The first day of free agency was a deflating one for the Coyotes fan base.
Midway through the day, TSN reported there had been 70 deals totaling $500 million. Only two of those belonged to Arizona, and neither would be considered major: Fourth-line center Joe Vitale and backup goalie Devan Dubnyk, who is coming off a nightmarish season. (The Coyotes also added five minor league players).
General manager Don Maloney warned that this would be the case once the Coyotes had completed a trade for center Sam Gagner and wing B.J. Crombeen. The Coyotes were already near their spending limit.
But blinded by a mere one year of ownership and all the available names, the fan base was hoping for Milan Michalek or Ales Hemsky or even Thomas Vanek. Now that reality has set in, the Coyotes have their work cut out for them — on the ice and off.
With free agent Radim Vrbata mulling several offers better than anything the Coyotes can offer, Arizona may lose its purest goal scorer a few days after last season’s top acquisition, Mike Ribeiro, was bought out. The only noteworthy replacement, barring more moves this week, is Gagner.
"We’re going to have to take more risks this year with some younger people," general manager Don Maloney said.
The idea of 2013 top pick Max Domi and Portland standout Lucas Lessio cracking the lineup isn’t a new one. We knew all along the Coyotes wanted to get younger. But are they any better than last year, and by the way, where will the goals come from?
COYOTES FREE AGENTS
Age: 28. Height/weight: 6-6, 210
Contract: One year, $800,000.
Last NHL team: Nashville
Stats: In 32 games for Edmonton last season, Dubnyk had a 3.36 goals against average and a .894 save percentage before he was traded to Nashville, where he played just two games before being assigned to the AHL. He has a career 2.90 GAA and a .909 save percentage. His best season was the lockout shortened 2012-13 season in which he posted a 2.57 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.
Why Arizona signed him: The Coyotes like Dubnyk’s size and believe that goalie coach Sean Burke can work the same wonders with Dubnyk that he did with big goalies Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith before him. But Dubnyk could also be a one-year stopgap before prospects Mark Visentin and Louis Domingue are ready.
Quotable: Dubnyk on his nightmarish 2013-14 season: "I don’t think there are really words to characterize it. The best way I can put it is if you had asked me what the worst possible outcome to a season would be at the start of last season, I wouldn’t have made up a story that was half that bad."
Joe Vitale (pictured above)
Age: 28. Height/weight: 5-11, 205
Contract: Three years, $3.35 million.
Last NHL team: Pittsburgh.
Stats: Vitale had a goal and 13 assists last year while winning 62.5 percent of his face-offs. In his career, he has eight goals and 35 points in 167 games.
Why Arizona signed him: To give them another fourth-line center option with Kyle Chipchura. He’s a right-handed shot while Chipchura is a leftie, which could factor on face-offs. The Coyotes like his speed, character and work ethic and he should figure on their penalty-killing unit.
Quotable: Vitale was so nervous the night before free agency opened that he couldn’t sleep: "I cleaned the house. My wife got up at 6 a.m. and I was just finishing the sweeping and the dishes."
"We have to go back to our strength, which is our defense and our goaltending," Maloney said. "That has to be the way we’re going to have success."
Management has reasoned that the team only missed the playoffs by three points last season. If Shane Doan hadn’t missed a month with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and if goalie Mike Smith hadn’t missed the final 10 games with a knee injury, who knows what would have happened?
Maloney believes that the combination of a healthy Smith, a young, mobile and talented defense, a little more production from the forward group, better locker-room chemistry and a return to a grind-it-out identity can at least push Arizona back into the postseason as its young forwards develop over the next couple years.
The potential flaw in that logic was plain to see on Day 1 of free agency. The No. 8 seed Dallas Stars added center Jason Spezza and Hemsky. The No. 7 seed Minnesota Wild added Vanek. The No. 6 seed (L.A.) won the Stanley Cup last year, and the No. 5 seed (Chicago) added center Brad Richards to a lineup that won the Cup in 2013.
The No. 3 seed St. Louis Blues signed center Paul Stastny, the No. 2 seed Colorado Avalanche added Jarome Iginla to offset Stastny’s loss, and top-seeded Anaheim acquired center Ryan Kesler from Vancouver on draft day.
The gap between the Coyotes and the West’s playoff teams just grew.
"It wasn’t the most joy I’ve had in my life today, watching some of the players get signed in the West," Maloney admitted. "It just makes it that much more challenging to find a way to compete out here."
There is a financial reality the Coyotes are still facing. The team finally has stable ownership, but it is not yet profitable. You can’t spend money you don’t have.
The thought all along has been to become profitable by Year 3, at which point Arizona can become a bigger spender, if not a cap team. But the Coyotes are not there yet, and that creates a Catch 22, because they also play in a market where winning is a prerequisite to relevance.
Co-owner Anthony LeBlanc declined comment on Tuesday, preferring that Maloney discuss the day’s signings and the direction of the club, but here’s the simple truth: The Coyotes are coming off a second straight season without any playoffs. In most cities, a third such failing would lead to major changes in management or coaching.
That might not be the fallout for a cash-strapped GM and a handcuffed coach, but the stakes could be much higher for a franchise needing to generate sufficient excitement to grow its fan base.
The Coyotes also signed five minor league players to one-year, two-way contracts: F Alex Bolduc, D Andrew Campbell, F Justin Hodgman, G Mike McKenna and D Dylan Reese.