In the critical area of scoring, the Arizona Coyotes did not make of a splash in the opening day of the NHL free agency sweepstakes.
Because of the limited number of skilled players available, the Coyotes had to settle upon what general manager Don Maloney called, “energy and character.” Hoping the Coyotes can sign a reasonable scoring forward between now and the start of training camp in early September, Maloney sounded like a carnival barker trying to convince his audience of value to his sideshow.
During the initial day of free agency, the Coyotes appeared to strengthen their blue line, and add marginal scoring forwards.
Though Maloney argued the signing of centers Boyd Gordon, back for his second tour with the Coyotes, and Brad Richardson from Vancouver will offer “protection” for younger players coming from the Arizona farm system, he could not find any remedy to address the Coyotes most urgent need. That is to put the puck in the net with any consistency.
At the same time, Maloney indicated the Coyotes’ off-season work is far from finished.
Lauding personnel on the blue line, Maloney said he’s assembled a corps of defenseman who can compete with any blue line contingent in the NHL.
As well, the Coyotes third and fourth lines appear set, Maloney pointed out, but the team continues to lack players with a penchant for putting the puck in the net.
“At this point, we need to find more offense, but I’m happy what we did on defense,” Maloney told reporters gathered at the Gila River Arena Wednesday afternoon. “We feel we have stability on the blue line, but we’re looking for more puck movement coming up the ice.”
On Wednesday, Maloney was able to secure the services center Boyd Gordon and defenseman Zbynek Michalek, two players who previously played for Arizona. As well, Maloney lauded the acquisition of Richardson, who spent part of last season out with an injured ankle.
Regarding Richardson’s availability, Maloney said the 30-year-old reached out to Arizona, and the Coyotes responded with a two-year deal. Last season in 45 games with Vancouver, Richardson scored eight goals, assisted on 13 others for 21 points. A fifth round pick of Colorado in 2003, Richardson’s best season in the NHL was 2006-2007. That’s when he scored 14 goals for the Avs.
Michalek is a known quantity to the Coyotes. Returning for his third tour of duty in the desert, Michalek brings strong shot-blocking ability in front of goalie Mike Smith. That represented a significant reason for his return to Arizona, Maloney said.
In 53 games last season with Arizona, Michalek was a minus six, but in 15 games with St. Louis at the end of last season, he was a plus three.
strength on the blue line
A right-handed shot, Michalek will balance the Coyotes’ corps at the blue line. With Connor Murphy and Michael Stone as right-handed shots, Maloney is confident the left-handed shots of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nicklas Grossmann and Klas Dahlbeck should give the Coyotes adequate strength in front of Smith.
At the same time, Maloney pointed out, the acquisitions of Gordon and Richardson, both at center, give the Coyotes flexibility to juggle line mates. Citing veteran centericeman Martin Hanzal as an important component down the middle, Maloney believes the Coyotes are a better team Wednesday than Tuesday. That’s the day before commencement of free agency.
On Wednesday, Maloney also signed forward Steve Downie, who led the NHL in penalty minutes a year ago. Despite his reputation, Downie brings a certain skill level and remains in a position to add some offense, Maloney indicated.
“Steve has been known to stick up for his teammates, but we believe he is a better hockey player than people give him credit,” Maloney said. “We look at him to step in and make a nice contribution.”
While Maloney said he solidified the blue line and added depth at center, the elusive skilled player and scorer remains directly on the Coyotes’ radar screen.
“We like our mix right now, but always looking for skilled players,” Maloney said. “I think that will come in a trade.”
Depending on the free agent marketplace over the next weeks, Maloney said his goal to find nine forwards which, he pointed out, “gives us a chance to win every night. We have the core in place, and now we need to surround those players with top talent.”
In a strange omission, Maloney said he has a strong idea of his bottom two lines. That would be strength in checking, playing a solid two-way game, and occasionally scoring.
Now the task, Maloney pointed out, is to find those skilled players capable of scoring, and to fill slots on the top two lines.
For a team that finished with the second-fewest goals last season, this search will likely take Maloney to opening night in October and beyond.
FREE AGENCY – DAY ONE
Steve Dowie, forward
Andres Lindback, goalie
Zbynek Michalek, defenseman
Brad Richardson, center
Mike McKenna, goalie (to Florida)
John Moore, defenseman (to New Jersey)
Mark Arcobello, center (to Toronto)
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Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.