Funny how things can change in a week in the sports world.
A week ago, the Coyotes appeared in the verge of leaving town and the Suns had everyone scratching their head with their first-round selection of big man Alex Len.
Seven days later, the Coyotes are here to stay (at least for five years, which is an eternity given their history) and have added a strong center to their stable, and new Suns general manager Ryan McDonough’s first deal could turn out to be the best the team has made in years.
On July 2, the Coyotes were given stable ownership and a new lease on life — though with an out clause that hangs out there ominously — and general manager Don Maloney used the new-found stability to go to work right away and sign center Mike Ribeiro to a four-year, $22 million deal.
Phoenix will surely miss Boyd Gordon, a great faceoff man, penalty killer and defensive checker in the Dave Tippett mold. But a few years ago, many bemoaned the loss of Vernon Fiddler and Gordon stepped right into his skates and proved to be even better. And $9 million for three years of Boyd Gordon didn’t make sense when Maloney so desperately needed to add creativity on the power play and stabilize his top six forwards.
Ribeiro finished fifth in the league with 36 assists in 48 games last year and 21 of those assists came on Washington’s lethal power play. Don’t expect the same numbers in Phoenix without Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer around him, but he will return a lot of the power-play punch the Coyotes lost with Ray Whitney’s departure and what they didn’t get at all from Steve Sullivan last year.
He teams with Antonie Vermette and Martin Hanzal to give the Coyotes something they haven’t had since the days of Jeremy Roenick, Craig Janney and Cliff Ronning: strength down the middle. Kyle Chipchura, who made major strides last year, could get the first chance to take Gordon’s ice time.
This is the kind of free agent signing the Coyotes haven’t been able to make for years, and proof the uncertain future of the franchise kept players away who were otherwise interested in Phoenix and playing for Tippett. The contract length (four years) and money ($5.5 million a year) is a bit risky for a 33-year-old center, but given the lack of free agent depth at center and management’s willingness to expand the payroll a bit, it was the kind of gamble that makes sense.
Phoenix has a top-flight defense unit, led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle and now the impressive Michael Stone locked up for three years.
They have a goalie in Mike Smith who they believe will bounce back to an elite level with a full training camp and a lighter workload. The signing of Thomas Greiss will allow Tippett — who had understandably lost confidence in the affable but inconsistent, unorthodox Jason LaBarbera — to rest Smith regularly and allow him both rest and important in-season classroom time with goalie coach Sean Burke.
But the Coyotes needed an upgrade on offense, and the addition of Ribeiro will have a ripple effect among the forwards. It’s not enough in itself, but it’s a good start. A winger with some power-play punch sure wouldn’t hurt, and Maloney’s track record of finding those players value prices will come in handy.
Also worth a shout-out: the Suns. The fans will miss his hustle and media will miss his sound bites, but turning Jared Dudley and a second-round pick into electric point guard Eric Bledsoe and extra cap space next year in Caron Butler is a home run and provides hope that McDonough is just what the doctor ordered for this franchise.
The Suns won’t turn many heads next year. But with another lottery pick and a few more deals like the Bledsoe acquisition, is a return from the depths of despair that far away? McDonough has cap space and draft picks to work with. It will be interesting to see if he will beat his mentor, Boston’s Danny Ainge, in the battle of the “rebuilds.”
Jerry Brown is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.