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Stanley Cup Final

Coyotes fill some holes with free agents

Friday, 07.01.2011 / 8:53 PM / NHL Free Agency 2011

By Jerry Brown - NHL.com Correspondent

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Phoenix general manager Don Maloney has built the Coyotes – and his reputation around the NHL – on finding diamonds in the rough and solid players at reasonable prices.

So while many NHL general managers went on spending sprees Friday, Maloney stayed on his favorite course, signing ex-Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith to a two-year, $4 million contract in the hopes that he can fill the big hole left by the departure of team MVP Ilya Bryzgalov.

Maloney also added some size to his forward line by signing Raffi Torres to a two-year, $3.5 million deal and replaced departed checking center Vernon Fiddler with ex-Washington penalty killer and faceoff specialist Boyd Gordon (two years, $2.65 million). He also re-signed sniper Radim Vrbata to a three-year, $9 million and said he remains on the lookout for a No. 1 center via the free agent or trade market.

The 30-year-old Smith is similar to Bryzgalov in size and style, but doesn't have the body of work that earned Bryzgalov a nine-year, $51 million contract from Philadelphia last week. However, Maloney feels Smith, who played for Phoenix coach Dave Tippett in Dallas and caught the eye of goalie coach Sean Burke in Tampa, has the tools and ability to replace Bryzgalov as the Coyotes starter.

"Tip had him in Dallas, and we fell if he can become more consistent in his approach with Sean's help we will really have a home run," Maloney said. "We're bringing him in with the idea of being the No. 1 guy but as a good 1-2 punch with (backup) Jason LaBarbera.

"There were some big names of more experienced guys (on the market), but we were really looking for value and upside. We got him on a good contract, and we think that our system will make him even better."

Smith made $2.4 million last season in Tampa, where he was 13-6-1 with a 2.90 goals-against average. But he injured his knee in late January and lost the No. 1 job when Dwayne Roloson was acquired from the New York Islanders at midseason.

Burke said that he's looking forward to the chance to work with Smith.

"I see is a big, athletic guy that we targeted because of his potential to grow into a No. 1 goalie at some point – hopefully sooner the better," Burke said. "He's going to come here hungry to prove himself. We like his presence in the net and the way he handles the puck."

Torres, who had 14 goals and 29 points in helping Vancouver to the Stanley Cup Final, gives the Coyotes a combination of size and skill that was lacking on their bottom two lines last season. That shortcoming was particularly evident during a four-game sweep by Detroit in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

"Raffi's a guy who plays on the edge and our guys will tell you he's very hard to play against," Maloney said. "He's a guy who drives to the net, scores goals and who can be effective in the playoffs, which is where we expect to be. We lacked the size, the weight and the production you need to have in the postseason and Raffi will give us more of that dimension."

The Coyotes were hoping to resign Fiddler, a versatile player and team leader during the last two seasons. But when Dallas dangled a three-year, $5.4 million deal, Maloney felt it was too rich and settled on Gordon, who has spent nine years with the Capitals. He won 58 percent of his faceoffs during the regular season and improved to 69 percent in nine playoffs games. Gordon has only 27 goals in 363 NHL games but excels as a penalty killer and defensive pest.

"Fiddler is a player we really liked, but (contract terms) got away from us a little bit," Maloney said. "When the contract went further than we were willing to go, we found what we think is a very good replacement.

"I wouldn't say I was stunned by the (deals signed Friday), but you probably had to inflate your expectations by 25-30 percent. If you thought you were going to get someone at $2 million, you had to go to 2.7 (million) or you weren't going to get anybody."

One player who bucked that trend was Vrbata, who made it plain he didn't want to play the free-agent game after a miserable experience leaving Phoenix for Tampa three years ago -- and later returning. Vrbata had 19 goals and 48 points in 79 games for the Coyotes this past season but gave Phoenix a hometown discount by signing for the same $3 million he made last year for the next three seasons.

"Radim is a terrific fit for our organization and our dressing room, and I'm glad he'll be back with us," Maloney said.

The Coyotes lost Fiddler, center Eric Belanger (Edmonton) and defenseman Ed Jovanovski (Florida) to free agency on Friday. Maloney said he is comfortable with Phoenix's defense corps with Oliver Ekman-Larsson expected to step into the top six, but the team still has a gaping hole at center and is looking at both the remaining free agents and the possibility of swinging a trade where they are able to take on payroll as opposed to dealing a key asset.

"We're in the (free agent) hunt for someone who is a nice fit," he said. "But if that doesn't come our way, we'll have to step back and look to trade some assets for a frontline player. We'd still like to add another piece on a lower line as well."


For me, it's a great win for our hockey team and for a lot of people back in Columbus, especially our fans in particular … people who have been devoted to this organization, it's big.

— Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards on their win vs. the Penguins in Game 2, the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup Playoff victory