Jeremy Roenick fans may disagree, but you can make the argument that the Coyotes have lacked an elite, play-making center ever since they arrived in the Valley in 1996. That changed on Friday.
Less than an hour after the free-agency period opened, the Coyotes agreed to terms with free-agent center Mike Ribeiro on a four-year deal worth $22 million (average of $5.5 million). Ribeiro was one of the top players on the market this season.
Ribeiro, 33, had 13 goals and 49 points in 48 games for the Washington Capitals last season. He played for Coyotes coach Dave Tippett for three seasons in Dallas (2006-09). The best of those seasons was 2007-08 when he had 27 goals and 83 points, but he has posted at least 34 assists in his last nine NHL seasons and has topped 40 six times in that span.
When asked if filling such a longstanding franchise void brings added pressure, Ribeiro redirected the question.
“No. Being able to have a coach you trust will make me play more comfortable and freely to do what I have to do,” he said via conference call. “Pressure is always part of the game. It’s how you adapt yourself to it and how you accept it. I’m ready for it.”
Ribeiro said the only thing holding him up from committing to Phoenix was the ownership uncertainty. Once that was settled by the Glendale City Council on Friday, the decision was easy because of his relationship with Tippett.
With Matthew Lombardi injured much of the lockout shortened 2013 season, the Coyotes’ top four centers combined for 39 assists last season. So it was no surprise that the Coyotes went in this direction.
“You look at our roster, he’s the kind of player we’re missing: A top centerman who is a great playmaker,” Tippett said of Ribeiro. “He has a creativity that is ahead of a lot of players. He can be a quirky guy, but he just has a unique ability to hold the puck, make great plays and find players in spaces. He makes plays other players can’t make.”
The Coyotes could play Ribeiro on their top line with Shane Doan and Mikkel Boedker, assuming the Coyotes can re-sign Boedker, a restricted free agent who is arbitration eligible. Ribeiro’s play-making ability could really help Boedker, who didn’t meet offensive expectations with seven goals and 26 points in 48 games last season.
“You could definitely talk about a line of Ribeiro, Shane Doan and (Mikkel) Boedker,” but I think we have some options with our top two groups now,” Tippett said. “With (Martin) Hanzal and (Radim) Vrbata, you’ve got some pieces to work with.”
General manager Don Maloney said talks with Boedker are ongoing but “we’re not quite there with Mikkel.”
The Coyotes might still be in the market for a left wing on their second line, but the prices were awfully steep on Friday, so they might take some time to assess where they are before diving into those waters. Maloney reiterated that top pick Max Domi could also get a shot to crack the team’s top six forward on the left side.
“With his skill set and body type, we’re really curious to see how he can adapt to playing against men, so we don’t want to bottle up a position,” Maloney said. “We feel like we can be more patient in racing out and filling two, three, four spots. Whether that’s through better-valued free agents or trades or younger players in our system, we don’t feel the need to race out and sign somebody right now.”
In any case, if anybody was wondering what new owners George Gosbee, Anthony LeBlanc and Co. might do to prove they are committed to winning right now, the group left little doubt with this move. With Ribeiro in the fold, the Coyotes have five players (Shane Doan, Keith Yandle, Mike Smith, Oliver Ekman-Larsson) who average more than $5 million per season.
“GM Don Maloney provided us with an update on Wednesday and explained Ribeiro was at the top of his list,” LeBlanc said “I didn’t want to get too excited in case it didn’t happen, but our collective view was that was truly the missing piece of the puzzle. We are thrilled Don was able to make this happen. This was a great team prior to today’s moves, but I now truly feel this is a championship-caliber team.”
The Ribeiro move was easily the biggest for the Coyotes on Friday (Maloney said the team has had its eye on Ribeiro ever since Tippett arrived four years ago), but it wasn’t the only move the team made on an active day. Phoenix re-signed unrestricted-free-agent forward Kyle Chipchura (three years) and restricted-free-agent forward Lauri Korpikoski (four years, $10 million) as well as defensemen Michael Stone (three years) and Chris Summers (one year).
The team also signed goalie Thomas Greiss (San Jose) to a one-year, $750,000 deal to be Mike Smith’s backup. Maloney said the team tried to sign Greiss two years ago but he remained with San Jose. The Coyotes weren’t happy with Jason LaBarbera’s play last season and elected to go in another direction after some preliminary talks with LaBarbera, last year’s backup.
LaBarbera ended up signing a one-year deal with Edmonton on Friday, but the Oilers took away a more significant piece when they signed free-agent center Boyd Gordon to a three-year deal worth a whopping $9 million, robbing Phoenix of a faceoff and shot-blocking specialist who fit well in Tippett’s defense-first system.
“Boyd was a good player for us and I’m happy for him to get his contract,” Maloney said. “They certainly valued him and had enough in their payroll budget that they could spend what they wanted to spend. We would have liked to keep him.”
With Gordon gone, the top four Coyotes centers are Ribeiro, Hanzal, Antoine Vermette and Chipchura, who will have a chance to fill Gordon’s role. The Coyotes think he can, based on how effective he was when Phoenix eliminated Chicago in the first round of the playoffs in 2012.
Ribeiro said he and his family expect to visit Phoenix in the next week to start house hunting. He hopes to be settled by the first week of August.