Is Don Maloney a genius, or does he just know a good coach when he sees one?
Ever since landing in Phoenix, the Coyotes' general manager has been dealt a difficult hand as the NHL's team (Literally. Like, the NHL owns the team.) has twisted in a twilight zone of municipal politics, league aspirations and the infinite fallout of crummy ownership.
In spite of all that, Maloney's teams have repeatedly beaten expectations, steadily rising from a last-place Pacific Division finish when he inherited the team at the end of 2006-07 to two fourth-place finishes, two second-place finishes and finally, Phoenix's first division title in 2011-12.
Along with that first banner came another major milestone: The franchise won a playoff series -- two, in fact -- for the first time in 25 years. Maloney has manged all of this with a payroll that has consistently remained in the bottom third of the league, in front of the lowest attendance in the league, with a team that has been under a four-year threat to relocate.
But while Maloney has managed to nurture the right prospects and bring in the right free agents (or at least ones who like to golf), it's hard not to place most of the credit in head coach Dave Tippett's hands. In his NHL coaching career, Tippett has taken eight of his nine teams to the playoffs, with the only miss leading to his postseason firing by the Dallas Stars in 2008-09.
Maloney provides the roster, to be sure, but Tippett molds the players into a cohesive unit time and time again. The question is, after reaching their highest point yet this past spring, have the Coyotes run out of rope?
Their future location is still up in the air, but more importantly, that uncertainty has made captain and face of the franchise Shane Doan a free agent on the verge of fleeing. The latest update is that, after fielding offers from other teams, Doan will wait until the verge of the current collective bargaining agreement's expiration (Sept. 15, 2012) before deciding whether or not to reluctantly leave his adopted home.
If Doan departs, it not only leaves the Coyotes with a huge hole on the wing -- it also leaves them very little time to fill it.
The Coyotes also must withstand the loss of last season's leading scorer, Ray Whitney, whose 77 points matched the second-highest output of his career at age 39. Whitney drew a two-year, $9 million contract from Pacific Division rivals Dallas -- a perfect case of prudent asset management by Maloney, who declined to overpay an aging forward coming off a near-career year.
The challenge is that year after year of conservative, budget-minded decisions and resource limitations can catch up with a team. Whitney was ostensibly replaced with Steve Sullivan, a similarly aging winger who has been about half as productive and durable as Whitney since 2007.
The only other key acquisition was Zbynek Michalek, the prodigal defenseman who took free-agent millions from Pittsburgh only to have the Penguins find his contributions wanting. Michalek was a key defenseman for the Coyotes three seasons ago and hopes to be one again, possibly next to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, after a draft-day salary dump brought Michalek back to the desert.
Though not a summer acquisition, Maloney's late-season trade for Columbus Blue Jackets center Antoine Vermette was a steal, as his presence helped the Coyotes match lines in the playoffs and should help them do so for the next three seasons, the length of time remaining on both his and Michalek's contracts.
Still, if the Coyotes do lose Doan, the offseason becomes a clear step back for the Phoenix roster. Combine all this with the fact that last year's division-winning team gave up the third-most shots in the NHL and had one of the worst shot differentials, and it points to a hockey team operating on an ever-thinner margin for error.
Of course, for the Coyotes under Tippett, that's an obstacle they've handled before.