GLENDALE, Ariz. — Had the Coyotes defeated the Predators on Thursday in Nashville, goalie Mike Smith would have tried to return for the final two games of the season against the Sharks and Stars, he said Monday.
But the Coyotes lost that game and were eliminated from playoff contention the following day, removing any sense in speeding up his timeline.
"I know I was playing (my) best hockey of the season," Smith said of his play before suffering the injury March 24 against the Rangers. "It’s just disappointing to be talking to you guys about this."
The Coyotes finally made public Monday that Smith has a right MCL sprain, an injury that general manager Don Maloney noted requires a two-to-four-week recovery for a skater but probably a little longer for a goalie.
"It was a significant injury for a goaltender that plays a butterfly style to be down and up," Maloney said at a season-ending press conference at Jobing.com Arena. "We knew internally that he was not going to be able to help us make it to the playoffs."
Smith is expected to fully recover from the injury in the next couple of weeks. And if there is one positive to come out of this disappointing Coyotes season, it’s that Smith regained the form he displayed in the 2012 playoff run for a long stretch this year.
"I always had the confidence to get back," he said. "I went through that time where the team, we weren’t playing consistently well, I wasn’t playing as well as I had before, and you combine those two things, that doesn’t make for a very good recipe for success.
"It starts with me, and I think I got that back towards the end of the season. I feel confident that I can be that guy. I learned a lot about myself going through that again. To have success and then to be able to keep that was a challenge. I think I found a way out of it this year, and I’ll learn from that and be a better goalie because of it."
It’s not fair to expose a player’s private life without his permission, but it’s fair to say that some personal issues (some of which have been leaked) played a role in Mike Ribeiro’s struggles this season.
"It was a lot of things. It’s not just about hockey," Ribeiro said. "I never had my groove; never found it. It was just a hard season for me. It was one of my worst."
In the second half, Ribeiro was a shadow of the player the Coyotes saw before the Olympic break. He had just seven points in the 22 games after Sochi. When asked if he took any positives from this trying season, here’s what Ribeiro, who tends to be candid, had to say.
"No. Zero positive," he said. "The only positive is I can come back and get a positive season next year."
Coach Dave Tippett shuffled lines frequently this season, so Ribeiro never really got a chance to settle in with anyone. There is also some question as to whether the Coyotes have the right players to play with Ribeiro, but he dismissed the notion.
"There were a lot of mixed lines, but at the end of the day, I believe your centerman most of the time can make your wings better, and I wasn’t able to do that, so it really doesn’t matter who you play with," Ribeiro said. "It’s about me and how I can get better. I can be physically in better shape. My main goal is to get in good shape and get ready for the season."
Maloney reiterated Monday that the planned youth movement should not be construed as a movement to force junior players Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson and Tyler Gaudet into the lineup next year.
"Those guys haven’t played a pro game, so I really want to downplay the idea that they’re going to waltz into our team next year and lead us to the promised land. I think that’s folly," Maloney said. "Will they have an opportunity? Absolutely."
At the same time, Maloney acknowledged there will be changes.
"I think if you look at some of the players we’ve had around here for a number of years, we’ve had some level of success, but we haven’t the last two years, so we have to make some changes and open up opportunities for other people, figure out where our chemistry went wrong," he said. "We need more energy, need more hunger into our group. I think we got a little too complacent with people being here a little too long."
Those guys haven’t played a pro game, so I really want to downplay the idea that they’re going to waltz into our team next year and lead us to the promised land. I think that’s folly. Will they have an opportunity? Absolutely.
Coyotes GM Don Maloney on team's forward prospects
The free-agent market is thin, and the same players the Coyotes chased at the trade deadline — among them forwards Ales Hemsky and Thomas Vanek — could cash in with big, long-term deals that might remove Phoenix from the running. But that doesn’t mean the Coyotes won’t be active in the market, or via trades, to try to bring in forwards on the younger side of 30 to help the offense.
"It’s up front we have to find a way," Maloney said. "We’re just not good enough in that position."
What that means for the team’s seven unrestricted free agents, as well as restricted free agent Brandon McMillan, is still being discussed. Here’s a look at those seven unrestricted players.
Radim Vrbata: He may present the most difficult decision of all seven. Vrbata brings a skill set in rare supply on this roster and reached 20 goals for the third time in his last four full seasons. That’s a pretty good return for $3 million a season.
But he also slumped down the stretch when the team needed him most, going scoreless in his last 12 games.
"He was like a lot of our other forwards down the stretch. You’d certainly like to chip in one here or there, and he would tell you that. He’s an honest evaluator. He’s a smart guy, smart player," Tippett said. "But he brings that skill set. We’ve seen him when he gets hot — he can be a really good player. The other side of it is he’s been a very good shootout player for us. All of those things have to come into the discussion."
Vrbata wants to return — he wanted to sign a long-term deal before the season started — but might have to wait until July 1 to find out what his value is.
"I guess it’s wide open right now," Vrbata said. "Anything’s possible."
Derek Morris: Morris was the only one of the seven UFAs on Monday who seemed to know his fate, and it’s not a good one. With Connor Murphy and Brandon Gormley ready to assume greater (and cheaper) roles on the blue line, Morris’ days in Phoenix are almost certainly over.
"I can still play," said Morris, who made $2.75 million this season. "I love the guys. I have some good friends here, but that’s the business."
Morris, who turns 36 in August, will almost certainly get another offer.
David Moss: Moss wasn’t happy with his season aftery tallying eight goals and 22 points.
"I know what my role is on the team, but you always think you can do more to help," he said. "I just wasn’t able to capitalize on chances."
Moss wants to stay with the Coyotes, but he made $2.1 million this season and is probably a bottom-six forward. If the Coyotes can find a cheaper option or a player they believe is an upgrade, his time in Phoenix could be over. But Moss is also a good teammate and well respected by the coaching staff.
Jeff Halpern: Halpern will turn 38 in May, but he wants to keep playing. His $600,000 salary is more than reasonable for his role, and Tippett is a huge fan, so he could be brought back.
"My heart and my head are still willing and able," said Halpern, who got better and better as he grew accustomed to the Coyotes’ system and personnel. "Personally, I would have liked to be able to do a couple more things to get us into the playoffs because we were so close, but it’s still a tremendous feeling to be a part of that process and part of a group."
Chris Summers: Summers is a good depth defenseman to have. He heeded the coaching staff’s advice and tried to become more physical in his own end. He also possesses terrific skating skills, so it would make sense to bring him back to fill out the defensive corps.
"I felt like this season has been the biggest step I’ve taken in my pro career, just playing a more consistent game," said Summers, who made $550,000 this season. "They’ve been pretty clear on the role that they see me filling, and it’s something that I’ve embraced — to be a hard defender in our end, keep the puck moving simple and use my skating ability when available."
Thomas Greiss: Aside from two games, Greiss played well in relief of Smith down the stretch. His return, though, will depend entirely on the market and whether somebody gives him a chance to become a No. 1 goalie.
"It’s my goal. I want to be a No. 1 goalie and be out there every night," Greiss said. "We will see who needs goalies and what’s going on out there."
Greiss made $750,000 this season.
Paul Bissonnette: Bissonette has a fixed role as a depth player and an enforcer, but he’d like a bigger one.
"It was kind of a stepping stone this year, putting up some more offensive numbers and getting some more minutes when I did play," said Bissonette, who finished with career highs in goals (two) and points (eight). "This year was kind of a transition where fighting was down again. You don’t go into games thinking ‘I’m going to get my fight in and then play.’
"I think I only had two or three fights. That doesn’t say I didn’t ask guys, but sometimes momentum shifts where they don’t want to or we don’t want to. I thought I did a good job of adapting to that. Going forward, I’m guessing fighting is going to keep dwindling out, so I basically showed them the other side of my game."
Because of his fighting role and his presence on Twitter, Bissonnette is perhaps the Coyotes’ most popular player behind Shane Doan and Smith.
"I bought a house and I love it here, so I’d be very happy to stay," he said.
— LeBlanc said he expects to have a clear financial picture of IceArizona’s first ownership year by the end of June.
— The two players singled out for the most consistent praise Monday were forwards Antoine Vermette and Mikkel Boedker.