January 7, 2009
Phoenix to Ashes?
TFP Columnist Dennis Bernstein believes the NHL's experiment in Phoenix needs to come to an end.

"A chain is as only as strong as its weakest link" – Old proverb.

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- There’s quite a quandary in the Valley of the Sun these days. After years of non-performance by the Phoenix Coyotes, this year’s model of the Desert Dogs is highly competitive in the NHL’s Western Conference.

Even more encouraging is the fact that the success has been molded with a nice melding of veteran experience and young talent.

Shane Doan continues to be the model of consistency although he toils with little notice. Ilya Bryzgalov, although wacky at times, has brought stability to the net not seen since his Russian brethren, Nikolai Khabibulin strapped on the pads at America West Arena. The youth movement led by Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris and Martin Hanzal, plays an exciting brand of up-tempo hockey.

The Coyotes patrol around the new Jobing.com arena in Glendale, Arizona, a stone’s throw from the Arizona Cardinals football stadium. If you’ve ever been to the old America West barn, you’d know that it was easily the worst venue in the NHL to watch a game. Part of the development of Phoenix’s West Valley was the building of a new home for the Coyotes and both the team and fans are far better off for it.

The Coyotes will never toil in total anonymity as long as one Wayne Gretzky stands behind the bench. Now in his fourth season as Head Coach, the Great One remains as competitive in this role as he was as an active player and he seems to be an exception to the rule that great players never become good coaches. Though his demeanor is still primarily reserved and low key, Gretzky can explode at times during games.

When Tampa Bay’s Evgeny Artyukhin fought one of his charges, Gretzky screamed across the ice at the young Russian to call him out for battling without taking his visor off, a violation of the unwritten hockey fighting code. Though he hasn’t led the Coyotes to the playoff during his coaching tenure, his five year extension signed in 2006 combined with the fact that Gretzky holds additional titles like Managing Partner and Alternate Governor will enable the Great One to coach as long as his desire burns.

As the calendar turned to 2009, Phoenix was in the top eight qualifiers for the NHL post season and if they can find some additional offense before the trade deadline, it could mark the first time playoff hockey has been experienced in Arizona since 2002.

While this story sounds optimistic, there are some serious storm clouds forming around this team. The extent to which jeopardy is attached to off ice issues of the Phoenix Coyotes could find them in another home sooner than later. Within the past 15 days, the reality of the global economic recession has hit home in the Valley, the NHL has admitted that it has advanced Phoenix’s share of league revenue to the team in order to keep it current on its bills. While the move is not unprecedented, it a clear signal that the team is in the midst of serious financial straits. In a scenario as this, it’s never one overriding factor that is the cause and so it goes here.

The Glendale location, while spacious and new, is a two hour drive from the upper class suburbs of Scottsdale and Tempe, where the true wealth of the region lies. While that works for the NFL Cardinals, who have eight regular season home dates, it leaves the Coyotes exposed with the number of home dates five times greater than football. Though the on ice product has improved, the arena is less than half filled most nights. Jerry Moyes, the trucking magnate (Swift Transportation) has swallowed losses, either partially or whole, of $200 million US since he bought the team with Steve Ellman in 2001. While Moyes has insured the team has covered its losses, the downturn has affected Swift to such an extent that it cannot help Moyes underwrite the losses incurred by the NHL franchise.

While other writers have minimized the possibility of a move by the Coyotes because of its 30 year lease at the Jobing.com arena, the reality is that ownership could relieve itself of the obligation by declaring a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. While such a drastic effort would be a serious black eye to the league, a filing wouldn’t be unprecedented either.

The Los Angeles Kings filed bankruptcy after former owner Bruce McNall drove it to financial ruin; the team emerged from the filing, was scooped up by current owner Philip Anschutz and currently is rebuilding not unlike the Coyotes.

Sources say that the Coyotes have open talks with arena management to renegotiate the lease to provide more revenue opportunities (keeping parking, concessions, etc.) to make the team more viable.

So while the mediation continues, this may be the time for an NHL franchise to move for the first time in a long time. Hockey is an experiment in Phoenix that never worked, for years they couldn’t draw because it was said they played in a bad arena, now they have a good arena in the wrong part of town. I guess the next reason for failure is that their dog ate their homework. Maybe it’s finally time to get a new age owner in the mix in the NHL by allowing Jim Balsillie, the man who runs the company that produces the Black(Crack)berry to step into a majority ownership role. He’s been hovering around the league for years but the old guard of the league refuses to let a Mark Cuban-like maverick billionaire through its ownership doors. Given the global economy’s impact on the professional sports landscape, the NHL should run head first, not away from new blood.

The Chicago Blackhawks were a dormant franchise until long time William Wurtz passed away. They were run like a rust belt family business with little acumen; it was the prized possession of Mr. Wirtz and he had no interest in running like a modern day business. Only when Wirtz’s son, Rocky, assumed the helm did the team become the hottest team in the Second City. They disposed of the silly notion of keeping home games off TV, welcomed back the players of its Golden Era back in the fold and went from a team that drew 5,000 for a weeknight home game to one that sets attendance records.

Drastic times calls for drastic measures. The NHL’s sister league, the NBA isn’t adverse to new ownership or to moving its franchises when the market doesn’t work for or with them. Charlotte lost the Hornets to New Orleans but got back the Bobcats when they showed strong ownership potential. The city of Seattle failed to build the Sonics a new home and lost their team to Oklahoma City, of all places. Vancouver wouldn’t support the Grizzles so now they growl in Memphis.

Phoenix celebrated their fifth year anniversary of residence in the Jobing.com arena yet they rank 26th in attendance, only above Atlanta Nashville, Columbus and the Islanders.

The most damning evidence of the failure of a franchise is when the fans vote with their feet to stay away. The Phoenix experiment should come to an end; the market has proven that hockey is of marginal importance to its landscape, so it’s time to break up the log jam of teams located in markets that should have never been entered.

If they’ve truly suffered the massive losses they claim, let the Coyotes file Chapter 11, get out of their lease and let Balsillie taken them to southern Ontario to start a nice rivalry with Buffalo and Toronto. Think hockey fans along that corridor would welcome a team with some established stars, young talent and a Great One behind the bench with open arms?

Let this team serve as the trial balloon for the likes for Nashville, Atlanta, Florida and Columbus to find new homes as well. It’s the right time for this chain to lose its weakest links.

SWINGING WITH HARROLD

In baseball, a player that can play more than one position is known as a utility man. In the NBA, one that shuttles between guard and forward is called a swing man. In hockey, the ability to shift between offense and defense is not as prevalent, due in part that one mostly skates forward on offense and backward on defense. While I’ve oversimplified the differences in the roles, the ability to shift between the two roles is rare in today’s NHL rife with specialty players.

Peter Harrold, the second year pro with the Los Angeles Kings is one of the few who provides Head Coach Terry Murray with roster flexibility by shuttling back and forth. Originally signed by the Kings as a free agent after a four year collegiate career at Boston College, the Kirtland Hills, Ohio native bounced back and forth between Los Angeles and their AHL affiliate in Manchester during the unfortunate Marc Crawford regime. He did show enough potential to GM Dean Lombardi to hold on to when Harold signed a three year contract over the summer.

With Terry Murray installed as the new bench coach, the status quo appeared to be in place as Harrold was a healthy scratch in six of their first nineteen games. But when asked to provide roster flexibility by jumping up to right wing on occasion, Peter stepped into the role and has played in every game since December 1. He’s supplanted veteran Tom Preissing in the lineup, not a small feat considering Priessing has two-years remaining on an $11 million deal he inked two-years ago and Harrold toils for not much above the minimum.

You can’t really credit Murray for a stroke of coaching genius by plugging in the 25 year old player into a position that he functions well in, rather the re-positioning was born out of necessity. A month into the season with injuries mounting along the forward wall, the coaching staff came to the defenseman and asked if he could play forward.

"I told them I’d never played wing and they still put me there," Harrold joked before the Kings’ match against the Philadelphia Flyers. "I talked to the staff got my assignments down and I guess I did alright. I kept at it every game and it got easier as it went on. I play more of a defensive style of forward and the biggest challenge for me has been acquiring the instincts you need on the forecheck. The most difficult part of the transition is making sure I’m in the right position when I go into the offensive zone and recognizing when it’s too late to go in. I’d rather play that style than giving up offensive chances in my own end to the other team."

While Alex Ovechkin shouldn’t be concerned with his goal scoring titles with Harrold’s additional play on right wing, his ability to swing back and forth could be a coming trend in the age of a salary cap.

"If I didn’t make the move I wouldn’t be playing, it’s as simple as that. I’ve been playing defense all my life but if they want to put me on the wing, that’s fine too."

With second year defenseman scheduled to return from a torn labrum after the All Star break, the Kings will have a log jam on the blueline. Harrold’s flexibility may save him another trip to the AHL, a lesson for any player struggling to stay at the NHL level.

I'M JUST SAYING...

The Kings are building a nice story with fresh young faces in the locker room. While there’s actually playoff talk at Casa del Staples, the lack of an elite scoring winger and its front loaded home schedule (they’ve played 25 of their first 38 game in Los Angeles) are major barriers to them playing in the second season. This team is a vastly improved team over the 71 point disaster of last season, especially on the defensive end.

Last week, GM Dean Lombardi and his minions took a significant gamble by dealing away veteran netminder Jason LaBarbera.

LaBarbera, a record setter at the AHL level, was given enough opportunities over a couple of seasons to seize the number one role but could never perform to the necessary level. After giving the goalie away for a seventh round choice and a bag of pucks to the Canucks, it leaves the Kings with two rookie goalies, Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg and no veteran netminders in the organization (their Manchester AHL affiliate houses former first round pick Jonathan Bernier and up and comer Jeff Zatkoff).

Coach Terry Murray didn’t seem that concerned about have two rookies with less than 50 games of NHL experience leveraging the team’s success but it’s virgin territory for him, too.

"No, I never have," he said. "It's unique for me, but it's not unprecedented, I don't think. I haven't researched it. It's just a decision that we've made, within the organization that we're going to play our young players. That decision was made clearly back at the end of the season last year that a lot of the young players in the organization were going to be put in situations where they can have an opportunity to grow and take over the ownership of the hockey club.

"It's the same now with these two goaltenders. It's going to be very demanding, and that's why it's going to take both of them to support each other emotionally and push each other to accelerate and develop their games to a higher level."

And while it’s a lot to ask for two youngsters, they seem to take it in stride. Ersberg, is a quiet 26 year old undrafted Swede who looks 18 and Quick is a 22 year old who attended the University of Massachusetts and was a third round choice in the 2005 draft. Quick has performed exceptionally over the past two weeks, registering two shutouts and a save percentage of .943 after a 2-1 shootout win against Philadelphia this past Saturday. Quick turned the trick in front of a raucous sellout of crowd and the reason why he played un-rookie like could be due to his attitude.

When asked if he was nervous playing against a top team like the Flyers in front of 18,000 plus, Quick calmly said, "I haven’t been nervous playing hockey since I was ten years old."

Is that so, young Mr. Quick?

"Yeah, you play so many games, this is just another one."

Are those people that are belly aching that Ovechkin isn’t starting the All Star Game the same ones that complain the game doesn’t mean anything and how it’s played at half speed?

First big name to be dealt: Doug Weight, current Islanders leading scorer.

STOP THE BUZZ

With that clown, Sean Avery finally getting just deserts, there was some buzz coming out of New York that the Rangers could use Mr. Seconds alleged toughness to a roster that is devoid of grittiness. While that’s true, such logic would have Rangers’ GM/President Glen Sather looking up Theo Fleury, Chris Simon and Marty McSorley too. The moral of the story is that in any sport, character wins. Break down the numbers, the Rangers were 23-14-3 as they entered 2009 without Avery and the Stars are 7-5-1 and back in the Western Conference playoff race. If the Rangers want toughness and skill, Sather should ring up Brendan Shanahan. Case closed.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.
 
  Archives:
Dec. 19, 2008 Don't Get Me Started!
Dec. 04, 2008 An American in the Prairies
Nov. 22, 2008 Maybe the Q is part of the A
Nov. 01, 2008 The Plot Thickens
Oct. 27, 2008 Pinging Away
Oct. 16, 2008 West Coast Bias
Sept. 30, 2008 Life is a Spectrum
Sept. 26, 2008 My kind of town
Sept. 10, 2008 Say it ain't so, Joe


 

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