The Phoenix Coyotes are wards of the NHL, suspended like a bug in amber as the league seeks a remedy that is to the satisfaction of bankruptcy court judge Redfield T. Baum, a truly first ballot Hall of Fame name. (Redfield T. Baum ... hmm, Rufus T. Firefly, J. Cheever Loophole . . . I like to think Groucho Marx would have appropriated His Honor's name for one of his characters.)
Until the mess is settled, with the Coyotes hanging around in Glendale or going elsewhere next season, this is principally a business story. When they promise free tickets to future games if they win certain matches, how can it be anything else?
But there is another chapter in the saga following this unfortunate Chapter 11. Chapter 12, if you can call it that, is a 5-2 start to the 2009-10 season -- a record that, prior to Monday night's games, was the NHL's seventh best. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has been stopping everything except the drafts in the upper and lower bowls of the Coyotes splendid arena -- the announced crowd last week for an overtime win over St. Louis was fewer than 7,000 -- and defenseman Ed Jovanovski looks rejuvenated.
More important than the 10,000-plus people who aren't showing up on a nightly basis are four young men who also have been keeping their distance, although not of their own volition. You probably have heard of them: forwards Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov and Kevin Porter. For the moment at least, the foursome has been spending most of its work time at the Coyotes' AHL affiliate in San Antonio. Through the first seven Phoenix games, only Boedker (no points in five games) had played in the NHL.
They were all rookie regulars, or at least quasi-regulars, with Phoenix last season. Boedker played in 78 games (11 goals, 17 assists) while Turris and Tikhonov played more than 60 matches, and Porter, the 2008 Hobey Baker winner from the University of Michigan, had 34. In retrospect, general manager Don Maloney freely admits the organization rushed them.
"You almost have to think back more than a year ago," Maloney told On The Fly. "My first year here we'd had success with Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal, and Dan Carcillo was another rookie who was playing well in his role. So we were very confident Turris and Boedker were capable of doing the same things. And all of those kids had their moments early. But at the end of the day, when there was less room on the ice and the games got tougher as the season went along, they were not mature enough to help us win.
"I did a disservice to Wayne(Gretzky, the ex-managing partner and former coach), or actually we did a disservice to ourselves, by having so many young players in positions where they had to play meaningful minutes. And I was always telling Wayne, if they're here, they've got to be playing at meaningful times -- on the penalty kill, a regular shift. I think the lesson is you're not going to win a lot if so many of your players are in diapers."
Maloney wound up bargain hunting and replacing them short-term with veteran forwards, including Robert (Beautiful Day Bob) Lang, who is playing for $1 million, a quarter of what Montreal paid him last season, and 6-4", 220-pound Taylor Pyatt, who had a two-year, $3 million contract in Vancouver but now earns $600,000. Other veterans such as former 30-goal winger Petr Prucha, energetic Scottie Upshall, speedy Matthew Lombardi and faceoff whiz Vernon Fiddler, a significant addition for a team that was dreadful at the dot, are filling roles that proved too much for the rookies.
The kids' careers have hardly stalled, despite the setbacks. Maloney says Turris, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, still makes plays with the puck in the offensive zone and on the power play that no current Coyotes forward can. But the center still needs to ratchet up his speed and improve his faceoffs and defensive zone coverage.
"Kyle also has to be stronger," the GM said. "He got hit a lot. He has to learn to elude people a little more. But Kyle (20) is just graduating junior age. I don't want him here for seven, eight minutes a game and a little power play time. I want him here to be an important player, someone who plays on the top two lines. That might be November, January, maybe next September."
Maloney, who watched three San Antonio games last weekend, also was happy to see Boedker, a solid Dane who was the eighth player drafted in 2008, killing penalties and playing the point on the power play.
"For every Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (the no-assembly-required Chicago Blackhawks forwards), I can name 12 guys who would have been better off by developing more before they got to the NHL," Maloney said. "For every guy like (19-year-old New York Rangers defenseman Michael) Del Zotto, who would be the rookie of the year if it were voted on today, there are 10 who wouldn't have an immediate impact. To do what he's done is amazing, and he fits the system (coach) John Tortorella wants them to play, but last year we were in the same boat, in pretty good shape until the All-Star break with our kids. Then ... When all these young guys are back, we won't need them to score 30 goals. We will just need them to be players."
Mark Messier's title with the New York Rangers is Special Assistant to the President, one of those felicitous-sounding designations that could mean almost anything. The widespread guess it best translates to "GM general in waiting." The assumption is Blueshirts president Glen Sather will muddle on for the next few years, show Messier the ropes and eventually turn the daily operations of the team over to the dauphin.
There are pitfalls to a neat succession, of course, but this seems to be a career path already working splendidly for players of stature like Messier. Joe Nieuwendyk, who has Hall-worthy credentials, already has taken a GM seat in Dallas after understudying in Florida and Toronto. Al MacInnis has been getting rave reviews for his work in player development with the St. Louis Blues. Steve Yzerman might not be ahead of the estimable Jim Nill on the Detroit Red Wings front office pyramid -- Nill, GM Ken Holland's top assistant, is the league executive most deserving of running his own team -- but he's already shown enough to be Team Canada's GM for the 2010 Olympics, among the most stressful jobs in hockey.
From Ron Francis in Carolina (player development) in Carolina to Luc Robitaille in Los Angeles (president of business operations), Messier's generation of stars is generally proving itself capable in executive capacity.
The only question is whether Messier will be willing to put in the work.
He certainly gets where the NHL is going. In a discussion last weekend, Messier said, "This used to be a players' league. Then it was a general manager's league. Now it's a scouting league."
Unless teams scout, draft and get the right core of entry-level contract players, it will stumble in a salary-capped league. Said Messier, "You can't spend your way out of mistakes now." He added that he would be happy to do anything for Sather, including hitting the road and scouting.
Motel 6, Messier 0.
But being Mark Messier is a little different than being MacInnis or Nieuwendyk or even Yzerman. Other than Wayne Gretzky and perhaps Mario Lemieux, no player of the past three decades has such an aura. When he walked into the Air Canada Centre on Saturday for the morning skates, the few hundred children (most of whom were young enough to never have seen Messier play) who had been watching the Maple Leafs skate in circles -- now there's a metaphor -- turned their gazes to him. Eventually all the kids ambled over in their youth jerseys for team pictures with the obliging Messier.
Yzerman doesn't draw that kind of rapt awe. Then again, he doesn't peddle potato chips.
So if Messier can forget how much he is revered in the hockey world and embrace the grunt work, he could be a first-class executive. But if the Being Mark Messier thing seduces him, the Rangers would be making a mistake.
Like politics, hockey is local. This explains why Ken Daneyko's No. 3 is retired in New Jersey and Stan Smyl's No. 12 hangs from the rafters in Vancouver. Neither player was remarkable on a global scale, but each contributed honorably to his franchise and deserves the recognition. But even with our warm regard for tribal loyalties, the Maple Leafs' 90's Night last Saturday was a tad rich.
In a salute to the halcyon days of yore -- the team was celebrating two trips to the conference finals, a depressing lowering of standards for a heritage franchise -- current players took the warm-up in the sweaters of former Leafs. (Surely that Bob Rouse jersey set hearts aflutter.) For the ceremonial faceoff, Mark Osborne and Bill Berg from coach Pat Burns' checking line strolled to center ice. (Burns' immortal line when the Leafs' acquired Berg: "I wouldn't know Bill Berg if I ran over him with my truck.") Felix Potvin, the first-rate goalie of the era, joined them.
So far, so kitschy. But not offensive. Then the tribute jumped the rails.
Instead of showing some of the acrobatic Potvin's saves, the video board replayed his fight with Flyers goalieRon Hextall.
If this were Felix the Cat's most significant contribution to Leaf Nation, Toronto's perspective is incredibly warped. Unless the video clip were a sop to GM Brian (Truculence and Bellicosity) Burke, the Maple Leafs "game presentation" folks, to use the modern term, could have dug up something more appropriate from the archives.
The Maple Leafs lost, 4-1, to the Rangers while the home crowd chanted "Oh-and-seven," apparently unimpressed by NHL math and the overtime defeat in the season opener. ("Oh-six-and-one" doesn't much track.) There were a few fans that wore paper bags over their heads.
If those bags were plastic, Burke would really have a problem.
The mayor of Quebec has proposed building a $400 million arena to lure an NHL back to the city that easily has the knowledgeable fans in hockey. The math: $50 million from the city, $175 million each from the province of Quebec and the federal government to subsidize the future home of Les Nordiques, Part Deux.
The if-you-build-it-they-will-come gambit has worked before in Nashville, which constructed an arena and lobbied for either an NHL or NBA team -- and it didn't really care which. Quebec, of course, is a better market with its rich hockey history, which counts for something. This doesn't count as much as a small population (715,000 in the metropolitan area, according to the 2006 census), a miniscule corporate base in a government town and the worldwide economic pullback, but something.
Curiously, the best hope for a new team in Quebec City is the continued economic muscle of the Montreal Canadiens. If Quebecor, which lost the bidding to buy the Canadiens to the Molson family, wants an NHL team, Quebecor chairman Pierre-Karl Péladeau can take that rink to the league and argue that the Re-Nordiques will be a provincial team, capable of generating advertising and sponsorship dollars from all over the province. With the Canadiens seemingly recession-proof, and the glorious prospect of a renewed Battle of Quebec between teams that are two-and-a-half hours away, the NHL might be intrigued.
This is still a long shot, but certainly the league won't discourage Quebec from getting taxpayers to foot the bill for an arena that might, or might not, become home to an NHL team. (C.f. Hamilton, Copps Coliseum.) If nothing else, the league, which on a strategic level has been ruminating about 32 teams for at least a few years, can use a building in Quebec as a stalking horse for recalcitrant cities that don't want to build new homes for pampered hockey players. As long as arenas exist in Kansas City and Quebec, an owner who is annoyed with his lease or the number of luxury suites in his building always will have a potential threat in his hip pocket.