PHT Exclusive: Coyotes GM Don Maloney reflects on the offseason

Who have been the elite teams in the Western Conference over the last two seasons? Two years ago the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Cup in forty-nine years. The Canucks won the President’s Trophy last season and the San Jose Sharks have been to back-to-back Western Conference Finals. Most people would guess the Red Wings were successful—but did you know that the Phoenix Coyotes had just as many points as Detroit over the last two seasons? That’s right—in the cutthroat Western Conference, the Coyotes have been one of the most competitive teams since 2009-10.

Yet despite the recent success, many people around the hockey world refuse to give the Coyotes any respect. Last year, the preseason pundits thought Phoenix was nothing more than a one-hit wonder. This season, the same pundits are predicting the same results. It’s a subject that Coyotes’ General Manager Don Maloney can joke about.

“I remember two years ago we were projected 30th, so we can’t get much lower than that!” Maloney laughed. “But you know what, that’s OK and I don’t blame them. I know everybody looks at Bryzgalov leaving and saying ‘he was the sole reason that you had the success that you did.’

“But I’m not buying that,” Maloney continued. “I look at Bryzgalov before he came to us and there was a lot of uncertainty to his game at that time. We were bringing him around. No disrespect to him—I think he was fantastic. But I think we’ll be better, certainly at that position [goaltender], than people might be think. And if we are, we’re going to be good.”

No doubt, goaltending is the elephant in the room when talking about the Coyotes. After failing to come to an agreement with the Russian netminder, the organization quickly moved to Plan B when free agency opened on July 1.

“[July 1] was an interesting day for us,” Maloney reflected. “There were a number of different ways we could go. We looked at a couple of different veterans that might have been there. We looked at a couple of younger goaltenders, there were a number of goaltenders available in trades, but we kept coming back to Mike Smith. Fortunately we were able to get [the Smith] deal done relatively quickly on July 1… He was really our #1 pick.”

Addressing the goaltending was the #1 priority for the organization—but it wasn’t the only item on the offseason agenda. Despite their recent success in the regular season, the Coyotes made a concerted effort to address their depth at forward.

source: Getty Images“We were involved in a lot of other talks [on July 1], but the market just went crazy. We signed a couple of guys. We signed [Raffi] Torres which I think is a really good ‘value’ signing for us. He’s a hard player, aggressive, and should give us some more weight on our left side.”

They didn’t just stop with Torres either. They wanted to improve the stable of forwards—but specifically wanted to address the center position. In addition to Smith and Torres, they were able to land former first round draft pick Boyd Gordon as well. He might not be the type of marquee name that would steal headlines on free agency, but Maloney explained that he was exactly the type of player they were looking to acquire. He’ll certainly fill a void for the Coyotes next season.

“Boyd Gordon is a real quality centerman. Very good with face-offs, penalty killing. Our penalty killing was not good last season, we have to be beater and we’re looking at him to be a leader in that area. I think Boyd can fill a lot of roles. He can play on wing with good players, he can play center on a checking unit. Tip’s really good with those veteran players to put them in the right roles.”

As if acquiring Gordon in free agency wasn’t enough, the team was able to pick up another centerman via trade when they landed Daymond Langkow from the Calgary Flames for Lee Stempniak. “For us, picking up Daymond Langkow was really important to us with our center position,” the Coyotes GM said. “Again, Tip is really good with the veteran players. As long as he stays healthy—knock on wood—we’ll be OK.”

Even though the “experts” doubt the Coyotes once again, the Coyotes organization is confident that they have the potential to be just as good as they’ve been over the last two seasons. In fact, they may be even better. Maloney points to their added depth as a point of optimism for Coyotes fans:

“You know, I actually think we’re deeper this year than last year. Obviously, leaving the goaltending uncertainty outside, I think as a group we’re deeper in a lot of positions. Our young guys are closer to being more impactful. Now the next month or two will determine whether we’ve done a good job or not. The way I look at the season, there are three or four teams that you can legitimately say, ‘OK, they’re ahead of the pack.’ Then there’s the pack and it’s everybody else. We’ll be in the pack—and our goal is to be at the top end of the pack.

“We hope we did a good job [this offseason]. We’ll find out in a month or two!”

Yes, we certainly will. Bring on the hockey season.

Agent: Numerous Stanley Cup contenders have called on Kunitz

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Chris Kunitz is in demand.

That’s the word from agent Ben Hankinson, who this week told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette his 37-year-old client is garnering major interest from a number of teams — and certain kinds of teams, to be clear.

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Hankinson, who represents Kunitz, said he’s fielded calls from as many as 10 teams with a legitimate shot at knocking off the Penguins next season, all interested in signing Kunitz.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end up,” Hankinson said. “Chris does have interest from a lot of teams. Who knows exactly where that interest is going to be once the offers start flying around, but he does have a lot of interest.”

Kunitz, who turns 38 in September, has been told by GM Jim Rutherford to explore free agency (to be fair, Rutherford told all his UFAs this). It’s going to be really interesting what that means for Kunitz, who could bring plenty to a team looking to make a postseason run.

For starters, there’s his experience. Few active NHLers have played — and won — in the playoffs as much as Kunitz. He’s got 161 games on his resume with four Stanley Cups, and was a key contributor for Pittsburgh this past spring.

In 20 games, Kunitz racked up 11 points while averaging 14:52 TOI per night. His nine assists put him tied for fourth on the team, and he famously scored the double-OT winner against Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Given the lack of options in this year’s free agent class, Kunitz could score a pretty decent contract. That’s important, as it might be his last. The cagey veteran spoke at the Stanley Cup Final about how this could very well be his last kick at the can with Pittsburgh, and acknowledged that — given how limited opportunities are to win in the NHL — he needed to capitalize on every single one.

“We’ve been together for so long,” Kunitz said. “Our families are close, the kids are getting older and you realize that we’ve been really fortunate to have this great group of guys that have stuck together for so long. It’s rare to have guys stay for that long.

“So you just want to capitalize and make the most of it. [We’ve] all gone out for dinner together before the trade deadline, never knowing where your hockey career’s going to go. It’s something you put into your mind, but you’ve got to go out there and achieve your success every time you can.”

Report: Kovalchuk talking extension with KHL club

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Last week, Devils GM Ray Shero was of the belief that Ilya Kovalchuk was still planning to play in the NHL next season.

Today, however, a Russian media outlet is reporting that Kovalchuk is talking with his KHL club, SKA Saint Petersburg, about a possible extension.

If accurate, that would mesh with an earlier report — the one that Shero ostensibly shot down — that Kovalchuk had decided to keep playing in Russia.

The NHL’s decision to skip the 2018 Winter Olympics may be weighing on Kovalchuk. If he returns to North America, he won’t be able to represent his country in South Korea — a fact that was cemented last week when the NHL released its 2017-18 schedule.

Of course, all this could just be SKA Saint Petersburg making a last-ditch attempt to keep Kovalchuk.

“We have the desire to keep Ilya. He is our hockey player, a patriot and loves to play for the national team,” said club president Gennady Timchenko (translated, per Sportsnet). “We will talk today, and we might have some news later.”

Kovalchuk can’t sign an NHL contract until July 1.

Sens’ Stalberg drawing interest from Swiss League

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Viktor Stalberg, the veteran forward that was part of Ottawa’s recent playoff run, has reportedly landed on the radar of National League A outfit EV Zug.

Per Swiss Hockey News, club manager Reto Klay confirmed interest in Stalberg, saying he is “among the candidates” to be signed by the team this summer.

Stalberg, 31, split last season between the ‘Canes and Sens, combining to score 11 goals and 16 points in 57 games. He’s previously spent time with the Rangers, Predators, Blackhawks and Maple Leafs, recording a career-high 22 goals and 43 points with Chicago in ’11-12.

He was also part of the ‘Hawks team that captured the Stanley Cup in 2013.

Stalberg has played each of the last two seasons on one-year deals, and it’ll be interesting to see if he lands another one — or, potentially, try and secure a longer-term deal overseas.

Former Oilers tough guy Dave Semenko passes away from cancer

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Former Edmonton Oilers forward Dave Semenko has passed away after a short battle with cancer. Semenko was 59 years old.

The Oilers released a statement earlier this morning:

It is with great sadness we announce the passing of Oilers legend Dave Semenko after a short, but courageous battle with cancer. Dave will be remembered as a fierce competitor, loyal teammate, fan favorite and dear friend to so many. His legendary toughness on the ice is surpassed only by his kindness and caring for others, and his equally legendary wit and sense of humor.

Our hearts go out to Dave’s family and many friends.

Once an Oiler, Always an Oiler

Semenko played for the Oilers for parts of 10 seasons (two in the WHA, eight in the NHL). He also had short stints in Hartford and Toronto.

He finished his NHL career with 65 goals, 153 points and 1,175 penalty minutes in 575 games. Semenko also won two Stanley Cups with the Oilers in 1984 and 1985.