The Phoenix Coyotes celebrate following Saturday's win over the… (Matt York / Associated Press )
Of all the changes made by the IceArizona group since it purchased the Phoenix Coyotes from the NHL in August, one seemingly small decision symbolizes the new regime.
The Coyotes traditionally hold a dinner for players and their wives before the season, "to kind of set the tone," General Manager Don Maloney said. "And basically the last three years it's been Happy Meals and six-packs. The new owners took us out to a nice restaurant. Little things that you think don't mean much, but they mean a lot for the whole mind-set of your group."
IceArizona is led by Canadian businessmen George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc, who paid $170 million for the money-losing franchise and signed a 15-year lease at Jobing.com Arena. They have an out clause if they lose $50 million over the first five years but have said they don't expect to have to invoke it.
The group hired executives to revitalize finances, corporate and suite sales — the lifeblood of most NHL teams — and ticket sales. The Coyotes have advertised in local media using the theme "Hungrier than ever," and they're promoting tailgating in some parking lots before weekend games.
The Coyotes have averaged 12,834 fans over their first five home games, slightly down from last season's final 13,923, but NHL attendance tends to increase after Christmas. Maloney said he's encouraged by the attention being given to business operations in addition to the team's training and equipment needs and restoring the slashed scouting budget.
"We all feel there's been a weight lifted and we have hope and a chance," he said. "The whole atmosphere around the organization is different. For us on the hockey side, it's been excellent. I report to George Gosbee. They've really left the hockey side pretty much to continue to do what we're trying to do here."
Maloney was on a lean budget during the Coyotes' four years under NHL control and had to clear major decisions with Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. Maloney and Coach Dave Tippett worked wonders with limited resources but were at a disadvantage in retaining talent and pursuing free agents.
"Basically you work with a budget and they let you do whatever you felt was right — and just don't call if you ever need an extra nickel," Maloney said, jokingly.
Maloney and Tippett signed extensions last summer to continue building the Coyotes, who lost to the Kings in the 2012 Western Conference final and missed the playoffs last season. The always scrappy Coyotes are 7-3-2 and have earned points in all five home games (4-0-1) leading up to their matchup against the Kings on Tuesday.
"We've never used the lack of an owner as an excuse for performance and we still don't," Maloney said. "I don't think you have to spend a zillion dollars to have success. You might be able to cover up your mistakes a little bit better.
"I think in a lot of ways, not having an owner sort of galvanized the group and created an us-versus-them mentality."
With the ownership stabilized, Maloney can make one more change: He can stop signing short-term home leases.
"I enjoy living there, but when you were thinking, 'Six months from now we could be somewhere else,' a lot of us stayed flexible," he said. "Now we can maybe look to put in a little deeper roots."
Sabres appear to win Vanek trade
Buffalo General Manager Darcy Regier, under pressure to revive his woeful team and get assets for free-agent-to-be Thomas Vanek, traded the two-time 40-goal scorer to the New York Islanders for two-time 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson, a first-round draft pick in 2014 and a second-round pick in 2015. Though Moulson also can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the prime draft picks should fuel Buffalo's rebuilding.
"I don't love where we are, I like what we're doing and believe in the direction we're going," Regier told reporters Sunday.
The deal made sense for the Sabres (2-11-1), who have another valuable trade chip in goaltender Ryan Miller, also an impending free agent. But it made less sense for the Islanders on many levels.
Although they have a wealth of prospects and can give up draft picks, acquiring Vanek — with whom they haven't negotiated a contract extension — didn't address crucial needs in goal and on defense. But Islanders GM Garth Snow said he had to take this chance to make the team better. "We haven't been good enough. We're .500 and our expectation is to be higher in the standings than where we are," he said at a news conference Monday.
Snow has to hope Vanek clicks with center John Tavares and wants to re-sign. That's a big gamble.
Sabres forward John Scott is scheduled to have an in-person hearing at the NHL's New York office Thursday to discuss his blow to the head of Boston's Loui Eriksson on Wednesday. Eriksson suffered a concussion. A five-game suspension seems to have become the standard for these too-frequent infractions.
The NHL on Monday suspended Phoenix Coyotes forward Martin Hanzal for two games for charging Edmonton defenseman Jeff Petry on Saturday. As a repeat offender, Hanzal will forfeit $75,609.76 to the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund.