With limited funds to work with, it's a tough situation for general manager Don Maloney, the architect of the team that was pieced together over the past couple of years. On Thursday, Maloney made his first key signing of the offseason when he inked Aucoin to a two-year deal, something the veteran defenseman was hoping to secure before having to enter the free agent frenzy on July 1.
"It was 100 percent my goal to stay in Phoenix," said Aucoin during a phone interview on Friday. "When you're trying to figure things out it's always better to get it done earlier than later. It's nice to know where you stand, and know if you're going to have to pack and go again. Obviously we really wanted to stay, and Don [Maloney] really wanted us to stick around, too, so it worked out really well."
With so many players still unsigned, there has to be at least a little bit of a concern that a team that came together so well -- and so fast -- last season could get broken apart somewhat, perhaps sending the team back to square one at the start of next season. The salary cap isn't a problem for the Coyotes, as they have just a little over $30 million committed to 14 players for next season (the cap is expected to be around $58 million) and only four players under contract through 2011-12.
The problem remains a still unsettled ownership situation, and self-imposed budgets.
"I think that's definitely a possibility," said Aucoin. "I don't see it going back to square one, simply because we're not really fighting the cap; we're fighting our personal budget that the league and our new owners will set upon us."
"But that being said, you've seen when Maloney gets a little bit of leeway to do what he does. He brought in a bunch of guys last year, and if we lose some of those guys, there's a ton of players still out there, and with the way the cap is, the price is right for some of them. I'm quite confident he'll do a great job and keep us very competitive, if not make us better."
Remaining competitive, of course, is vital to continuing to build a strong following and fan base in Phoenix. It's a market that has become the poster child for everything that is wrong with Gary Bettman's southern/western expansion. And like markets such as Atlanta and Florida, there always seems to be somebody looking to scoop up the franchise and move it elsewhere. Or simply eliminate it. Those markets all have one rather large thing in common: none of them have really given fans in the area an on-ice reason to follow the team and fill the building.
The Coyotes helped to change that last season by not only competing for the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference into the final weeks of the regular season, but by also playing a thrilling seven-game playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings. It was the type of series that could hook some new fans.
"With the way the team played this year, and even with the whole ownership situation, it kind of brought a lot of fans back because they almost felt like, you know what, we're kind of with the players," said Aucoin. "It made for a pretty cool environment, making the playoffs and hopefully taking the right steps in turning the franchise around. It made not only for a great year off the ice, but it was definitely great for the hockey community. I think we brought back some of the hardcore fans, and made a few new ones as well."
He continued: "In Canada, say Toronto or another hardcore hockey place where the team maybe hasn't done well, then it did do well, and it kind of goes back and forth, they're still going to do well off the ice with tickets and what not. But in a lot of the big American cities, there's so many other sports you can go watch, the fans really want to just watch a winner. That's just the way it is. I'm the same way when I'm watching certain sports on TV, you want to watch the good teams. Some of these struggling franchises, they either haven't been able to draw good players, or they've been struggling with their budgets, and when you can't field a good team and you can't win, it makes it that much harder to fill the building. That's something that was a huge bonus for us last year bringing in (coach) Dave Tippett and just a few players and hopefully turning this thing around to where it's going to be successful here."
It also helps having a goaltender that's a finalist for the Vezina Trophy (Ilya Bryzgalov), and a head coach that's a finalist for the Jack Adams Award. Bryzgalov finished the season in the top-eight for goals against average and save percentage.
"Well, I'll start off by saying that we have two really good goalies," Aucoin said. "Jason Labarbera was in a lot of games, and a lot of shootouts for us, which is a huge reason as to why we won so many games. But as for Bryz, he did everything, and more, that was expected of him this year. He's one of those goalies, he's big, he's quick, he reads the play well, I think our goalie coach Sean Burke had a lot to do with him having the year that he did. He's just so easy to play in front of. When you play a system with a coach like Tip who makes everything so easy for you, and you have good goaltending, it's a deadly combination."
And as for the system...
As we already pointed out a couple of months ago, the Coyotes relied on their defensemen to provide an offensive spark, of which Aucoin was a huge part, scoring eight goals to go with 20 assists. As he explains it, it's not just about getting the defense involved, it's about getting all five players on the ice involved.
"It's amazing because everybody thinks there's something specific, or why it's working better than other teams," he said. "Everything was just simple. If you can have five-man units that skate up the ice hard, and skate back hard and always try to stay on the defensive side of the puck when you don't have it ... he just simplified everything and it made it so easy for all the players to understand. And not only understand, but to buy into it, because a lot of times players don't really like certain things, there's nothing not to like, and that's what made it good for us and it helped the defense. We don't have any real superstars, so everyone had to chip in and that always helps when you're defense is scoring goals."
"I've been around playing pro for 16 years now and he's the best coach I've had. He really makes the game easy for us, and that's what you want from a coach: to be respected and to help you along, and he did all of that."