Phoenix GM Don Maloney kept a steady-on-the-rudder approach for the first five months of the season, managing a League-imposed budget while watching his team remain in playoff contention.
When opportunity knocked at the trade deadline, however, the mild-mannered Maloney pounced with several moves that solidified the Coyotes down the stretch and turned them into a serious threat to the supposed big dogs in the Western Conference.
Maloney took on one of the hardest tasks any general manager ever has been asked to do and he made it work. Along with Washington's George McPhee and Nashville's David Poile, he is a finalist for the first NHL General Manager of the Year Award, which will be presented at the Stanley Cup Final.
The Coyotes survived a tumultuous summer spent mostly in bankruptcy court, and all Maloney could do was watch, wait and wonder. He couldn't really make any significant offseason moves because he had no idea what the operating budget would be, and who would be setting it.
The NHL took control of the Coyotes and gave Maloney a budget. It was his job to field a competitive team that hopefully would sell the game to a disenchanted market, so he put the youth movement on hold and turned to bargain-value veterans such as Robert Lang, Vernon Fiddler, Adrian Aucoin and Paul Bissonnette in the offseason.
They joined fellow veterans Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski, Matthew Lombardi, Scottie Upshall and Ilya Bryzgalov to turn a once young and raw team into a veteran squad. Coach Dave Tippett came on board in September to lead the group after Maloney made a visit to Tippett's Minnesota home to convince the former Dallas coach to replace Wayne Gretzky, who had stepped down during training camp.
The Coyotes delivered the goods, making the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Southern Arizona answered by gobbling up tickets and bringing back Whiteouts during the playoffs. The Coyotes took the Detroit Red Wings to the brink before bowing out in Game 7 at home.
Maloney kept the roster at 21 players for most of the first five months to allow some wiggle room in the budget at the deadline in order to make some pretty significant moves. He made seven trades and added five players while deleting only two from the roster.
Wojtek Wolski immediately became a productive top-six forward in Phoenix and finished with 18 points in the final 18 games. Derek Morris added stability to the back end and a powerful shot on the power play. He was a plus-5 down the stretch. Lee Stempniak was the NHL's First Star of the Month for March, with 13 goals in 14 games.
Mathieu Schneider and Petteri Nokelainen also were brought on board.
Phoenix went 13-4-2 after the Olympic break, including a nine-game winning streak from March 4-21, to earn home-ice advantage as the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
McPhee and Poile didn't have to do as much tinkering as Maloney, but each did enough to produce memorable results. The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy with 121 points and the Predators got back into the playoffs in the Western Conference after a one-year hiatus.
McPhee signed Mike Knuble in the offseason to provide some of the net-front presence the Capitals were lacking. He joined with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin to form one of the best lines in the NHL, as they combined for 263 points.
Jason Chimera was brought on board via a trade from Columbus shortly after Christmas and he turned into the perfect third-liner. Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger and Scott Walker were added at the deadline for Brian Pothier, prospects and draft picks.
The Capitals surprisingly flamed out early in the playoffs, but they led the League in every important offensive category, including goals-per game (3.82) and power play (25.2 percent).
McPhee has set this roster up for the long haul, too, as none of their main core players have hit their 27th birthday, goalies Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are each 22, and the Hershey Bears remain in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Poile, also working under a tight budget, followed Maloney's approach by staying steady for five months before making a pair of moves at the deadline, getting Dustin Boyd from Calgary and Denis Grebeshkov from Edmonton for only a pair of draft picks.
However, Poile's best attribute was his trust in the roster from the outset. The Predators struggled out of the gate and were miserable offensively, but instead of tinkering right away, Poile let coach Barry Trotz and the veterans on the team work it out.
Nashville went on a seven-game winning streak in November and won nine of 15 in December. They closed the regular season with 14 wins and 29 points over the final 21 games to make the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl