Monday, July 15, 2013

Depth Perception: Mike Ribeiro in Phoenix

Mike Ribeiro solidifies Phoenix centers
For those people who know me personally, I have somewhat of a soft spot for the Phoenix Coyotes. Having lived in Phoenix when the team came to town back in 1996 they traded for Jeremy Roenick, one of my favorite players, and the rest is history. Even after moving back east I followed the team and still do to this day.

I won't go into the ownership debacle that seems to have solved itself for now. Its been an exhausting topic that I stopped really following a few years ago because I knew it would play it out eventually to some end. Its nice to see the Coyotes staying in Phoenix because I do believe it can work as a hockey market with the right conditions. Whether it actually does again is a different story entirely.

What I want to talk about is the on-ice situation they find themselves in. Two years removed from making it to the Western Conference Finals the Coyotes have been a team that has found ways to make a lot out of very little. The ownership situation left the team cash-strapped and General Manager Don Maloney and Head Coach Dave Tippett have had to find creative ways to make the team successful. The "Pack Mentality" that was coined by the players and staff has worked for a while but as we have seen in the last few seasons, you need a bit more than that. One thing the team has lacked is an abundance of skill up front. If you look back over the last few years, you won't see a lot of highlight-reel goals coming from Arizona when it comes to hockey.

That may begin to change this season. But let me be clear, folks...I'm not predicting a Phoenix Coyotes Stanley Cup this coming season. I'm not pumping tires that may be on the flatter side. This is just what I see with the team shaping up...

The Coyotes were showing signs of becoming serious with their franchise when Don Maloney, Assistant GM Brad Treliving, and Dave Tippett all signed extensions with the organization. Goaltender Mike Smith signed a deal worth 5.667 million for each of the next six years They became even more serious on the first day of free agency when they signed Mike Ribeiro to a four-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $5.5 million.

Obviously Mike Ribeiro is not someone you look at as a signing and think "superstar". Ludicrous to think so. But that doesn't mean Ribeiro is not a solid player who can be a first line center. He has some great offensive instincts and can distribute the puck very well. He may be able to help an anemic power play that has been dismal the last few seasons. What is more encouraging is the fact he knows Tippett very well having spent some time together while Ribeiro and he were in Dallas. Ribeiro's best career year came under Tippett in 2007-2008 when he had 83 points.

What else this does is it increases the depth level of Phoenix, particularly down the middle of the ice. Ribeiro knows Tippett's system for the most part and will integrate in smoothly. Behind him you have twp very solid centers who may be able to get a little more room on the ice with Ribeiro taking the top spot. First is Antoine Vermette who has shown flashes of being a skilled offensive player but has had trouble with consistency. Having someone like Ribeiro who is a bit of a similar player may be able to get him going. Right there with him you have Martin Hanzal who is really turning into a solid two-way center in the NHL. Throw in a gritty fourth line center like Kyle Chipchura and you can see what I am getting at. A piece like Ribeiro anchors the rest of the center depth and that sort of stabilization can help define a player's role and make the game easier for them to focus on.

The strength of the Coyotes has been in their defensive zone as Keith Yandle, Derek Morris, Rostislav Klesla, and Zbynek Michalek lead a young crop of rising defensemen. One of the bigger, if not the biggest name, on defense for Phoenix is young star Oliver Ekman-Larsson who is turning heads around the league and certainly could be in the conversation for the Norris Trophy sometime down the road.

Like I said before I am not saying that the Coyotes are going to be lifting the Stanley Cup next spring. However, looking at the last few champions and you see how depth plays a role in winning it all. The Blackhawks, Kings, and Bruins have had unbelievable depth and it allowed them to be champions. Phoenix is certainly not at the level those teams were but the signing of Ribeiro is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ilya Kovalchuk Leaving NHL

The big splashes of the offseason in the NHL are usually over by now. With the NHL Draft done and Free Agent Frenzy down to a crawl the headlines of the NHL summer will now resort to what Chicago Blackhawks players are doing with the Stanley Cup or how players are spending their offseasons in Vegas or some other party locale.

But today was an exception to that rule. Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils has announced his retirement from the NHL at just 30 years old, leaving 12 years and $77 million on the table. You can read the official team release from the Devils here.

When Ilya signed that deal back in 2010 and the Devils incurred all of the penalties they did, people assumed that Kovalchuk would never finish out the contract. No one could see Kovalchuk playing in the NHL until he was 44 or 45 years old. But it does not seem anyone saw this coming soon. What does it do?

For the immediate future, the biggest cog in the Devils offense is gone. Say what you will about this decision by Kovalchuk but he was a top player in the NHL. He could skate very well and had one of the very best shots in the league. It will be almost impossible for Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello to replace his presence on the ice at this point barring something drastic. Even worse, it seems the choice between Kovalchuk and Parise was the wrong choice at this point. With the Devils focusing on Ilya instead of Zach during a crucial time, Parise chose to go home to Minnesota. Now Kovalchuk has decided to go home to Russia.

..oh and don't forget all the pieces lost in getting/keeping Kovalchuk in the first place including Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, Niclas Bergfors, and two first round picks (one for the trade and one as a penalty for the obscene contract). We'll never know how things would have turned out for NJ had they stuck with Parise and never got involved with Kovalchuk.

However...while this situation is probably not very good right now there are some positives. The Devils are now out from under the yoke that was the Kovalchuk contract and even avoided the years where he would have made the most amount of money. Instead all they have to deal with is a cap recapture penalty of about $300,000/year for the next 12 years. It could have ended up much worse cap-wise having to actually have paid the full amounts or have a greater penalty for retiring later. Long-term, the Devils have a lot more options for signing players.

Another positive this may have is on the Devils' financial situation. The team has run into issues with refinancing and even delaying payments to players by weeks. Owner Jeff Vanderbeek now does not have to pay this large contract which could help the team financially. It may even help to the point that another investor would be interested in investing in the team. Worst case scenario for fans, but probably best for the league at this point, is if an investor buys the team and moves them somewhere they will be more successful financially.

One thing the NHL should be concerned about is if this will cause other players to leave. There are rumors abound that Kovalchuk will be signing a deal in the KHL for more money than any NHL can pay him. More than likely, he will become the highest paid hockey player in the world. The KHL has lacked star power when it comes to going up against the NHL but with a big name like Kovalchuk going over now there may be some more serious thoughts about players jumping over. Certainly this won't be an immediate impact but the thought that players may jump over to Russia for bigger rinks and dollars has to now seriously be in the back of every one's mind in the NHL.

The fallout from this will unfold over the next few years as the fate of the Devils occurs. The hockey world will probably never know the true nature of how this went down but it is obviously a big story not only in hockey but sports in general. Hockey is one of the few sports in the US that has to deal with attractive playing options outside the States. Will the KHL be used as leverage in contract negotiations in the NHL more often? Remains to be seen. What we do know is that a fanbase is seriously upset and the New Jersey Devils now have the most uncertain future in the NHL.