Before leaving for the NHL draft in North Carolina, Phoenix Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett identified three areas that required immediate attention if his team was going to avoid a replay of last season — a year that began with bright hopes but quickly dissolved into the franchise’s worst since moving to Arizona.
• Team speed, particularly on the edges.
• A policeman, or two, on the blue line to mesh with emerging skill defensemen and put a halt to the unadulterated parade of goals into their net.
• A nasty, versatile, character forward who can blend with a young foundation and lead the way.
Two weeks later, the Coyotes have hit all three spots on their checklist, and put themselves back in the conversation when it comes to Western Conference playoff contention.
Team speed has been ramped up thanks to an Oil(er) change, the addition of ex-Edmonton wingers Jason Chimera and Boyd Devereaux. Defensive toughness has arrived in the form of Sean O’Donnell, with another addition expected within a few days.
And a day after finishing second in the Mark Recchi sweepstakes (he signed with Pittsburgh), the Coyotes on Friday got toughness and leadership up front when they signed 14-year NHL veteran and perennial Selke candidate Mike Ricci to a two-year, $3.5 million contract that includes an incentive option for a third year. Voila! The Coyotes have added experience (Ricci and Devereaux have Stanley Cup rings), leadership, (O’Donnell and Ricci are former NHL captains) speed and scoring depth, all at about a $3.5 million net addition to the payroll after shipping defenseman Radoslav Suchy to Columbus amid their flurry of signings.
"(Mike Ricci) lays it on the line, every shift, every night,’’ Barnett said. "He has led some great teams, always by example, and I am sure that same leadership and tenacity will be hugely welcomed in our room.
"This signing, along with (the others) are evidence to our returning players and our fans that the bar of expectation has been raised considerably.’’
Suchy’s replacement could be on the way. Ottawa sources say veteran defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn is waiting to hear back from Phoenix after negotiations this week and Ricci’s former San Jose teammate, Bryan Marchment, is also on a short list of lowpriced veterans Phoenix is considering to close out its free-agent shopping spree.
Ricci, who turns 33 in October and made $3 million last season, will make $1.5 million in 2004-05 and $2 million in 2005-06. If Ricci plays in at least 60 games and ranks among the top nine Coyotes in ice time in that second season, he will trigger a $2 million option for 2006-07.
"It’s a good deal and a good situation for me,’’ said Ricci, who has scored 20 goals or more six times but had only seven in 71 games while helping the Sharks to the Western Conference final last year. "I’ll be making less money, but I was more interested in where I was going and what the role would be.’’
Always the target of fans on the road due to his tenacious play and unique look — his past-the-shoulders hair and pronounced nose are hard to miss — Ricci received a lot of attention from Phoenix fans during the Sharks-Coyotes playoff series in 2002.
"My goal is to play a whole year in Phoenix without hearing that ‘Ricci Sucks’ chant,’’ he said laughing. "When I heard Phoenix was interested, it piqued my interest immediately. They have a lot of great young players and when you look at Calgary and San Jose last year, all you have to do is get to the playoffs and you have a shot at winning it all.’’
Position: Center (shoots left)
Ht/Wt: 6-0, 200
Born: Oct. 27, 1971 (32)
Drafted: First round (No. 4) by Philadelphia in 1990
Scouting report: A perennial Selke Award candidate. . . . Recognized as one of the hardest working centers in the NHL and prides himself on defense. . . . Gritty veteran with top-drawer leadership qualities. . . . Will take 1,000 faceoffs a season, filling a big need for Phoenix. . . . Helped Colorado to the 1996-97 Stanley Cup. . . . Was voted "Sexiest Athlete in Denver’’ during his time with the Avalanche. . . . Production slipped to seven goals in 71 games last season with San Jose, and was slowed by a back injury. . . . Active in the community, he gave to underprivileged children 10 tickets in "Ricci’s Row’’ for every Sharks game.