GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Portland Pirates open the regular season on the road Saturday night against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
As far the Phoenix Coyotes are concerned, the bus ride to Connecticut is a short trip.
That’s a big reason the Coyotes moved their top minor league team out of the AHL’s far-flung Western Conference across the country to Maine.
“We have to draft and develop players better than most,” Phoenix General Manager Don Maloney said. “That is crucial for long-term survival.”
By switching their affiliation to Portland from the San Antonio Rampage, the Coyotes figure they can add as many as 30 days of practice, and that will aid in the development of the franchise’s younger players.
“We don’t have the highest payroll and we’re not a team built on superstars,” said Brad Treliving, the Coyotes’ vice president of hockey operations and assistant general manager. “The more young players you can have pushing for jobs, that’s going to create better competition.
“You hope it’s going to push the older players to perform at a higher level. You become a good organization when you have a good push from the bottom up.”
The Coyotes, the Western Conference’s sixth seed in last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs, operate differently than most NHL teams.
The team is owned by the city of Glendale, which owns Jobing.com Arena in suburban Phoenix, and the owners of the NHL’s other 29 teams.
“For the third year in a row, I got together with (NHL Deputy Commissioner) Bill Daly and we worked out a budget,” said Maloney, who spent 10 years as assistant GM of the New York Rangers before taking on his current assignment. “From that point on, as long as I operate within the budget, we do whatever we can to do the best job possible.”
Maloney wouldn’t comment on the size of the team’s operating budget.
The Coyotes are not a shoestring operation, but the organization is careful about how it spends its money.
“We have a small staff here,” Maloney said. “We don’t have a big group here. No job is too small for any of us, including picking up people at the airport.”
Still, the Coyotes try to treat their players the same as any other NHL team.
“We still stay at good hotels,” Maloney said. “Maybe we don’t stay at the Four Seasons or the Ritz, but it’s important we run a first-class operation here. We try to do things well.”
The Coyotes are for sale, and Maloney has tried to avoid signing players to long-term contracts.
“The key for us is to stay flexible with our contracts,” he said. According to CapGeek.com, the team is operating more than $14 million under the league’s salary cap of $64.3 million this season.
Maloney said the NHL wants to sell the Coyotes to an owner who will keep them in Phoenix.
“It’s beautiful building and there are nearly 61/2 million people in the metropolitan Phoenix area,” he said. “We’re no different than any other southern market. You need to put a good product out on the ice. Then we’ll be able sell tickets and fill the building.”
According to Maloney, two ownership groups are looking into purchasing the team.
“The thing I am impressed with is the two groups that are looking at the team are experienced groups that have run sports franchises and understand the sports business,” he said. “There have been a number of groups who have looked at us who haven’t understood the sports business and the investment you have to make to have success.”
A change in team ownership won’t necessarily mean the Coyotes will drop the Pirates as their AHL affiliate.
“We’ve got an agreement with our affiliate here and our job doesn’t change,” Treliving said. “Like I tell the guys before they go on the ice, the other team doesn’t care if you have an owner or not. You have to go out and you have some work to do, and I think our guys have done a good job of that.”
NOTES: Left wing Brett Mac-Lean, who had 74 goals over the past three seasons with San Antonio, was claimed off waivers by the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and will not report to the Pirates. Left wing Darian Dziurzynski, who had 79 goals in his first two junior seasons, was sent back to the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League.
Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: [email protected]