How the Phoenix Coyotes Are Winning an Unfair Game

Phoenix Coyotes Bench

June 22, 2012: Phoenix Coyotes trade Harrison Ruopp, Marc Cheverie, and a third-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenseman Zbynek Michalek

Round One of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft is winding down and the Phoenix Coyotes have just made the trek to the stage to announce their first-round pick, Henrik Samuelsson.  The Coyotes aren’t used to waiting this long on draft day.  The 27th pick, late in the evening on Friday, was their ‘reward’ for advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. But it doesn’t mean the night is over for General Manager Don Maloney.

As other teams pack up their bags, Maloney squeezes through a space between two tables and taps Penguins GM Ray Shero on the shoulder.  Shero puts down his paper and the men walk off to the side for a chat.

Shero is at home in Pittsburgh’s beautiful Consol Energy Center, built in 2009 and the site of this year’s draft.  Maloney is playing the role of traveling salesman.  With his wavy blonde hair and Arizona summer tan, he carries a casual demeanor, hands in his pockets.  He glances into the crowd as the GM’s discuss the possibility of Phoenix reacquiring Zbynek Michalek, who left Phoenix two years ago in free agency and signed a long-term deal with the powerhouse Penguins.

Shero is looking to move Michalek and his $4 million annual cap hit to free up room to sign both of the summer’s prized free agents: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.  Maloney never wanted to lose Michalek in the first place — a player he would later call “a top shutdown defenseman in the NHL” — but ownership uncertainty surrounding the Coyotes over the past three years has cost the team many of its stars.

Within four minutes, Shero and Maloney smile, shake hands, and then return to their respective tables to report the news to their staff: Michalek is heading back to Phoenix.

Media wait for Shero’s press conference (via @wyshynski)

Once the first round is finished, both men make their way into a media hallway to discuss the draft and Michalek trade with reporters, but they look confused.

Shero sees hundreds of microphones and cameras surrounding his podium and can’t decide on the most efficient way to penetrate the circle.

Maloney doesn’t have that problem.  His challenge is figuring out who, or if anyone, in the room is there to talk to him.

Soon he locates a tripod camera off to the side waiting for him to record a few words on the draft for PhoenixCoyotes.com.

“This is sad,” Maloney says with a chuckle, glancing over at the Shero mob and then back at the lonely camera.

A reporter turns around.  “Don’t worry, they’re all coming over after.”

“Oh I know, I know,” Maloney says, “and believe me, I’m not shilling for it, but…”

The Penguins certainly have home-ice advantage on this night when it comes to local media presence, but Maloney is used to the lack of attention.  The casual hockey fan probably can’t name more than a couple of Coyotes despite the fact Phoenix has made the playoffs the past three seasons.  League ownership not only limits the money Maloney can spend on player personnel, it also cripples the marketing efforts of a team that’s constantly battling relocation rumors.  But what the Coyotes lack in fanfare, they make up for in hard work.

Maloney fields questions from a tiny circle of reporters — and the few that join after Shero is finished — for over 20 minutes; making light of the never-ending ownership issues, explaining why his captain Shane Doan is nervous about re-signing with the team, and gushing about how thrilled he was to reacquire Zbynek Michalek.

“Z was a guy we just did not want to lose,” says Maloney.  “We look at him and a budding star in Oliver Ekman-Larsson as being a terrific combo on defense that can match up against the best players in the Western Conference.  Even with the culture we have in Phoenix.  We have three or four other Czech players and Z used to be a leader of that pack.”

“He was a guy that just fits.”

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 July 1, 2011: Free Agent goaltender Mike Smith signs a two-year contract with Phoenix worth $2 million per season.

Brad Richards was the player most fans were concerned with on the first day of free agency in the summer of 2011.

Where will the 31-year-old free agent lay down his roots? Is he worth $40 million or $70 million?  Can my team’s recruitment video top Los Angeles’ that included Jerry Bruckheimer and Kobe Bryant?  Does Richards even like basketball?

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Coyotes were ecstatic after signing free agent goaltender Mike Smith to a modest multi-year deal, especially in light of Ilya Bryzgalov’s recent departure.

The Coyotes grabbed Bryzgalov off waivers from Anaheim in 2007 and turned him into one of the league’s top netminders under the tutelage of goalie coach Sean Burke.  Bryzgalov was so successful in Phoenix that he became the prized jewel of the 2011 free agent goalie class.

Maloney knew he couldn’t come close to matching the bounty Bryzgalov was set to receive on the open market and dealt the goalie’s rights to the Philadelphia Flyers in June.  The Flyers immediately locked up Bryzgalov to a lucrative $51 million lifetime contract, and the Coyotes settled on Smith.

Mike Smith was once regarded as a top goaltender prospect but battled injuries and inconsistent play during stints in Dallas and Tampa Bay.

“Obviously injuries happen so I’ve learned how to deal with those,” Smith said on a conference call with reporters after signing his new deal.  “But in getting sent to the minors, clearing waivers twice, and coming back, I’ve learned a lot about my game and what I have to do to be a good goalie in this league.   I think if I improve as much as I did this year despite everything I went through, I’m going to be a great goaltender.”

A great goaltender? After posting a 2.90 goals against average and a sub .900 save percentage his previous year in Tampa, Smith really felt he was on the verge of becoming a great goaltender?

The conversation shifted to a goofy chat about Smith’s goalie mask.  No one on the conference call questioned Smith’s disillusionment — ahem — confidence.   Reporters already had their story. The team that once again can’t keep a superstar because of financial constraints has turned to the washed-up goalie that won’t give up his dream of being an NHL star.

The Coyotes knew what they were getting though.  They knew the potential was there for Smith to be as good as Bryzgalov, and maybe even better.  They knew Smith just wanted — needed — an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.

Mike Smith Coyotes

Mike Smith (Ric Tapia/Icon SMI)

“Mike is a guy we knew very well,” Coyotes assistant general manager Brad Treliving says a year later.  “He might be as athletic as any goaltender I’ve ever been around.  He plays the puck well which allows you to spend less time in your defensive zone. [Head Coach Dave Tippett] knew him from Dallas, knew his character and how he’d fit with us.  Then we’ve seen what Sean Burke has been able to do with other goaltenders in our organization, like Bryzgalov.”

Smith struggled in his first start with Phoenix, allowing six goals against the San Jose Sharks, but by midseason he turned a corner under Burke.  In February he went 11-0.  He notched three straight shutouts near the end of the regular season, including 54 saves against Columbus, an NHL record for most saves in a regulation game.

“We thought the building blocks were here for Mike to be very good for us,” says Treliving.  “He was a guy that was just itching for a chance to be a Number 1 goaltender.”

But Smith’s impressive performance still flew under the radar.  His regular season save percentage was better than Vezina Trophy nominees Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick, and tied with Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist.  It didn’t matter.  NHL General Managers didn’t feel Smith even deserved a nomination for the trophy.

From a financial perspective, the Coyotes front office is probably glad.  Next summer Smith could be facing the same decision as Bryzgalov: stick with the team that finally gave you a chance, or chase the big free agent payday elsewhere.

Roster turnover is a constant challenge for the Coyotes staff.  Maloney has been very active on the trade front during his five-year tenure, but he often has to wait until midseason or later to make substantial additions (when the remaining salary owed is more manageable for the Coyotes’ strict budget).  It’s a never-ending search, and like Billy Beane in Moneyball, they’re always sifting through the bargain bin searching for the unwanted, the misused, and the misunderstood.

“In our situation,” explains Treliving, “we just look for people that are going to be fits with us and maybe given a little more responsibility, a little more ice time, or put into a certain role or situation, they can maybe find more success than they have in other cities.  Our motto here is: How do we get better every day?”

Treliving says they first break down the typical hockey game into certain situations that lead to victories: winning faceoffs, scoring goals, allowing fewer goals, improving the powerplay and penalty kill, and more.

“You try to create a profile and say okay, what are we looking for or what are we replacing? You try to find people that you can afford that can help you be better in those specific areas and hopefully that improves your team as a whole.  The easy thing to do is to say we need to score more goals so let’s go get the top player in free agency.  We can’t do that.  We’ve got to find value here in Phoenix.”

Three years ago the Coyotes were looking to improve their faceoffs and penalty killing.  They identified Vernon Fiddler, a free agent center out of Nashville, as a potential fit and signed him to a reasonable two-year deal worth $1.1 million per season.

Fiddler boosted his offensive production to 30 points from 17 his final season in Nashville.  He also led the Coyotes in faceoff percentage and helped the team jump from 28th in the league in penalty killing to 6th.

“Verne was a guy that was very good with us,” says Treliving, “but then players get to a point where maybe we can’t pay what they’re looking to be paid or deserve to be paid, and you’ve just got to find that next guy.”

After Fiddler signed for $1.8 million in Dallas last summer, the Coyotes moved on to Boyd Gordon, an underutilized free agent from Washington that could fill Fiddler’s void.  As one might expect, Gordon’s point total jumped from 9 to 23, despite facing the top lines on opposing teams, and he won an unbelievable 57.5-percent of shorthanded faceoffs he attempted last year.

He could have and should have been nominated for the Selke award as the league’s top defensive forward, but like Smith, Gordon never got the attention he deserved.

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(Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)

July 1, 2012: Ray Whitney leaves Phoenix and signs a two-year contract with the Dallas Stars worth $4.5 million per season.

Veteran forward Ray Whitney tied for 12th in the NHL with 77 points with Phoenix last season.  It was the first time during Maloney’s tenure that a player has finished in the Top 20 in league scoring.  When the Coyotes weren’t willing to give the 40-year-old Whitney a second year on his new contract this summer, the Dallas Stars swooped in and fulfilled his demands.

After signing with the Stars, Whitney gave credit to the Coyotes staff for succeeding through adversity, but told NHL Live that league ownership is far from ideal:

“Having an owner in place is very important.  I found that in Phoenix we got stuck with some of the worst scheduling I’ve seen in 20 years.  I think there was a stretch where we had 23 games in a row in Phoenix where we had to fly into the game, which means that we weren’t playing back-to-back games or home games two in a row.  Everybody has a tough stretch, but it’s frustrating when you don’t have an owner who has a voice and is able to stand up for his players.”

Maloney and Treliving refuse to cite the current ownership conditions as an excuse, but they admit it does play a key factor in retaining talent and attracting new players.

“You see some of this stuff written about Phoenix like it’s sort of this wasteland,” says Treliving, “but players that have been here a while and others that have come from other places absolutely love it.  Nobody wants to leave here.  The climate and lifestyle are well-known, but now I think Phoenix is viewed as a place to win.”

“That’s been the frustrating part.  Guys have wanted to stay here or come here and haven’t because they don’t know if we’re going to be in Phoenix long-term.  You’d love to have an owner come in and give you a little bit more to spend, but money isn’t necessarily a cure-all either.  More than anything it’s just removing the uncertainty.”

When it came time to replace Whitney a few weeks ago, the Coyotes went through their typical exercise.  They were losing an undersized forward with great speed, elite hockey intelligence, powerplay skills, and the ability to make the players around him better.  In comes Steve Sullivan, the veteran winger shunned by Pittsburgh, but a high-character person and a perfect fit on the ice.

“We put a real premium on character and the strength of our locker room has allowed us to have success over the last couple of years,” Treliving says.  “That’s one of the biggest things.  We need everybody.  We’re not a team that can rely one individual to rush the puck end-to-end so we really try to find people that fit in with our culture, are good teammates, and can hopefully add to that chemistry we’ve developed.”

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In Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe was portrayed as a puppet of GM Billy Beane, a figurehead that carried out Beane’s statistical maneuvers and frankly just seemed to get in the way.  An anonymous player was even quoted in the book as saying Howe’s role was so marginalized that he wouldn’t have noticed if Howe wasn’t in the dugout during a game.

That isn’t the case with Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett.

“When you have a situation like ours, the most important thing is clarity,” says Treliving.  “We can’t control the ownership issues.  Our focus is solely on winning our next game and ‘Tipp’ has done a masterful job keeping this group on task.”

Tippett also differs from Howe in his appreciation of advanced statistics.  Phoenix plays a tight defensive system that emphasizes spending as little time as possible in their defensive zone and limiting opponent’s shots to certain perimeter areas of the ice.

“A lot of our game is made up on percentages,” says GM Maloney.  “The simpler the better.  We don’t have a lot of guys that are flashy because sometimes those offensive-minded players make mistakes.  We try to keep our mistakes to a minimum and hang around in games long enough to win.”

Much like the approach Maloney and Treliving take to identifying logical fits for their roster, Tippett attempts to quantify key individual contributions through the use of advanced metrics.  In November, he told XTRA910 that what fans or coaches see happening on the ice isn’t always an accurate portrayal of what’s really going on:

When you go to a game, everybody can get a perception of a player.  If a guy works really hard, skates really fast, everybody thinks he’s a great player.  I do a lot of stats that are kind of behind the scenes that involve what a player actually contributes to the game.  That can be anything from scoring chances, shots on goal for, shots blocked.  We have a couple different stats.

We have one that’s called an efficiency stat that basically has a ratio of points for everything a player does.  Everything from a goal to an assist, hit, fight, giveaway, takeaway, block, everything that happens in a game and the player comes up with a rating.  It’s not a system where a player is graded highest to lowest.  It’s what each individual does.  It’s broken down and presented to the players.  Sometimes you have a guy that’s supposed to be creating chances for you.  If he’s not anywhere on the scoreboard or creating chances, I have a problem with that.

I used to do it by long-hand and it used to take me hours and hours with VCR’s.  When I got to Dallas I hired a video guy who was working for a software company.  We worked for a long time to create a software package that would bring all of this to light.  It was okay in Dallas but then I got here and our video coach Steve Peters has done just a heck of a job.  I told him ‘this is what I want to do and I think there’s some upside in this if we can get it all figured out’ and he’s taken it to another level.  What we have now is a very efficient way of looking at the game.

We let the players see some of these stats.  I think players recognize that they want to have a certain contribution to the game.  If a guy isn’t scoring, he can certainly run into a couple people or block a couple shots.  It keeps everybody focused on the task at hand and it comes back to our identity: Everybody has to do something for us to win.

Dustin Brown battles Ray Whitney

( Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)

Imagine a game-day skate at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale the morning after a tough 3-2 loss.  Tippett posts the efficiency stats from the night before and the players gather around the bulletin board to see how they did.

A checking line player like Boyd Gordon dominated in the faceoff circle, blocked five shots, and delivered a handful of hits in just 11 minutes of ice time.  He didn’t score, but he isn’t expected to every night.  He’s proud of his efficiency stat and knows that despite the outcome, he did his part in the battle.

On the other hand, maybe a top-liner like Ray Whitney notched an assist on the powerplay but did very little else during the game.  He isn’t expected to hit or block as many shots as Gordon, but he wasn’t creating scoring chances either.  He can almost sense his teammates staring at his name at the bottom of the list, wondering why he decided to take a night off.

The NHL regular season is a grind and elite coaches find a way to motivate their players from Game 1 through Game 82.  Perhaps Tippett’s efficiency stat is bogus and doesn’t perfectly capture player contributions.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s that sense of pride or guilt a player feels when he sees the list that motivates everyone to dive in front of a shot head-first, fight through a check to get a shot on net, and buy into the team-first concept.  The player knows that whatever he does or doesn’t do tonight will show up on paper tomorrow for all his teammates to see.

It’s tough to say where the Coyotes would be right now if they hadn’t qualified for the playoffs the last three seasons under Tippett.  The Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg last summer because no one stepped up with interest in preserving the floundering franchise.  Former Phoenix owner Jerry Moyes put the team into bankruptcy more than three years ago and Greg Jamison, the latest in a long line of prospective owners, is having trouble raising enough money to complete his purchase of the franchise.

Maybe what the Coyotes staff has accomplished with one hand figuratively tied behind their back is all for naught.  Maybe the team is soon shipped off to Quebec City, leaving the Glendale market and fanbase in shambles.  Maybe the team is folded, leaving the front office, coaching staff and players in search of new jobs and homes.

Listening to Treliving describe the Coyotes’ on-ice approach to winning, one can’t help but wonder if it applies to success in the big picture as well.

“As simplistic as it might sound, we just try to do the right thing.  We really feel that if we do the right things long enough, we’re going to come away with the result we’re looking for.”

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Email: MJColligan@TheHockeyWriters.com

Twitter: @MikeColligan

9 Comments

  1. Awesome. This was great.

  2. awesome article, Go the underdogs!!!!

  3. Easily the top hockey article of the offseason. Colligan nails it!

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  6. Great article. Terrific insight into the wonderful job being done by Maloney, Treliving, and Tippett under very trying circumstances. Just one thing…no mention of Maloney’s Jack Adams snub? This is easily the most underrated hockey staff in the league.

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