Coyotes approaching free agency with caution

The Coyotes want to add offense up front, but finances could limit their free-agent shopping.

If you were expecting the Coyotes to come out of the gates swinging when free agency officially opened at 9 a.m. Arizona time on Friday, you might be disappointed. 

It’s not that general manager Don Maloney expected no moves. Some were coming. And its not he has been told to hide the wallet by new owners George Gosbee, Anthony LeBlanc, and the rest of their investors. There were just some realities tempering Maloney’s and assistant general manager Brad Treliving’s approach as the market opened for business.

“There are certainly a couple guys we’ve earmarked,” Maloney said. “I’m just not sure we can do one thing without doing two other things right now.”

Maloney said this week that the cap structure the team must abide by is a little better than it would have been with another year of NHL stewardship. But Phoenix must also face the reality that it just signed goalie Mike Smith to a backloaded, six-year,  $34 million deal, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s backloaded, six-year, $33 million deal will also kick in this season.

Add that to the deals for captain Shane Doan and defenseman Keith Yandle and the Coyotes have four players averaging better than $5 million per year.

Maloney is also concerned with the early demands he’s hearing from the free-agent market, and the team has yet to re-sign its own free agents, other than Smith, so there is work to be done.

Maloney has been in constant contact with center Boyd Gordon’s agent this week but acknowledged that Gordon would become a free agent. The Coyotes want Gordon back but the money has to work for their salary structure and a few other teams could make a push for Gordon, who provides faceoff prowess and shot-blocking skills while playing responsible defense and killing penalties.

As for the Coyotes restricted free agents, Phoenix was still working on deals for defenseman Michel Stone and David Rundblad, along with forwards Mikkel Boedker and Lauri Korpikoski. Boedker and Korpikoski are eligible for arbitration.

Maloney has a clear picture of the team’s needs in free agency.

“Getting Mike Smith signed certainly helps because when we look at our goaltending and defense, it’s good, it’s solid,” said Maloney, who continues to talk with unrestricted free agent goalies Jason LaBarbera and Chad Johnson, but is also considering other backup options. “The real need for us is up front. We have to continue to get better. Whether that comes in the first few days of free agency or more likely through some deals, we’ll have to see.”

It’s no secret the Coyotes have coveted an elite center ever since Jeremy Roenick left. Washington’s Mike Ribeiro played for coach Dave Tippett in Dallas, he’s a 20-goal scorer and could come in the $5 million range. There are a couple big names like Boston’s Nathan Horton and Detroit’s Valtteri Filppula who should be available, but their price may be too steep.

Former Coyotes Danny Briere said Thursday that he strongly considered the Coyotes, but he signed a two-year, $8 million deal with Montreal, with family concerns playing a significant role.

If the Coyotes also want to add some scoring on the wing, they could target a player like Chicago’s Viktor Stalberg, who isn’t expected to return to Chicago. Stalberg has tantalizing speed, good size and is particularly effective when he plays a north-south game. But his puck management skills would need some work to fit into Tippett’s system. Stalberg made $850,000 last season.

There’s also the possibility of players who have received compliance buyouts. Under the new CBA, each team was issued two to help slip under the salary cap, which decreases from $70.2 million to $64.3 million this season. 

“We’ve got some things we need to do and there’s still some wiggle room but we may need to make some changes to our existing roster first,” Maloney said.

As he said near the end of last season, Maloney still believes the Coyotes’ best chance at improving up front may come via the trade route. Yandle’s name is constantly mentioned, and Maloney acknowledged before the draft that he will listen to offers for any player on the roster with the exception of Doan.

But the asking price for trades at the draft was unusually high, so Maloney said a deal might not come immediately.

“It may not be until September,” he said. “I just don’t like what I’m hearing right now with regard to some of these deals.”

On the plus side, Maloney believes that the presence of an ownership group will have a major impact on the Coyotes’ ability to attract top players moving forward, whether through free agency or trades.

“We all know how good it can be here with good ownership,” he said. “With a great coaching staff, a great captain and some really strong pieces on our back end and in goal, it feels like now we have the ability to attract those top players and now we have a chance to build some lasting success.”