- Craig Custance
Coyotes goalie Mike Smith was at dinner Tuesday night when the Glendale City Council meeting was being held that would determine the future of the franchise in Arizona. His wife kept tabs on the debate on Twitter and, when the couple returned home, the streamed video of the vote on their computer.
He wasn't nervous. He had just signed a six-year deal and felt good about the future of the franchise. He thought there would be enough yes votes to keep the team in Glendale but was told that if it didn't pass the team was likely moving to Seattle.
"I felt comfortable with both situations," Smith during a Wednesday phone conversation.
Either way, the four-year debacle was likely settled. And with its 4-3 vote approving the lease deal with RSE, the Glendale City Council made a 15-year commitment to keep the Coyotes in the desert.
Now, for the first time in years, the Coyotes can be a significant player in free agency. On Wednesday morning, GM Don Maloney met with new owner Anthony LeBlanc to talk about budget and game plan with the 48-hour negotiating window open and Friday's start to free agency closing in.
Maloney said assistant GM Brad Treliving was already making phone calls to agents when the window opened at midnight ET the night before, while the City Council determined their fate.
After years of targeting specific free agents -- former players who knew the area, players on the downside of their career, players with personal relationships with Maloney or coach Dave Tippett -- the restrictions are gone.
It made Wednesday's first day of negotiations much more pleasant for Maloney.
"It certainly makes it much better for us. Easier to make phone calls where people know this is where we're going to be," Maloney said Wednesday night. "Every conversation, we didn't have to explain or try to convince people it works here. In our minds, it is here. We're full steam ahead, and we expect to win. We have the program here to win and we want you to join us -- that was the selling point."
The Coyotes got their goaltending situation settled with the six-year deal worth around $5.7 million per season for Smith. They have captain Shane Doan locked up through 2015-16.
Their defense is in great shape, anchored by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle along with veterans Zbynek Michalek and Rostislav Klesla. They have young talent coming on defense in Brandon Gormley, David Rundblad and Connor Murphy.
They just need more scoring up front. And a center or two.
It's not a great free-agent market, but it's deep at forward, which is perfect for the Coyotes. They're aggressively on the hunt.
"Now I feel we're in the game as much as New York and Chicago and Boston and Toronto and any of these teams. We have a lot to sell down here, a tremendous place to work and play," Maloney said. "It's the best fall, spring and winter in the NHL, a good building, great coach and good program. That's exciting for us."
It's still not perfect. The hockey world has seen too many deals come and go in Glendale that nobody will really be completely comfortable until this deal closes and is approved by the Board of Governors. Everything is headed in the right direction, but this situation and RSE's ability to close the deal demands the right amount of skepticism just because of the history in the desert. The deal that was approved comes with a five-year out clause for the new ownership group, which means if things go sideways, this will be an issue again in five years.
Because of that, I checked in with a few agents to see if they would feel comfortable recommending a long-term deal with the Coyotes to their free agents. A few of their responses:
"It depends on the player's individual situation. If the player was single or married with no kids that would be in school in the next five years, then there would be no issue in signing in Phoenix. If the player had school-aged children, they might stay away from the uncertainty."
"Depending on the players' situation, which will differ, but yes, I wouldn't have an issue as long as their hockey [operations] are solid. They may have to overpay slightly to get free agents to sign there."
"Depends on player, family situation, but I would not hesitate to have them sign long-term."
"I don't think I could give a blanket answer. My advice to the player would be that you have to factor into your decision that 'you will not be in Glendale after five years.' If you can live with that, then sign. If you can't, then you shouldn't. It is definitely a complication for the Coyotes."
If a player has any concerns, Smith is ready to ease them. He was comfortable enough with the situation to sign a long-term deal that extends beyond the five-year window. He said he's happy to be part of the recruitment process to build a team that can return to the playoffs and make another run like the one that saw the Coyotes advance to the Western Conference finals in 2012.
He sees a team that's ready to compete for a Stanley Cup in an area where it's great to play and a new ownership group committed to the area. That's his message when he hits the phone to recruit free agents this week.
"The phone lines are open," he joked.
Whom will he be calling to join him?
"You'll have to wait and see," he said.
The window is open
It'll be interesting to see how these next two days play out. Conversations were held Wednesday between interested teams and agents. It was the first day a negotiating window was allowed between rival teams and free agents before the official opening of free agency Friday. Because of the window, a large number of deals are expected to be announced the moment they can become official at noon ET Friday.
Maloney said the additional time has allowed for more traditional negotiating between the two sides rather than rushed decisions that sometimes happen on July 1. Newport's Don Meehan, who represents free agent center Mike Ribeiro, seemed comfortable with the process.
"It's been good," he said Wednesday afternoon. "Teams understand and recognize they have two days to sort out their interest."
After talks stalled with the Capitals, this was the first chance for Meehan to gauge the market for Ribeiro. Without divulging how many interested teams there were, he said interest was strong.
"It's good, very good," he said.
Most agents I spoke with said they would be comfortable agreeing to terms with teams on their players today and waiting for Friday to announce them. Part of it depends on the relationship and trust between agent and GM.
"It all depends on who you're doing business with and how well you know them," said one agent of a prominent player in free agency. "I would think if you entered into an agreement and an understanding and exchanged term sheets, a team would honor it ... but I'm sure there will be some horror stories of some people thinking they got misled."
After learning the franchise will remain in Arizona for at least another five years, the Phoenix Coyotes are ready to capitalize in free agency.