Coyotes get boost from tight free-agent market

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GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes' financial situation is no mystery -- the team is still owned by the National Hockey League, which has been looking for a buyer for nearly a year.

But as general manager Don Maloney sought to strengthen the foothold the Coyotes gained in the Western Conference with their first playoff appearance in eight years, they finally got an offseason boost from the economy.

Malone figured he had done all he could by replacing the lost firepower of center Matthew Lombardi with veteran forward Ray Whitney, and he was resigned to leaning on his farm system to fill the holes up front. But then the bottom dropped out of the free-agent market, putting the up-and-coming Coyotes on more equal financial ground -- and allowing Maloney to make some last-minute upgrades.

Forward Lee Stempniak, expected to be out of Phoenix's price range after scoring 14 of his career-high 27 goals for the Coyotes after coming to the desert at the trade deadline, sat on the market for two months before returning to Arizona for a two-year, $3.5 million deal that fit into Maloney's NHL-mandated budget.

The Coyotes pounced again last week after veteran center Eric Belanger's handshake deal with the Washington Capitals turned sour. Maloney inked him to a one-year, $750,000 deal that strengthened Phoenix down the middle and on the penalty-kill.

Versatile ex-Canuck Kyle Wellwood is also in camp, fighting for a job without a contract -- something never seen in the past in Phoenix.

"All things considered, with what we had to work with, we had a very good summer," said Maloney, the reigning NHL Executive of the Year. "Ray Whitney is a premium offensive player, and then bringing Lee Stempniak back and Eric Belanger coming to us late … we feel like at least up front we're as strong as when we finished last year.

"I didn't think we had any chance of signing Lee leading into free agency and even into free agency because we were so far apart. But after the first 5-7 days, the market changed, the flow of dollars came to a stop. Eric is a guy we reached out to in July to replace Lombardi, and he was also looking for more than we had available. In both cases, we were very lucky."

Belanger admitted that after his experience in Washington, trusting another organization wasn't easy -- especially when taking a lower salary with only a handshake conversation about the future.

"Donny and I talked about it right way. He knew I was pretty leery," said Belanger, who could allow the Coyotes to keep Wojtek Wolski on the wing and team the pair with Shane Doan on one of three balanced forward lines. "This is a very deep team, but there are opportunities to play a lot and with talented guys. I think it's a great fit and a good result of a difficult summer."

The Coyotes still have to fill the 20-plus-minute void created by defenseman Zbynek Michalek's departure to Pittsburgh, but the hope is that a replacement will emerge from among prospects Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Maxim Goncharov, Brandon Gormley and David Schlemko. If not, there are still unemployed veterans waiting for the phone to ring.

"Last year, we needed some defensive help and went out and got Mathieu Schneider and he was a good addition for us," Maloney said. "Right now, I'm not aware of anyone that would be an upgrade for us, and we want to take a hard look at what we have. Now 20-30 games down the road, it might be different."

Coach Dave Tippett didn't take over until a week before the regular season last year and wound up as the Jack Adams Award winner. This year, he not only has a full training camp but a number of battles for jobs that could leave veterans and blue-chip youngsters alike on the outside looking in. Center Kyle Turris and wingers Mikkel Boedker, Brett MacLean and Viktor Tikhonov are all knocking on the door, but none is assured of a spot.

"I like the team we have and the number of players we have that are capable of contributing," Tippett said. "Everything has to be earned and no one should have a problem with that. We have built the kind of organizational depth that is the key to success, but we have to prove it on the ice in a tough conference."