After watching the Coyotes drop three straight heading into the March 3 trade deadline, general manager Don Maloney says he couldn't help but think, Oh, boy—the ship is leaking. Rather than watch it take on water, he plugged a few holes in a team that was positioned to make Phoenix's first playoff appearance in eight years. Maloney took a risk, but it's difficult to argue with the results so far. Since seven trades at the deadline brought in five players (as well as two minor leaguers), including Avalanche forward Wojtek Wolski, the Coyotes (42-22-5 at week's end) have won five straight and risen to fourth in the Western Conference. In his Phoenix debut, a 3--1 victory over his former team, Wolski scored the game-winner with 23 seconds remaining on a one-timer from the right face-off circle. Two days later he added another goal and an assist in a 4--0 defeat of the Ducks.
"It was big to win those," Phoenix captain Shane Doan says. "It just solidified in everyone else's mind that this was going to be good."
It was even better than expected in the eyes of Maloney, who gave up only a handful of prospects and draft picks and one roster player—underproductive wing Peter Mueller. Much like the 1996 Panthers, a no-name team that reached the Stanley Cup finals, the Coyotes have relied on solid goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov (.921 save percentage, 2.27 goals-against average through Sunday) and team chemistry. When Maloney made his moves, Phoenix had already matched its point total from last season. But with an eye on making a postseason run, he set out to shore up both his blue line and his attack.
"We need to make the playoffs. We all know it," says Maloney, who also picked up a pair of defensemen—the Bruins' Derek Morris and the Canucks' Mathieu Schneider. "And this just gives us a shorter-term chance for more success now."
The Coyotes (bought out of bankruptcy by the NHL in September) have been desperate for an offensive catalyst since losing right wing Scottie Upshall to a torn ACL in January. Wolski, 24, a skilled if not overly physical 6'4", 230-pound former first-round pick who, Maloney says, "on a bad year will still give us 50 points," is a natural playmaker and a boon to a power play ranked 30th in the league. "He's a guy who can have real patience and poise with the puck and find the open guy," coach Dave Tippett says. "That's something we were dearly missing."
Now, instead of hoping young players will answer the challenge of late-season hockey, Phoenix has a veteran group with more dependable scoring options in Wolski and former Maple Leafs forward Lee Stempniak (20 goals, 17 assists), another deadline acquisition. In their first five games as Coyotes, Wolski and Stempniak, who each had just one goal in his previous 14 games, scored eight goals and had two assists.
"That makes [the transition] a lot easier," Tippett says. "They come in and you win, and they're scoring? Everyone has fun."
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