If the Coyotes’ decision to sign defenseman David Schlemko to a new two-year deal Monday made you hopeful that a bigger signing is imminent, we’re sorry to disappoint you.
The Coyotes won’t be signing free-agent-to-be Mike Smith to a long-term deal any time soon. They won’t be signing restricted free agent Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet, and they won’t be signing two other soon-to-be free agents, general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett, to long-term deals in the foreseeable future.
We caught up with Maloney on Monday to get his thoughts on the first two topics as well as his assessment of the team’s current roster, which was bolstered by the signing of Schlemko through 2015 for an annual hit of about $1.18 million.
“We know how valuable David is when he’s healthy,” said Maloney, who said assistant GM Brad Treliving began working on the deal before Schlemko suffered a shoulder injury early in the season. “If David is healthy, this is a very good contract for us, and it gives him a little bit of security.”
Unfortunately for Coyotes fans, there is nothing new to report on contract talks with Smith because there is nothing new to report on the ownership front. As we noted at the start of the season, the two are tied because of the money and term that would be involved in such a deal. While it’s understandable that fans would like to see it get done, it’s also naïve to expect it without some sort of resolution on the ownership front.
“Our thought is to let the season play out,” Maloney said. “Until our ownership is resolved, we’re going to table Mike’s contract and hope things work out later.”
Is that a partial negotiating ploy? Unlikely. There is always posturing by both sides when it’s deal time, but it has been apparent to anyone who follows this team that Smith’s deal has been tied to the ownership situation. And there is little chance of Smith agreeing to a value deal for the Coyotes that might satisfy the NHL. Despite a rough game Sunday in Calgary — his second start in two nights – and despite a couple rough outings against the ridiculous Blackhawks, Smith has played well the past few weeks after a rust-covered start to the season.
“I think we have to point fingers in a lot of other areas before we start blaming the goalie,” Maloney said. “We have to play better in front of him. It’s that simple.”
Having said that, it’s still difficult for Maloney to assess whether the team has significant deficiencies because the team still isn’t healthy. The Coyotes’ leading point producer, Radim Vrbata, has missed the past three games; the team’s leading goal scorer, Martin Hanzal, has missed six of the team’s 18 games; and both Schlemko and defenseman Derek Morris are sidelined.
Maloney is encouraged by Matthew Lombardi’s play since returning from a shoulder injury, and he singled out the play of defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forward Mikkel Boedker for praise while noting that the team needs more from veterans such as Shane Doan and Antoine Vermette.
“I’d still like to see us healthy to get a more accurate read on who we are,” he said.
There is still plenty of time to assess the Coyotes with more than a month before the April 3 trading deadline. The question is, will anyone be willing to deal if Maloney decides they do have needs? With only 48 games this season due to the lockout, most of the teams will still be tightly packed in the standings come early April. And most of them will still believe they have a shot at the playoffs, which may make them leery of dealing pieces.
“Maybe there’s a little separation in the East, but when you look at the West, other than Columbus, every team is right there,” Maloney said. “I have a hard time believing Calgary or Colorado will fall off the pace in another few weeks.”
Speaking of the Avalanche, Maloney addressed an issue that is on every fan’s mind in every NHL city: Is there a chance that restricted-free-agent holdout Ryan O’Reilly could end up in a local jersey?
First, Maloney noted, it’s important to know that any deal the Coyotes take on at this point or at the deadline would essentially have to be a dollar-for-dollar deal. They can’t take on additional salary because “we are pretty close to our budget,” he said.
As for signing O’Reilly to an offer sheet in which the Coyotes would only have to surrender a couple draft picks, Maloney laughed at the notion.
“Every club — I don’t care who it is — every club will protect its young assets,” he said. “I guarantee you (the Avalanche) would match the offer or you would have seen more teams focused in that area. It’s really rare — I think you’d have to go all the way back to Dustin Penner — where a club did not match.”
Penner was the last player to change clubs via an offer sheet, having done it in 2007 when Edmonton signed him away from Anaheim after the cash-strapped Ducks had just won the Stanley Cup.
If the Avs were to match an offer sheet, they could still trade him, but for better assets.
“So all you’ve really done is made some enemies,” Maloney said. “The draft picks Colorado would get are great when they show up in the NHL six or seven years from now and you’re still hoping you have a job as a GM, but I guarantee they will match it.”
Fantasy is fun, but Maloney deals in cold, hard reality. The local franchise has conditioned him to such an existence.