Under the direction of General Manager Michael Barnett and the rest of the Coyotes hockey operations staff, with a strong commitment to the drafting and the development of young talent, Phoenix is poised to become a homegrown threat.
The franchise is a couple of years off from hitting its full stride, but it’s a far cry from the old days, which left the club with few options and not a lot of hope.
Back to square one
The biggest indication that the club is onto something very good, is the simple fact the Coyotes have for more depth than just five years ago.
It wasn’t that long ago when Phoenix, at best, was an average team the draft table. They weren’t a complete failure during the selection process, managing to pick up players like Daniel Briere, Robert Esche and Ossi Vaananen along the way. But it was more than obvious that they had a tremendous amount of room to grow.
When Barnett took over as the club’s GM in late 2001, he would soon find out, it was going to take some time to address some systematic issues.
“The first thing that became apparent was that many of the players that we had drafted were not developing in the manner in which we thought they would,” Barnett said about the evaluating the process early on. “Whether it was the drafting itself which was problematic or the development aspect, it really forced us to look at the entire picture.”
Barnett and his staff focused on turning the entire hockey operations department into a well-balanced unit.
“I don’t think it was just one particular area,” Barnett explained when looking back. “We weren’t simply getting the results we needed. Being important as it is, it was something we needed to improve.”
Everyone in the hockey operations department was challenged. Average couldn’t be acceptable.
“One of the key things that I noticed when Michael came in was when our scouting staff was given a mandate to go out and take the best player available,” Coyotes Assistant GM Laurence Gilman recounted. “If that meant taking a guy at a place where you wouldn’t conventionally see him getting selected, then that was acceptable.
“Blake Wheeler is perfect evidence of that. Obviously there were many people involved with hockey that were stunned by the Phoenix Coyotes fifth overall selection of Blake Wheeler in the 2004 draft. However, our scouting staff at the time felt very strongly that we were drafting a player in Wheeler who could become an impact guy in the NHL and Mike gave them the green light to go ahead and do that.”
The Coyotes started landing some key names over the last five years. Like Wheeler, prospects such as Martin Hanzal, Enver Lisin, and Dmitri Pestunov are all projected to have a big impact up front, while other prospects, such as defensemen Logan Stephenson, Keith Yandle and goalie Pier-Olivier Pelletier are some of the other young talent who project to be a big part of the organization’s future.
Added Gilman, “The development process, it’s a never-ending one. We’re beginning to move forward with a young core of prospects that hopefully develop and grow at the same pace and get to the NHL together.”
Barnett is pleased with what they have accomplished during his tenure.
“We look at our prospects now and we feel as if we have had a good handle on them before the drafting process,” Barnett said. “Once the selection process takes place, we feel as if we have a good process in which each individual can improve and be the best they can be. You hope that they grow to be the best they can and if you’re fortunate, some of them become very special.”
The next wave
As Barnett & Co. continues to prepare for the future, one thing will be certain. Given the new financial makeup of the NHL, mediocrity at the draft table and in the development process will have far greater consequence on teams than in the past.
“With the new CBA in place, the teams who will be the most successful will be those teams who draft the best and develop players the best,” Gilman explained. “Young players will become the lifeblood of an NHL team.”
Gilman knows best the financial implications this process can have on the organization. Of his duties, he’s also responsible for the hockey operations department budget, all player contract related issues and the club’s implementation of the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.
“Our mission is to maximize our efficiency at the draft table and then to pull the best out of our players once they get into the farm system,” he said. “There’s no secret to that strategy because that is what the other 29 teams are doing as well. Now, the stakes have risen because you can’t buy your way out of problems. If you don’t have young players, it’s not like you can go out and sign everyone under the sun because that will cause you salary cap problems.”
Not only are the Coyotes on the right path now, but the team had the foresight to be looking ahead before the new CBA was written.
“When it became apparent two years ago that we were going to have a new collective bargaining agreement, we kind of knew that it would force you to make even wiser decisions in drafting and developing your own,” Barnett explained. “It was critical to get our scouting and player development areas in order prior to having the new CBA in place, so we could move the organization forward.”
Another key aspect the team considered when moving the organization forward was the evolution of the game itself.
“The game is increasingly moving towards speed and mobility,” Gilman said. “That means the same for the forwards and the defensemen. The future NHLer’s are going to be players who can skate, they’ll have great hands and they have to possess good hockey sense.”
The exact frame of mind was applied to the Coyotes approach leading up to the 2005 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa.
“Moving forward, we gave a mandate to the scouting staff to base a pick on skill and ability,” Gilman explained. “Looking at the crop of players we selected over the last draft like Hanzal, Pier-Olivier Pelletier and even a player like Keith Yandle, they epitomize the way the game is moving. They are prospects with skill, they can move the puck and for Hanzal and Yandle, they can also shoot the puck.”
No one in the hockey operations department is ready to breathe a sigh of relief just yet, Barnett noted.
“I don’t think we’re comfortable at any position at the moment, but we have a good core of prospects,” he said. “To be comfortable at the development level or the minor league level, would amount to being foolish. You can never be satisfied with your prospects. You can selfishly feel real good about a lot of them, but reality tells you that not all of them will play in the NHL. From that perspective, you can never have too many prospects within your system.”
And like the game, the manner in which the Coyotes hockey operations department executes and how the team selects its prospects will evolve also as the years pass. Fortunately for the Coyotes, everyone is on the same page, and everyone is preparing for a very bright future.
“We know it is a process,” Barnett explained with a smile. “Certainly it’s Wayne [Gretzky]’s intention for this team and this organization to create an identity. I feel the prime element of that identity will be based around speed and passion. It isn’t a real new virtue for a lot of teams out there, including us, but it is one thing to say that’s what you want and it’s another to go out there and make it happen. And trust me, we intend on walking the walk.
“The reality is that, we’re going to expect the players to get better on all levels every month. We’re going to have to learn from any of the valleys that are inevitable along the way. One day we’ll get to that peak where we can stay at, where we can deliver that level of consistency that makes it difficult for teams to play us.”
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.