What a difference new (and hopefully) stable ownership makes.
Only days after getting a reprieve from Glendale City Council that will keep them in Arizona for the next five years, the Phoenix Coyotes jumped into the NHL free-agent market, landing the highest-scoring player available: centre Mike Ribeiro.
Ribeiro played for Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett in Dallas from 2006-09, which was a factor in his decision, but so were the dollars general manager Don Maloney could spend. In this case, US$22-million over four years, plus the stability of knowing the team was staying and playing in Arizona.
“Normally, we’re hitting the phones begging: ‘Will you please come and take a leap of faith?’” Maloney said with a rueful laugh Friday, “And that just gets old after a while. This was such a totally different experience.
“It just made our life 100-per-cent easier. Now, it was just a matter of ‘who do we want?’ and ‘what can we afford?’ There wasn’t any discussion of where we’re going to play. So that was a good thing.”
The Coyotes were like a lot of Western Conference teams at the end of the first day of free agency, shuffling pieces in and out, and hoping they got a little better overall.
They lost backup goaltender Jason Labarbera to the Edmonton Oilers, but replaced him with Thomas Greiss, the former San Jose Sharks backup. They also lost checking centre Boyd Gordon to the Oilers, but replaced him with Ribeiro, a far-more dynamic player, who – according to Maloney – gives them the play making centre they’ve been seeking for the past six years.
The Winnipeg Jets got in on the action, acquiring right-winger Devin Setoguchi from the Minnesota Wild for a second-round pick in the 2014 draft.
The Oilers were the most active Canadian team in the West, adding defenceman Andrew Ference (Boston Bruins) on a four-year, $13-million contract. Ference is from Sherwood Park, Alta., and tweeted a picture of himself as a young child, wearing an Oilers sweater, just before the announcement of his signing became official.
He and his wife have family in the area, so there was a lot of compelling off-ice reasons for Ference to sign there. But the overriding decision was the Oilers’ potential – a team that has invested four seasons into a scorched-earth rebuilding program and has missed the playoffs for the last seven.
In Ference, the Oilers get a relatively undersized defenceman who nevertheless has played in three Stanley Cup finals since 2004 (two with the Bruins, one with the Calgary Flames). He became expendable in Boston largely for salary cap reasons, but also because the Bruins had a handful of NHL-ready defencemen in their player pipeline.
Gordon will replace Eric Belanger on the Oilers roster as a penalty-killing and faceoff specialist, while Labarbera will be the backup to No. 1 goalie Devin Dubnyk. The Oilers also completed a trade that sent captain Shawn Horcoff to the Dallas Stars for defenceman Philip Larsen and a 2016 seventh-round draft choice.
The fact the Oilers could trade Horcoff rather than issue him a compliance buyout had a lot to do with the structure of his contract, which was heavily front-loaded. While it carries a salary-cap charge of $5.5-million, the actual dollar amounts he will receive for the next two years are $4-million and $3-million respectively.
For a team such as Dallas, which won’t be spending to the cap any time soon, the extra cap charge doesn’t matter at all. In fact, it was just two seasons ago, when the Stars had to add players in order just to spend to the salary cap floor.
The additions will help Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish reshape his team, but do not represent the sort of “bold” moves he promised when he took over from Steve Tambellini.
All-sports cable TV channel TSN calculated $360-million had been committed to 52 players through the supper hour, which was about $140-million ahead of last year’s pace.
A year ago, however, the biggest dominoes, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (both to the Wild), didn’t fall right away. They eventually added almost $200-million to the overall spending tally, which never seems to abate, no matter how many player lockouts they go through.
Ference and others were able to make their decisions more quickly this time around because of a two-day negotiating window written into the new collective agreement, which permitted prospective free agents to speak to potential suitors before the signing window officially opened.
The only thing that didn’t change: Players continued to reap huge financial rewards and Maloney, for one, said he didn’t expect to see that change any time soon.
“The cap for next season is artificially in place,” the GM said. “After that, when we did our projections of where it’s going, nobody seems to think it’s going down. When you start adding the really great job the NHL has done in marketing the sport – adding in the outdoor games and the Winter Classics and all the different revenue-generating possibilities – who knows where the cap goes, which is directly related to revenues?
“If I’ve learned anything in the last two days, if you have anybody you like, you better sign them sooner rather than later – and don’t let them get close to free agency.”