The Phoenix Coyotes have finally filled the roster of its AHL affiliate — the Portland Pirates — with the kind of players it really wants.
Don Maloney, who became general manager of the Coyotes four years ago when the NHL took over the bankrupt franchise, said he needed all that time to get to this point.
“When I was hired to come to Phoenix, they had a half-dozen years prior to that of very, very poor drafting and developing (of players),” Maloney said in an interview during a recent visit to Portland. “If it was not the worst (franchise) in the league, it was certainly one of the worst.”
This season, 20 of the 25 players who will suit up for the Pirates, who open the season on the road Saturday, were either drafted by the Coyotes or signed as free agents coming out of college or the junior ranks.
Each is the kind of player the Coyotes need in order to play the defensive style they employ, Maloney said.
“When we came in, we really put a premium on character and competitiveness,” he said.
“You certainly need ability. I think prior to us, ability was at the top of the list above character and (the will to) compete The character piece is the only way we can survive because we don’t have the wherewithal to pay high-end skilled players right now.”
In previous years, while waiting for the players it had drafted to come of age, the Phoenix organization has had to bring in players from other organizations to fill out the roster of its AHL affiliate.
“Last year, we had some offensive players, and that’s the way they played, and we couldn’t get them to buy in to our identity,” Pirates Coach Ray Edwards said.
“A lot of times those high-end, high-skilled players lack the defensive details that we need in our game to have success,” Maloney said. “It comes at a price. It’s risk-taking versus safety.
“We want a certain amount of risk-taking, but at the end of the day we thought we made a mistake. Some people who came here just didn’t fit the way we wanted to play. There’s a certain way we want to play the game, it messed up the chemistry.”
A majority of the young players on the team have been hearing about the Coyotes’ approach to the game for two or three years now.
“These kids have been coming to (our) development camps for years, to (our) rookie camps,” Edward said. “This isn’t new to them. The young players have heard in development camp how we have to be as a team.”
Phoenix wants the Pirates to mirror the way the Coyotes play.
“We’re going to have to be a team that has to have everybody going,” Edwards said. “We need 20 guys playing solid every night. We’re not going to be able to get by on one guy or two guys all year.”
“We’re going to have to defend well, and that doesn’t mean just the (defensive zone),” Edwards said. “That means the way you check, the way you forecheck, the way you handle the puck, all those things. That’s our identity. That’s what we’ve been trying to drive in here from day one.”
Goaltending and defense are expected to be strengths for the Pirates, who left Friday for their season opener against the Adirondack Phantoms in Glens Falls, N.Y.
The Pirates have brought in veteran Chad Johnson, who has never posted a goals-against average higher than 2.72 in three AHL seasons with the New York Rangers organization, and rookie Mark Visentin, who compiled a 1.99 goals-against average with a league-record 10 shutouts while playing for the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League.
“In Portland last year, I really thought their goaltending let them down,” Maloney said. “I hate to blame one position, but you have to be good in that position, and they weren’t good enough.”
Because of the lockout, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a young Swedish defenseman who has spent the last 1½ seasons in the NHL with the Coyotes, will start the season with the Pirates.
Defensemen Michael Stone, Chris Summers and David Rundblad also spent a lot of time in the NHL last season.
At the outset, offense could be a problem for the Pirates.
The forward lines include 11 players in either their first or second season of professional hockey.
“We think we’ve hit on the right ratio of character, chemistry and skill,” Maloney said. “You know, you’re always adjusting your formula. Maybe, right now, we’ve got character and chemistry and we need to find a little more skill.”
NOTES: Veteran forward Alexandre Bolduc has been named the 15th captain in team history. Forwards Andy Miele and Jordan Szwarz and defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Chris Summers will serve as assistant captains. … The Pirates traveled by bus to Glens Falls. … Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Jim Playfair, who works primarily with the defensemen, is spending a week with the Pirates. … A lower-body injury is expected to keep rookie center Jordan Martinook out of the lineup for two to three weeks.
Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: