Future uncertain, Coyotes face waiting game

The curtains at Jobing.com Arena are all pulled back, revealing 17,000 empty seats and concrete where the ice once was.

Behind the benches, deep within the inner workings of the quiet arena, Phoenix's players clean out their lockers, go through season-ending physicals, meet with the coaches and front office staff.

After a second straight season of adversity and a disappointing sweep out of the playoffs by Detroit, the Coyotes have nothing left to do but wait.

And there's no games, no practices to take their mind off the ownership situation. Just facing the reality that the franchise could move from the desert in the next few weeks and there's nothing they can do about it.

"It's a hard time of the year, regardless. It's no fun," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said Friday. "It changes everything, especially when you don't win. It's one of those things; it's a tough time of the year and with everything going on, it adds to it. You wish you were still playing."

A lot is riding on what happens next.

Strapped by the financial constraints of being run by the NHL the past two seasons, the Coyotes need to get the ownership issue resolved before they can move ahead with anything financial.

Phoenix had a couple of solid signings in the offseason by adding veteran Ray Whitney and Eric Belanger, but couldn't hold onto defenseman Zbynek Michalek or center Matthew Lombardi. The financial situation also hampered the franchise at the trade deadline, leaving the Coyotes essentially as minor players.

Phoenix needs to get the ownership issues resolved before getting too deep into the offseason. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a cornerstone of the franchise, is an unrestricted free agent who'll likely have plenty of high-dollar offers that the Coyotes will need to match.

The team also would like to lock up breakout star Keith Yandle, keep young left winger Lauri Korpikoski and a handful of other players, not to mention securing contracts with coaches and finish off an affiliate deal that's been put on hold for months.

"It's something that needs to be resolved for us to go forward," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "To have a strong, winning organization, you need to have strong leadership from the top. We're going to get it."

The Coyotes are hoping to get a resolution in the next few weeks.

Potential owner Michael Hulsizer has the framework of a deal in place to buy the franchise and keep it in the desert, but a lawsuit threatened by the conservative Goldwater Institute has put it on hold. Hulsizer joined a meeting between the City of Glendale and officials from Goldwater on Thursday in hopes of getting a deal worked out, though the sides don't seem any closer to a resolution.

Until they do, the offseason to-do list gets put on hold.

"There's a ton of issues that need to be worked out in time, but right now it's kind of a holding pattern," coach Dave Tippett said.

Once the deal is done, whichever way it goes, one of the top priorities will be to sign Bryzgalov.

He went through some streaky stretches during the regular season and wasn't at his best in the playoffs, allowing 18 goals in the four games against Detroit. Still, he was a Vezina Trophy finalist a season ago and is the key to Phoenix's defensive-minded approach; when he plays well, the Coyotes often play well.

Bryzgalov has bristled at the idea of going to Winnipeg, one of the cities the Coyotes have been rumored to be going to, saying if he's going someplace cold, he might rather head back to his native Russia. A goalie's preference for where he plays isn't likely to affect the ownership situation, but it could have a huge impact on the future of the franchise, wherever it ends up.

"We've been here for four years and I love this place," Bryzgalov said. "It's a great place to live, it's a great place to play, but there's nothing I can do. My hands are tied."

Though the rest of the Coyotes weren't quite as adamant as their goalie about Winnipeg, pretty much all of them agree that they want to stay in Phoenix.

Many players have families they don't want to uproot, the weather's nice during the season and, as Bryzgalov said, it is a great place to live.

There's also a nice foundation for the team.

After missing the playoffs six previous years, the Coyotes put together their two best regular seasons, setting a franchise record with 50 wins and 107 points last year to go with 99 points this season, second-highest in team history.

Bryzgalov, if he returns, is among the best goalies in the league when he's playing well, Doan still can knock the fillings out of opponents at 34 — just ask the Red Wings — Yandle developed into an All-Star and there's a host of solid young players behind them.

The franchise appears to be headed in the right direction. It's just the players don't know where it's going to take them.

"Nobody knows what's going on," Yandle said. "None of the players, even the management knows what's going on. It's a tough day. Even if you know you're coming back, it's still a tough day. Hopefully, things will work out and we'll be in this same locker room next year."