rounded veteran capable of playing in nearly all situations and with a variety of wingers. Belanger spent the summer of 2010 waiting on a contract offer from the Capitals, but it never came. Maloney, ever on the prowl for a bargain, jumped in with a contract offer for Belanger. Since then, Belanger has played a regular role on the penalty kill and a secondary role on the power play. He's played on all four lines at even strength and he's producing 0.428 points per game.
Maloney has carefully built and pruned his roster in order to fill needs on the cheap. He's added offense (Vrbata and Stempniak), defense (Fiddler and Korpikoski), well-rounded players (Upshall and Belanger) and role players (LaBarbera and Pyatt). He understands value in the marketplace and has managed to avoid paying any significant price for the parts. He's done this all on a limited budget with an uncertain future. He deserved the Executive of the Year award and might well land another one in 2011.