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.

Pre-game reading: ‘Trying to keep playing at such a high level, it was going to kill me’

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The Pioneer Press caught up with former Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding, who quietly retired from professional hockey two-and-a-half years ago. That decision came after Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and made a stirring comeback with the Wild, capturing the 2013 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy as a result.

In the piece, Harding talks about his final game, one in which he left an AHL game against Charlotte in an ambulance due to severe dehydration. That proved an eye-opener, one that all but cemented the need for him to hang up his skates.

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Sara Harding took one look at her gaunt husband on FaceTime [following the game in Charlotte] and immediately bought a one-way plane ticket from Minneapolis, not knowing when she would return — or if she would be coming back alone.

“She was really scared,” Harding recalled Tuesday. “That was the final dagger. It started hitting me that I still have a family and life to live here. People that I love and that love me, I saw how scared they were and how much it affected them. I knew it was time to put up the pads.

 “The doctors all told me if I kept doing this to my body, trying to keep playing at such a high level, it was going to kill me.”

Harding, who has attended a few Wild games since retirement, is currently working as a goalie coach at a local Minnesota high school.

— “I think there’s only three teams left in the NHL that don’t have a downtown arena, and we’re one of them and it’s tragic that we don’t. I bought the team out of bankruptcy and that’s where the arena was, and that’s what I bought. But we need to move things downtown, if it’s Ottawa it’s got to be downtown.”

That’s Sens owner Eugene Melnyk (per the Citizen) talking about Ottawa’s proposed new arena. He’s hopeful negotiations with the National Capital Commission on the development of Lebreton Flats will be completed before the end of the year, at which point construction can begin on what he promises will be a “gorgeous” complex.

— The latest development in the U.S. women’s looming boycott of the 2017 World Hockey Championships: USA Hockey has postponed a pre-tourney training camp, and an exhibition game against Finland. The organization is still hopeful it can hold a camp just prior to the start of the worlds, which will begin on Mar. 31 in Plymouth, MI. (Yahoo)

Goalie nods: Raanta goes back-to-back in Battle of New York

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Another chapter in one of the league’s most storied rivalries will be written tonight, when the Isles take on the Rangers at MSG.

And in goal, it’ll be Thomas Greiss against Antti Raanta.

Raanta, the goalie of record in seven of the Rangers’ last eight games, gets the call even though Henrik Lundqvist is reportedly healthy enough to return from his hip injury. Lundqvist is expected to resume playing on the club’s upcoming three-game California swing through Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose.

So that means tonight’s game falls to Raanta, who continues to put up solid numbers. He’s now at 15-7-2 on the year with a 2.32 GAA and .920 save percentage, and has allowed three goals or fewer in each of his last five appearances. That includes last night’s 3-2 OT loss to the Devils, in which he made 26 saves.

Greiss, meanwhile, is coming off a very good performance in Saturday’s 3-2 OT loss to the Jackets. He stopped 35 of 38 shots for a .921 save percentage, and knows he’ll need to be as good — or better — as the Isles are in desperate need of points.

The Isles head into tonight’s action three points back of the Maple Leafs for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Elsewhere…

— Toronto won’t start former Blue Jacket Curtis McElhinney tonight, when it visits Columbus. Instead, head coach Mike Babcock will continue to roll with the red-hot Frederik Andersen, who’s coming off a 33-save win against Boston on Monday. For the Jackets, Joonas Korpisalo looks to be in goal.

Jonathan Bernier continues to pile up the starts in Anaheim, with John Gibson still nursing his lower-body injury. Bernier will get the call when the Ducks host the Oilers tonight. And guess who’s in for Edmonton? If you guessed anybody other than Cam Talbot, you haven’t been reading this column often enough.

KHLer gets eight-game suspension after attacking Talbot, Kozun

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A recent playoff game in the KHL between Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and CSKA (Lokomotiv won the game and the series) featured a little bit of chaos because of the actions of CSKA defenseman Grigory Panin.

Late in the second period Panin briefly lost his cool when he delivered a devastating hit to the head of former NHL player Max Talbot, injuring him and igniting a scrum that resulted in Panin slashing former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Brandon Kozun in the head.

As you can see in the video above, Kozun was in pretty bad shape after the incident and needed a lot of assistance just to get off the ice. Talbot was also injured as a result of the hit from Panin.

Panin received five-minute major penalties for both hits, as well as 20-minute misconduct penalties for a grand total of 50 penalty minutes.

This all happened just a few minutes after a Talbot goal gave Lokomotiv a 2-0 lead, scoring a goal that would ultimately decide the game and the series.

On Tuesday, the KHL announced that Panin has been suspended eight game for his actions. That suspension includes an automatic one-game suspension for being a repeat offender (this was not his first ejection this season) and another automatic one-game suspension for receiving two 20-minute misconduct penalties in the same game. The hit on Talbot also resulted in a two-game suspension while the incident with Kozun resulted in a four-game suspension.

Kozun and Panin do have a bit of a history with one another in the KHL. Last year Kozun was ejected from a game for injuring Panin on a hit from behind.

It’s also not the first time Panin has done something outrageous to warrant a suspension in the KHL. Along with a suspension earlier this season, he was also suspended twice back in 2013, including an 11-game suspension for an outrageously dirty hit on former NHL player Matt Murley.

Kozun played 20 games in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2014-15 season, scoring two goals to go with two assists. He was one of the top scorers in the KHL this season with 56 points in 59 games.

Talbot spent 11 years in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Colorado Avalanche and Boston Bruins.

Columbus started extension talks with key youngsters Wennberg, Anderson

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Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen was a busy man on Tuesday, signing three players — center Lukas Sedlak, left winger Markus Hannikainen and blueliner Scott Harrington — to two-year extensions.

Kekalainen’s also working on some more significant deals as well.

Per the Dispatch, he’s begun preliminary extension talks with three Columbus’ brightest young players — forwards Josh Anderson and Alex Wennberg, and goalie Joonas Korpisalo — all of whom are pending restricted free agents.

Though talks will reportedly be sidelined as the team focuses on its playoff run, Kekalainen insisted all three deals would get done.

“They’re all restricted,” he said. “And they’re all going to be re-signed.”

Of the three, Wennberg and Anderson have made the biggest impact this season.

Wennberg, 22, has done a terrific job filling the hole left at center from the Ryan JohansenSeth Jones trade. The 14th overall pick in ’13 leads the team in assists this year, with 42, and sits second in scoring with 54 points.

“He’s been probably one of our best play-makers,” Tortorella said of Wenneberg, per NHL.com. “When you talk play-makers, everyone thinks offense, but coming out of our end zone, too, he makes plays. He’s not an off-the-glass guy. He wants to try to make a play so we keep possession. For such a young man, I just love his poise, and that’s what you need. You can’t be afraid to make a play and he has shown that.”

Anderson, also 22, has made a major impact in his first fulls season with the Jackets. He’s found the back of the net 16 times — more than Henrik Zetterberg, Nathan MacKinnon, Claude Giroux, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf — and has been a physical presence, sitting third on the team with 119 hits.

Korpisalo’s had a smaller role this season, though that has to do with the heavy workload shouldered by No. 1 netminder Sergei Bobrovsky (and the fact now-Maple Leaf Curtis McElhinney spent time as the backup). But the organization is high on Korpisalo who, at 22, projects to be a potential goalie of the future.

It’s fair to suggest Wennberg will get the biggest raise this summer. The question will be if the club tries to sign him to a bridge deal, like it did with Boone Jenner, or negotiate a long-term deal, like it did with Jones.

Kekalainen also has a few UFAs to make decisions on, with the most interesting being Sam Gagner. Signed on the cheap last summer — one year, $650,000 — he’s done an excellent job of reviving his career, notching 18 goals and 44 points through 70 games.