The Coyotes didn’t waste any time filling the void left by the stunning buyout of center Mike Ribeiro.
Arizona sent a sixth-round pick in 2015 to Tampa Bay to acquire playmaking center Sam Gagner and rugged wing B.J. Crombeen on Sunday.
Gagner was traded from Edmonton to Tampa Bay an hour earlier, but his agent informed him at the time he might not be finished moving. The Lightning were looking to shed salary heading into free agency, and when Tampa GM Steve Yzerman agreed to retain about one-third of Gagner’s salary in the deal, Coyotes GM Don Maloney was able to afford a player he had long coveted.
"We got what we wanted and what we were searching for: a young, skilled center iceman," said Maloney, who received a call from Oilers GM Craig MacTavish early Sunday morning, but thought he had lost out on the trade when Gagner was shipped to Tampa. "We got a young player who fits into what we’re trying to do, and at the right price."
Gagner carries a cap hit of $4.8 million each of the next two seasons but his salary is $5 million. The Coyotes will be on the hook for $3.2 million of that according to capgeek.com, after freeing up $3.55 million a season in the Ribeiro buyout announced Friday. Crombeen will make $1.15 million in 2014-15, the last year of his deal.
Gagner, 24, was the sixth overall draft pick in 2007. He had 101 goals in seven seasons for Edmonton, including five straight 40-point seasons. While he is listed as a center, he also played some wing. Maloney expects the team to use him on special teams. He is an effective penalty killer.
Gagner has turned in some stunning games, including a four-goal, four-assist night against the Blackhawks on Feb. 12, 2012, which tied a team record for points in a game set by Wayne Gretzky and matched by Paul Coffey.
But there have been questions about his defensive game and his speed. He was a minus-29 last season, his possession stats are not great and he won just 46.8 percent of his faceoffs last season, which makes some analysts wonder if he is better suited to the wing.
"Last year wasn’t a great one for me but I think I’m better defensively than what people suggest," said Gagner, who had 10 goals and 27 assists in 2013-14. "I thought towards the end of last year I was getting better at faceoffs. If you want to possess the puck and start with the puck that’s important."
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett believes a change of scenery will infuse Gagner with energy. He also believes Gagner’s youth allows plenty of room for growth.
"I talked to him about the identity we want. That will be expected from all players, no matter if they’re skilled and creative," Tippett said. "One thing we’ve had some success with is every player plays within a structure."
Gagner is the son of former NHL player Dave Gagner, who spent 15 seasons in the league. In an odd twist, Tippett played with Dave Gagner on the 1984 Canadian Olympic team, and he also played with Crombeen’s dad, Mike, with the Hartford Whalers form 1983-85.
Maloney and Tippett both said Crombeen was a player they’ve had their eyes on for a while. At 6-2, 209 pounds, Crombeen brings an edge that Tippett feels will fit the Coyotes’ fourth line. Crombeen had 11 fighting majors last year and understands that is part of his playing identity.
"There’s no two ways about it. It’s obviously part of my game," he said. "Something that has made me the player I am is being willing to stand up for teammates.
"But it’s not the only part of my game. I try to bring a pretty honest, straight-forward game and be a physical player. I’ve always kind of tried to pay close attention to the defensive side of the game and I think that fits well with what Tip wants from his players."
Crombeen came up in the Dallas system and played for Tippett there. He was also teammates with goalie Mike Smith and roomed with him while the two were in the AHL in Iowa.
"We did a lot of things together, not all legal," Smith said. "He’s not just a great asset for our team, but also a great guy to have in the locker room. That’s something you really value."
Maloney admitted the Coyotes still have work to do on their roster, but he was non-committal when asked if the team was through shopping, or planned more for the start of free agency on Tuesday. The team tendered a qualifying offer to restricted free-agent forward Brandon McMillan on Sunday, believed to be worth about $744,975. When asked specifically if the Gagner trade closed the door on a return by wing Radim Vrbata, Maloney said the Coyotes would love to have him back, but the asking price is currently too high.
Vrbata is believed to be seeking a three-to-four year deal at an average annual value of $4.5 million. Given the Coyotes’ financial constraints and Vrbata’s age (33) that is probably too much.
But Maloney was ecstatic that the Coyotes landed a play-making center so quickly, while also accomplishing a stated goal of getting younger. With Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette both bringing strong defensive games, Maloney is not concerned about the 5-11 Gagner having to match up against some of the many big centers in the West.
"You work hard for weeks and weeks and weeks, looking for help," Maloney said. "You never know when it all comes together."