By trading expensive stars for younger and cheaper players, Phoenix has risen quickly
Thirteen months ago the Coyotes had an indifferent owner, had lost five straight first-round playoff series and had a set of financials that would make Kenneth Lay blush. Enter Steve Ell-man and Wayne Gretzky, who bought the franchise with brooms and bulldozers at the ready and performed a sweeping transformation in the Arizona desert.
"The last couple of years, there were ownership rumors, trade rumors; it was chaotic," says defenseman Teppo Numminen, the team captain and a 14-year veteran of the franchise, which moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix before the 1996-97 season. "Now everything's steady. Management has the money to stick with its plan."
That plan—to exchange big-name players with big contracts for low-profile talent raring to prove itself—has paid dividends sooner than expected. Defying all predictions but their own, the Coyotes (32-22-9-5 through Sunday) became the NHL's hottest team in the last month. From Feb. 12 through Sunday, Phoenix had gone 8-0-2-1, outscored opponents 35-18 and vaulted from 10th to sixth in the Western Conference. "From the start, we told ourselves we were a playoff team, and now we're in the hunt," says 24-year-old center Daniel Bri�re, who led the club with 27 goals. "We're young and hungry, and we have no superstars."
Gretzky & Co. have lopped off $22 million in player salaries since buying the team from Richard Burke. The Coyotes shipped out winger Keith Tka-chuk, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and defenseman Jyrki Lumme, among others, and allowed center Jeremy Roenick to walk as a free agent. In their place, Phoenix imported a crew of castoffs, prospects and unproven commodities, many of whom have blossomed.
No unit better exemplifies that than the top line of center Daymond Langkow, 25, and wings Mike Johnson, 27, and Ladislav Nagy, 22. Since being put together on Feb. 8, the trio had combined for 20 goals, 26 assists and a +44 raring in 13 games. All three were acquired after Ellman and Gretzky purchased the club; none had previously shown top-line ability. Says general manager Mike Barnett, "There isn't a player on this roster who hasn't been thrust into a more demanding role and relished the opportunity."
The top line's recent success notwithstanding, third-year coach Bobby Francis has the Coyotes playing a physical, defense-first game, the backbone of which is veteran goalie Sean Burke, who's enjoying a Vezina-caliber season (26-17-6, with a .922 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average). Savvy trades have also brought blue line help for Numminen. Four of Phoenix's seven defensemen—including 25-year-old bruiser Danny Markov, who's found a home on the power play and had a team-high 29 assists—have arrived since last March.
Although Ellman and Gretzky have taken strides toward securing the long-term health of the organization—they're negotiating for a publicly financed, $180 million arena, for instance—the Coyotes want to prove their doubters wrong in the short term as well.
Bruins Brawler P.J. Stock
Fighting to Bea a Hero in the Hub
Christmas mornings at P.J. Stock's childhood home in Montreal brought one gift anticipated above all others: Don Cherry's Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em, the videotape of vicious fights put out annually by the Hockey Night in Canada personality and former Bruins coach. "I never had aspirations of making the NHL," says Stock, Boston's fourth-line center and No. 1 pugilist. "I just wanted to make Don Cherry's tape."