Money too tight to mention in Phoenix?

OTTAWA, Ontario -- It seems almost inconceivable, but the Phoenix Coyotes will head into a third straight trade deadline period without the ownership situation being resolved and, as a result, at a competitive disadvantage to other teams in the league.

Although the league, which has been operating the team for almost two years, insists this isn't the case, the failure to find a new owner for the beleaguered franchise makes it impossible for GM Don Maloney to improve his playoff-hopeful team because the league has imposed a strict budget that cannot be modified.

While lots of teams operate under budgets well below the salary cap, the fact that the Coyotes remain under the stewardship of the NHL means the team is in effect competing against its own owners for a highly valued playoff berth. Last season, for instance, Maloney could only make trades that did not alter the team's payroll, so was limited to making dollar-in/dollar-out deals. According to capgeek.com, the Coyotes' payroll is about $53 million, which is 23rd in the league.

It is not a stretch to suggest that the Coyotes' owners -- i.e., the owners of the other teams -- might be better off if the team was not successful and did not make the playoffs. And whether that sentiment is ever publicly uttered, the Phoenix situation remains a sore spot for the league.

"I'm not sure I agree with that," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said when asked by ESPN.com about the competitive issues surrounding the team.
"I really don't think it's materially different. There are some clubs who are very strict with their budget. I'll admit that the league office has given [Maloney] strict parameters and we don't expect him to vary from those, but I don't think that's different from how two-thirds of our clubs, at least, operate."

One league GM agreed with Daly's assessment, telling ESPN.com he doesn't see the Phoenix situation as being materially different than a team such as Nashville, for instance, that has a strict budget under which it operates.

Although the league had hoped to have a new owner installed long before now, it seems almost certain this will be the last season this will be an issue.

Commissioner Gary Bettman sounded optimistic, speaking after the board of governors' meeting here, that the twisted ownership tale might finally be nearing a conclusion with an unnamed group of investors currently looking at buying the team.

"We hope, based on the things that are ongoing, to have the sale in place before the end of this season that would keep the team in Glendale," Bettman said.

Although the league has been tight-lipped on the identity of this group -- a group that almost certainly represents the last best shot at keeping the team in Arizona -- Daly was likewise positive in his comments about them.

"They're legitimate; they've been working at it for a while," Daly said. "They've been spending money. They've been doing due diligence. So those are all positive signs. It doesn't mean they're going to buy the franchise, so we'll see how it plays out."

The City of Glendale has recommended ponying up another $25 million to help cover operating costs for next season in the absence of a new owner, but multiple sources told ESPN.com that the league has no intention of continuing this current relationship. Either an owner will be found who will keep the team in Arizona or the league will move the team to another market.

The city has invested $25 million for each of the past two seasons while the ownership search continued.

Although Bettman declined to discuss the possibility that the team could be moved -- "I don't see any reason to discuss Plan B at this point" -- it's believed that the league is bullish on having a team in Seattle, although there isn't an NHL-ready building in that market.

"There are a lot of people who think Seattle would be a great place to have a team," Bettman said. "The Pacific Northwest, the natural rivalry with Vancouver, another team in the Pacific time zone … but there's no building."

"We don't like moving franchises," the commissioner added. "It's taking a long time; A, because it's fairly complicated, and B, because a lot of damage was done in the process, where we had to assume control of the club. But at some point we may have to conclude it's not solvable, but we're not at that point yet."

The problem for the NHL is that, outside of Kansas City, there isn't a market with a building that would be an obvious fit for the league as there was a year ago when it allowed the Atlanta Thrashers to be sold and moved to Winnipeg.

Quebec City would like to follow in Winnipeg's footsteps and return the NHL, but funding for the construction of a new arena has not been finalized, and the league would never commit to returning to Quebec City without the arena plans finalized.

The key to any deal getting done in Phoenix is the amount of give-backs the City of Glendale is prepared to offer up when arranging a new lease for Jobing.com Arena, which was built with taxpayer money.

Daly said the city remains up-front about making concessions but there have been hurdles, including the threat of a lawsuit from the public interest group the Goldwater Institute, that have soured attempts by a number of groups to purchase the team.

There has also been consistent infighting within city council and among city managers that has blunted efforts to find a new owner.

"They know they're a critical player in this equation, and I think they're prepared certainly to work with the league and with a potential new owner in helping a franchise transaction happen," Daly said. "For whatever reason, and despite everybody's best effort, so far we haven't been able to bring it together. Hopefully, we are in the near future."

Bettman also provided updates on other ownership issues, including those involving the cash-strapped New Jersey Devils. The commissioner confirmed that the NHL has been advancing monies to the team that it would normally have received ahead of schedule.

"We're not subsidizing the club," Bettman said. "It's not unheard of for us to be advancing monies the club might otherwise be entitled to on a timely basis, if there are cash flow issues, but we're not subsidizing the Devils."

He did acknowledge the situation involving feuding co-owners Jeff Vanderbeek and Ray Chambers was hurting the team.

"We're helping to sort all of that out either with one or the other assuming control of the club or, even under some circumstances, looking at other alternatives as well," Bettman said. "I think it's fair to say the club is stable but ownership isn't getting along, and I think for all of you who've followed the game over the years, you know when ownership isn't exactly in a good place, not always good things happen, so we're going to work our way through that."

Daly said the team had not missed or been late in meeting payroll at any time this season.

Bettman also expressed optimism that the sale of the St. Louis Blues to current minority owner Tom Stillman would go through in the near future.

"We've been in regular touch with Tom and his people. I spoke to Tom last Wednesday or Thursday and he believes that things are on track," Bettman said.
"We think it's on track. We think it's on a timely track, so we're pretty optimistic that based on everything we're hearing, including from Tom, this should be a go."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.