GLENDALE, Ariz. – Less than an hour after the free-agency period opened on July 5, the Coyotes agreed to terms with free-agent center Mike Ribeiro on a four-year deal worth $22 million.
Three days earlier, less than an hour after the Glendale City Council approved an arena lease agreement for the Coyotes’ new owners, Ribeiro had made the decision that Arizona was the place he wanted to be.
You could call that vote the tipping point for Ribeiro, but the majority of the weight tilting that side of the scale was Coyotes coach Dave Tippett.
“I didn’t want to start a new relationship with a new coach who, by the time he knows what you like to do and vice versa, the year has passed and you’re in the second year already,” said Ribeiro, who played three seasons for Tippett in Dallas from 2006-2009. “Obviously, there are some things I need to learn here. Four years is a long time. He’s changed; I’ve changed.
“But Tip is the only coach who ever gave me that No. 1 center spot. He’s the only one who ever gave me that chance because he believed in me — and I took advantage of it.”
There’s a popular mantra among Coyotes fans that reads: “In GMDM we trust.” It’s a nod to general manager Don Maloney’s deft touch when it comes to finding value in trades or the free-agent market for a franchise that has long kept a tight rein on the purse strings.
But if Coyotes nation puts its faith in Maloney (along with assistant GM Brad Treliving and the pro scouts), shouldn’t the same trust be given to Tippett?
Some have questioned the wisdom of giving a guy with 785 games already under his belt a four-year deal that will expire when he is 37. Some have questioned the defensive commitment and abilities of a player who has finished on the minus side of the plus-minus stat four of the past five seasons, and whose possession stats have not overwhelmed. Some look at his unusually high penalty minutes for a skill player. Others look at that dreadful 44.8 percent faceoff percentage.
But Maloney’s relationship with Tippett, his trust in Tippett’s analysis and his faith in Tippett’s ability to squeeze more out of his players far outweighed all the potential risks.
“Really, since Tip came here four years, Mike was a player we were looking to acquire,” Maloney said. “Mike has an interesting personality and you hear about some of the stuff that maybe was a bit of an issue in the past, but you do your homework, you listen to your people and you trust in your people. It was clear to us that Dave had a very high opinion of Mike, and that was a very important part of the decision.”
Ribeiro built a healthy reputation as a party animal when he was younger — a reputation he doesn’t deny, and one that may have hastened his exit from his hometown of Montreal after a promising 2003-04 season in which he notched 20 goals and 65 points. But Tippett’s faith and willingness to let Ribeiro be himself in Dallas started a transformation.
“I remember in one of our first meetings, I asked him who his favorite athlete was,” Tippett recalled. “He said Allen Iverson.”
“And I don’t,” Ribeiro said, laughing. “I’m probably not the best practice player. A lot of my game is mental and focus — focusing on games and who you’re playing against and space and time. My mind usually works a lot more than my big physique.”
Ribeiro still carries obvious signs of what Tippett calls a non-stereotypical hockey player all over his body. He showed up to a photo shoot for azcentral.com dressed in flip flops, black shorts, a sleeveless V-neck T-shirt that showed off his tattoos and a ball cap tilted to the right.
“I’m not really a stressed-out guy,” he said Wednesday. “The worst day for me getting stressed was today, trying to pass my physical.”
Ribeiro says he has shed his partying ways, mostly because of family. He and his wife, Tamara, got remarried last summer.
“I have a teenager and two younger kids and I’m not really a golfer,” he said. “I spend most of my summers with them, tubing and doing kids stuff. By the time that’s over, it’s 10 o’clock at night.”
Ribeiro is also taking much better care of his body.
“Until 30, I didn’t really do that, but I don’t carry much extra weight around, as you can see,” he said, pointing to that skinny, 6-foot, 179-pound frame that few would mistake for a hockey body. “I don’t go out as much; I don’t drink as much.”
Ribeiro’s style of play has allowed him to remain remarkably healthy over the course of his career. The Coyotes are counting on that over the life of this contract because Ribeiro gives them something they’ve lacked at least since the team moved from downtown to Glendale: A playmaking center.
Ribeiro had 13 goals and 49 points in 48 games for the Washington Capitals last season and has notched at least 34 assists in nine straight seasons. He also was the NHL’s top power play point-man (his 27 points were tied with Alex Ovechkin) and joins a team that was ranked 25th (14.8 percent) in the league with the man advantage.
“We’re trying to get better in a lot of different areas,” Tippett said. “Can he come in here and help Mikkel Boedker? Can he come in and get our right shots, (Shane) Doan and (David) Moss, more goals?
“You’re always looking for chemistry within your group, but how do you maximize what you have in your group, too? He can enhance some of the skill-sets of our other players.”
Tippett’s early plan is to play Ribeiro between Boedker and Doan — two guys that Ribeiro thinks are good fits; Boedker because of his speed and skill, Doan because of his ability to press the defense into turnovers that will help Ribeiro create opportunities for that big Doan shot.
“Honestly, I don’t really mind who I play with, and I’m sure it will change throughout the season,” Ribeiro said. “It’s more about the ice time for me. If you give me 18 to 19 minutes, I should be able to create.
“I know why I was brought here. My job is to make my teammates better, and I’m confident I’ll be able to do that. Doaner’s been waiting for someone like for me for what, 15 years?”