The biggest surprise of the 2009-2010 NHL season, the Phoenix Coyotes go into another summer with uncertainty over the future of the franchise.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the challenges facing Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney, who seemed to do everything right last season and was named GM of the Year for his efforts.
While the Coyotes' ownership remains in flux, owned by the league until a deal gets worked out with Ice Edge Holdings or another group committed to keep the team in Glendale, there are going to be limits put on Maloney when it comes to acquiring talent.
The Coyotes obviously have to stick to a budget, but they're not the only team facing financial restrictions, so that's not the primary part of his challenge.
What really makes Maloney's job difficult is trying to secure talent for a team that can't definitively say where they'll be playing in one year, two years or five years.
Their status is not as uncertain as last summer, to be sure, but it's fair to say that the Phoenix Coyotes would be considered more likely to move than, say Maloney's previous employers, the New York Rangers.
It's not an issue when trading for players, unless the Coyotes need them to waive a no-trade clause, but it has to be an issue when trying to attract free agents, particularly the ones that will warrant long-term contracts.
It's competitive enough trying to outbid 29 other teams for a player's services, but if other teams are offering similar money and a more secure setting (ie. knowing where the team is going to be for the duration of the contract), that doesn't make Maloney's job any easier, whether it's trying to re-sign Matthew Lombardi and Zbynek Michalek or trying to lure in other free agents.
Head coach Dave Tippet told the Arizona Republic, "You always got to look at outside, whether we can sign the free agents we have, or if there's other free agents out there, and then there's how we get better as a group within our organization."
The Coyotes will need to get better, if they are going to be a playoff team again next season. After posting a league-high 14 shootout wins in 2008-2009, it's highly unlikely that kind of luck will hold up next season.
At the same time, the Coyotes do have good goaltending, some talented young NHLers and some quality prospects on the way, so Coach Tippett may get the kind of internal improvement he seeks.
Don Maloney/Dave Tippett
Captain Coyote, Shane Doan, is a hard-driving physical winger and he's played at least 79 games in nine of the last 11 seasons, but time could be catching up to the 33-year-old, as last year's 18 goals was his lowest total since 1998-1999.
Surely, some of that has to do with the calibre of playmakers alongside him, and it comes on the heels of his two most productive years, so it's possible he could rebound, but it's also possible that those 70-point seasons will be stuck in the rearview mirror.
He may not be comfortable in other NHL locales, but Radim Vrbata's return to Phoenix was successful, as he led the team with 24 goals. Given how little the Coyotes score, they'd be satisfied with a repeat.
Vernon Fiddler's first season in Phoenix was his finest as a pro, as the 30-year-old anchored the Coyotes' penalty killing unit and finished with 30 points and a career-best plus-13. A quality depth signing as a free agent last summer.
While Petr Prucha has talent, he's also maddeningly inconsistent. The 27-year-old winger managed two goals in 31 games to finish the regular season, bookending a campaign in which he started with two goals in 26 games.
In between, there was at least adequate production, but his 22-point season didn't do much to halt the downward slide his career has been on since scoring 30 goals as a rookie in 2005-2006.
Acquired from Anaheim at the deadline, Petteri Nokelainen is strong along the boards and can handle a fourth-line centre job, but the Coyotes are the fourth NHL team for the 24-year-old and last year's total of 13 points was a career best.
Like Nokelainen, Lauri Korpikoski is a hard-working Finnishg forward who was drafted in the first round and doesn't shortchange on effort, but is still trying to get established in the league. With 25 points and a minus-20 rating in 139 games through two seasons, Korpikoski is also fourth-line material.
He only played 41 games, and fewer than six minutes a game when he dressed, but Paul Bissonnette still found time to get in 19 fights and he's good at it, winning more than he loses while tangling with some of the league's toughest customers.
It's a thankless job, but with six points in 56 career games, Bissonnette knows what pays the bills.
Just as it appeared Wojtek Wolski's breakthrough season was hitting a wall in Colorado, he was dealt to Phoenix and the change in location rejuvenated him. 18 points in 18 games with the Coyotes gave Wolski a career-high 65 points and the skilled 24-year-old is going to face higher expectations going forward as a result.
Scottie Upshall was rounding into form as a bona fide scoring winger when he ripped up his knee in late January and missed the rest of the season. Upshall was leading the Coyotes with 18 goals at the time of his injury and the 26-year-old, who plays with some bite to his game, could be an impact performer for Phoenix in the years ahead.
Towering Martin Hanzal isn't ever going to be a big-time scorer, but he's turning into a pretty good shutdown centre, as the 23-year-old has the size and demeanour required for the job.
Daniel Winnik only managed four goals in 75 games, but he's a high-effort winger with good size; he may have limited upside, but for the price, he's a reliable depth forward.
The Coyotes are facing some serious free agent questions up front, with Matthew Lombardi, Lee Stempniak and Taylor Pyatt hitting the open market and, given the Coyotes' uncertain situation in Phoenix, it may be difficult to lure any of them or other top free agents to sign long-term.
Stempniak, for one, should be open to the idea of sticking around, after he re-discovered his scoring touch, with 14 goals in 18 games after landing in Phoenix at the deadline.
Another playmaking centre would make sense for the Coyotes if Lombardi departs and that might be a transaction best served through trade, as there will surely be teams looking to unload a contract with a year or two remaining and the Coyotes may be in the position to offer some cap relief to one of those teams.
Otherwise, perhaps Mike Comrie or Kyle Wellwood would be able to provide some inexpensive offensive depth.
It's easy to get overlooked in Phoenix, but 23-year-old Keith Yandle is really turning into a quality defenceman, capable of quarterbacking the power play and steadily improving each year that he's been in the league. Even better, there's still room for his ascent to continue.
Yandle's offensive development allowed the Coyotes to play Ed Jovanovski in a more defensive role -- what would normally be considered a shut-down role, but considering Jovanovski's team-worst minus-12, there's still work to be done as the veteran turns his focus to his own end.
Jim Vandermeer is a tough guy who can be a serviceable option on the third pairing. He fell on the depth chart late in the season, but could battle his way back into the lineup, depending on the off-season acquisitions.
Limited to a single game last season by a concussion, Kurt Sauer could be a very important part of the Phoenix defence, but only if he's healthy and that's not a sure thing at this point. Sauer's has good size and can be used in a shutdown role, but his presence in the lineup next season may have to be considered a bonus.
Picked up from the Washington Capitals last summer, Sami Lepisto proved that he could handle a regular turn on the blueline and his plus-14 rating ranked second on the team to Yandle. His track record in the AHL suggests that Lepisto can provide more offence, but his defensive ability in his first full NHL season was an encouraging sign.
The Phoenix defence could look substantially different next season if they can't retain their unrestricted free agents. While veterans Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin may be more likely to stay, Zbynek Michalek is just entering his prime and should have plenty of suitors.
Depending on which free agents re-sign and the health of Sauer, Phoenix could go many different ways on defence. Mike Mottau, Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei and Mark Eaton are among the veterans who may be relatively inexpensive yet able to solidify the defensive core.
Considering his level of offensive support, Ilya Bryzgalov may have made as much of a difference for his team as any goaltender in the league last season. The 29-year-old started 69 games and enjoyed the best year of his career (2.29 GAA, .920 SVPCT).
It would be asking a lot for Bryzgalov to match last season, but with a responsible defensive squad, he can still be a positive factor for the Coyotes.
Jason LaBarbera was excellent in the backup role. Though he only started 13 games, his .928 save percentage ranked third among goaltenders with more than three appearances.
||9-18-27,+19, 42 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||24-39-63,+6, 76 GP
||Cherepovets Severstal (KHL)
||14-1-15,+11, 25 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||30-35-65,+13, 76 GP
||CSKA Moscow (KHL)
||4-13-17,+5, 51 GP
||4-12-16,+4, 40 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||11-27-38,-19, 64 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||5-26-31,-4, 55 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||0-1-1,-1, 11 GP
||21-44-65,+4, 69 GP
Swedish defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson has a chance to be something special. A smooth-skating, puckhandler, Ekman-Larsson is considered a better prospect than Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, who was a force down the stretch last season. If he doesn't make the Coyotes next season, perhaps he'll return to Sweden, but Ekman-Larsson should have every opportunity to stick.
Scoring 63 points in 76 AHL games as a 20-year-old would generally be considered promising for most prospects, but Kyle Turris is dealing with higher expectations after he was drafted third overall in 2007 and played 66 games with the Coyotes, managing just 21 points.
If Turris is strong enough to handle the rigors of the NHL, he has the offensive instincts to be a much-needed playmaking centre.
Returning to the KHL last season may have been just what Viktor Tikhonov needed; an opportunity to play in offensive situations and he has an opportunity to return to the Coyotes next season as a more valuable two-way player than the one who had 16 points in 61 games as a rookie in 2008-2009.
21-year-old Brett MacLean has improved every year, from his first year in junior through to last season, his second year pro, when he led San Antonio with 30 goals and 65 points. If MacLean's skating is up to snuff, he could be ready for his shot in the NHL soon.
Having played three-plus seasons for CSKA Moscow, Maxim Goncharov may not require a lot of seasoning before he's ready to try the NHL. The 20-year-old is expected to be a well-rounded blueliner with some offensive upside.
Chris Summers was a first-round pick in 2006, and is a smooth skater, but didn't make a great deal of progress at Michigan. How he adjusts to a professional environment will help determine how soon he'll be able to compete for a spot in Phoenix.
Danish forward Mikkel Boedker has already played 92 NHL games, but spent the majority of last season in the AHL and while he remains a promising prospect, it's not the best sign when he turned in a team-worst minus-19 for San Antonio.
Undrafted, David Schlemko has climbed his way into consideration for the Coyotes and the 23-year-old actually played pretty well in the 17 games he played with Phoenix last season. He may be able to provide more immediate depth if Ekman-Larsson and Goncharov aren't quite ready.
Jonas Ahnelov seems to have the game to at least make a run at a depth position, but injuries have limited him to 54 AHL games over the last to seasons so the 22-year-old needs to get healthy and play before worrying about moving up a level.
An offensive defenceman with good size, Michael Stone will need some time in the American Hockey League, proving that he can handle the defensive responsbilities required of a pro, but he's scored 40 goals over his last two years of junior, so he knows what to do with the puck.
The Coyotes have some other quality prospects in college, including Michigan's Chris Brown, North Dakota's Brett Hextall and St. Cloud State goaltender Mike Lee.
13th - Vladimir Tarasenko, Jack Campbell, Austin Watson.
22nd - Jarred Tinordi, Mark Pysyk, Calvin Pickard.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Coyotes have approximately $29.8M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 13 players.
Needs: Two top six forwards, two top four defencemen.
What I said the Coyotes needed last year: Experienced forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman.
Who did they add? Radim Vrbata, Robert Lang, Vernon Fiddler, Lauri Korpikoski, Paul Bissonnette, Adrian Aucoin, Sami Lepisto, Jim Vandermeer, Jason LaBarbera.
TRADE MARKET Petr Prucha, Jim Vandermeer.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.