GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes spent the past four years searching for impact players, but didn’t have the money to land many due to the restraints of being run by the NHL.
Now that an owner is all but in place, the Coyotes were able to make the kind of big-splash signing that should give them a big boost on and off the ice.
Landing one of the most coveted offensive players at the start of the free agency period, the Coyotes signed forward Mike Ribeiro to a four-year, $22 million contract on Friday.
“Since I came here six years ago, we’ve been searching for a playmaking centre iceman, someone who could make his wingers better,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “Certainly, Mike’s skill set, his ability to pass the puck, vision on the ice was an area we had ideally been looking for, so to be able to bring him to the desert is a really good day for us.”
The Coyotes took a big step toward stability this week when the Glendale City Council approved an arena lease agreement with prospective owner Renaissance Sports and Entertainment.
Headed by George Gosbee, Anthony LeBlanc and Daryl Jones, RSE still needs to complete the lease agreement with Glendale and its purchase of the Coyotes (by Aug. 5), but has already loosened the purse strings for the front office.
In addition to Ribeiro, the Coyotes signed free agent goalie Thomas Greiss to serve as a backup to Mike Smith and re-signed unrestricted free agent forward Kyle Chipchura to a multi-year deal. They also signed multi-year deals with forward Lauri Korpikoski and defencemen Michael Stone, both restricted free agents, and signed defenceman Chris Summers to a one-year deal.
On top of that, Phoenix was working on locking up a few more players within in the organization and still has the flexibility to sign or trade for others.
It added up to a new free agency experience for Maloney and assistant GM Brad Treliving.
“What was interesting was that there wasn’t a pending free agent in the marketplace that didn’t call us and want to talk about coming to Arizona to play hockey,” Maloney said. “That’s the one thing I was really encouraged by. Normally, Brad and I are banging at the phones, ‘will you please call us’ … and that gets a little old after a while, so this was such a totally different experience for Brad and I.”
Their big move was landing the kind of front-line centre they had been seeking almost since moving to the desert in 1996.
The 33-year-old Ribeiro has been a consistent scorer during his 14-year career, topping 50 points in a season eight times. He had 49 points, including 36 assists, in 48 games with Washington last season.
Ribeiro played three seasons under Coyotes coach Dave Tippett in Dallas and spent six seasons with Montreal after the Canadiens picked him in the second round of the 1998 NHL draft.
He could play on the first line with captain Shane Doan and Mikkel Boedker or could allow Tippett to mix things up with his top lines.
“Obviously, his relationship with Dave Tippett was a huge factor in this decision,” Maloney said. “They developed a very strong relationship when they were together in Dallas and we’ve monitored his status and feel like he has lots of life left in him.”
Landing Ribeiro was the biggest move, but locking up some of the team’s own players also was key, particularly since the team had struggled to do that in the past with the NHL running things.
The 27-year-old Chipchura gave the Coyotes toughness and skill on the fourth line, with five goals and nine assists last season.
Korpikoski, 26, has developed into a solid playmaker on the left wing, scoring 40 and 37 points the previous two seasons before dropping to 11 during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season while battling injuries.
The 23-year-old Stone spent most of the 2011-12 season in the AHL, but developed into one of Phoenix’s best defencemen the last half of the 2012-13 season, finishing with five goals and four assists.
The Coyotes also are hoping to re-sign Boedker, a restricted free agent.
The Coyotes weren’t able to retain forward Boyd Gordon, one of their top off-season priorities, when he signed a three-year deal with Edmonton. Backup goalie Jason LaBarbera also signed with the Oilers.
“Boyd was a great player for us and I’m happy for him to get his contract,” Maloney said. “That’s the business and they (the Oilers) certainly value him and had enough in their payroll budget that they could spend what they wanted to spend. We liked Boyd with us, we would have liked to keep him, it just got to a point where we decided we’re going to have to go another direction.”
Losing Gordon was tough, but unlike previous seasons when key players left, the Coyotes have the support from an owner to get someone else to take his place.