SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It has been the missing piece for the Phoenix Coyotes for a decade or more, and perhaps the single biggest obstacle to coach Dave Tippett's attempt to bring a legitimate Stanley Cup contender to Arizona.
Wanted: A legitimate, playmaking, No. 1 center. A give-and-go partner for Shane Doan who can put the puck on net for his crease crashes. A distributor and scorer who can lift an anemic power play back to at least pedestrian status.
From Martin Hanzal to Daymond Langkow to Matthew Lombardi to Kyle Turris to Antoine Vermette, the Coyotes have pounded a series of square pegs into a critical round hole, keeping their fingers crossed that production by committee would make up for the absence of a top-tier pivot.
But like the Coyotes jersey that slipped over Mike Ribeiro's shoulders at a press conference Friday, Phoenix is hopeful the 33-year-old is finally the perfect fit, not only a player who will bring out the best in wings Mikkel Boedker and Doan, but one who will allow Hanzal and Vermette to settle into more comfortable roles. The Coyotes are investing $22 million over four years with hope that Ribeiro, who had 67 goals and 220 points in three seasons playing for Tippett with the Dallas Stars (2006-09), still has plenty left to turn a reunion into a return to the postseason -- and more -- for the Coyotes.
"When it became obvious that staying [with the Washington Capitals] wasn't going to happen, it was important for me to be comfortable where I played next and not start over," Ribeiro said during his introduction. "I loved being coached by [Tippett], and my wife (Tamara) is still good friends with [his] wife. … I believe in what he's trying to do, and I think he believes in me. And it was just a great fit for me."
The Coyotes, who think they've come to the end of a long search, feel the same way.
"To understand that your No 1 need is 'X' and to be able to fill that need on the first day of free agency really makes us that much better," Phoenix general manager Don Maloney said. "We tried to fill the spot with different players who brought some of the elements you want on your wish list. But Mike is the kind of player you envision when you say, 'What is it we really want here?' And his past relationship with [Tippett] just made it that much more comfortable."
How does Ribeiro change the game for Phoenix? Consider he had 36 assists in 48 games with Washington during the 2012-13 season. The players who centered Phoenix's four lines last season combined for 39 assists. Tippett, who pushed Ribeiro from the fourth line to the first between Jere Lethinen and Brenden Morrow in Dallas, can't wait to see how his skillful game will have a domino effect among his forwards and strengthen many areas.
"When he first came [to Dallas] and we were getting to know each other, he was doing a lot of standing and waiting around for the puck," Tippett said. "I said to him, 'Rib, I don't understand -- you're so good with the puck, why don't you go get it more?' And he said, 'Yeah. Maybe I will.'
"I think his game has come a long way since then."
The 2012-13 schedule helped snap Ribeiro's string of eight straight 50-point seasons. He will give Phoenix a power-play quarterback that was missing after Ray Whitney left for Dallas last summer. The Coyotes had trouble beating Ribeiro -- having him join them isn't bad.
"Most of the time [Dallas] came here, we beat them," Ribeiro said with a smile. "I remember [Doan] saying, 'Boy, I wish I could play with you.' If that happens, it's going to be great. He's right-handed and there are a few right-handed shooters. They have been great the last few years, just missing a piece here and there, and I hope I'm going to help make a difference."
Ribeiro also played with goalie Mike Smith in Dallas and said Smith's decision to re-sign, and the new ownership group that will keep the team in Arizona, were big factors in his decision.
"When we traded Smitty, I couldn't believe it. I wasn't surprised when he really blossomed here with Phoenix," he said. "We have a top-flight goalie, a great young defense, and a core of forwards that has some experience. … When it was decided they would stay here, it was a no-brainer, and I think a lot of guys will think about coming here now that there is stable [ownership]."
The close relationship between player and coach was evident at the press conference, with a few inside jokes and smiles. But the respect also came through.
"I always wanted to be the No. 1 center, and [Tippett] gave me that chance for two years in Dallas and I had a great time. I'm not afraid of pressure or how to handle it," Ribeiro said. "He's not the kind of coach that's going to scream at you because you made a mistake; he's more down-to-earth, more likely to talk to you. It's comfortable to know your coach knows what you're trying to do on the ice and that you're trying to help the team win."
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