Radim Vrbata (BridgetDS/Flickr)

Coyotes Lose Belanger, Jovanovski, But Sign Several Players on Opening Day of Free Agency

The Phoenix Coyotes haven’t exactly had the greatest track record of keeping their free agents over the years, and the 2011 free agency period will be no exception. They already lost goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to free agency before the signing period even began, but Friday afternoon was a bad one for them in that area. Eric Belanger signed with the Edmonton Oilers, Ed Jovanovski headed down to South Beach to join the new-look Florida Panthers, and Vernon Fiddler joined Pacific Division-rival Dallas in another deal. There were also reports circulating that the Coyotes are shopping the negotiation rights to restricted free agent defenseman Keith Yandle, which would be another All-Star that Phoenix would lose.

Even with those personnel losses that the Coyotes sustained on Friday, they were active in the free agent market to offset those defections. They signed four free agents from the pool on the opening day of free agency, and several of them will play prominent roles for this team in the years to come. They replaced Bryzgalov with goaltender Mike Smith, who they signed to a two year, $4 million deal. It was largely seen as the Coyotes’ way of indicating that they were dropping their interest in free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun, but with some cap space remaining and little discernible interest in the former Florida keeper, the Coyotes could very well come knocking on his door again.

The Coyotes also signed a couple other guys to beef up their game in the physicality department, bringing in Raffi Torres from the Vancouver Canucks with a two-year, $3.5 million deal. They also brought center Boyd Gordon in from the Washington Capitals, signing him to a two-year deal as well. Finally, they wrapped up their day by re-signing sniper Radim Vrbata to a three-year, $9 million contract. Vrbata scored 19 goals and dished out 29 assists for the Coyotes last year, and will be looked at to once again take a big role in the Coyotes’ offense next season.

With those signings in mind, the question becomes this: did the Coyotes do a good job filling in the gaps in their roster with their moves today? Did they overpay for players? Did they do themselves a disservice by letting key guys like Jovanovski and Belanger go?

To answer the first question, the Coyotes did a solid job in filling out their roster this afternoon. There is no reasonable way to expect that they’d be able to replace a guy like Bryzgalov, but Mike Smith is a solid option short-term while they develop players in their system, and he’s still athletic enough that he could thrive in a defense-minded system like the one that Dave Tippett runs. In addition to Smith, Torres will be a good asset when teams like the Red Wings decide to play physically tough against the Coyotes, something that doomed them at times last season. He is as talented an agitator as there is in this league, and even with all of that ability to get under people’s skin, he can still score goals and create offense from time to time. Gordon is also a very solid penalty killer and face-off guy, so he definitely fits into the role vacated by Belanger.

As for the question of whether or not the losses will hurt the Coyotes, the answer to that is also a yes. Losing a physical defenseman like Jovanovski is a big blow, and if they lose Yandle on top of that, it could be devastating to the defensive system that they run. Obviously they still have plenty of forwards to help defensively if the blue line is weakened, but at the same time, losing a veteran and a Norris candidate would do the team no favors. In addition to these losses, seeing Fiddler head to Dallas hurts them from a depth perspective as well.

Moving forward, there are some key moves that GM Don Maloney and his crew need to make. They will need to add another defenseman to replace Jovanovski, and while the market may be weak in this department, there are still potential players that could fill that need. Brent Sopel would be a good veteran who could provide a solid penalty killing option for the Coyotes, and other younger players like Jordan Hendry and Sami Lepisto are on the market as well. Obviously there is no magic bullet lurking in the weeds, but Phoenix needs to be proactive in obtaining some blue line help.

The Coyotes could also look for some mid-range forwards to help bolster their lineup. Sergei Samsonov, Jarkko Ruutu, and JP Dumont are all currently available, and they wouldn’t cost a lot of money for a team that’s looking to pinch its pennies.

Phoenix is in an interesting position yet again during this free agency cycle. They still don’t have a permanent owner in place, and with that uncertainty hanging over their heads, it has been increasingly difficult to attract top talent to the desert. Will they be a playoff contender again this season, or will their two-year playoff streak come to an end with all the personnel losses they have suffered? Only time will tell, but if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that Maloney can make lemonade out of a turd sandwich, so it will be fascinating to see which direction he takes the team in.

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Tags: Boyd Gordon Dallas Stars Detroit Red Wings Ed Jovanovski Edmonton Oilers Eric Belanger Ilya Bryzgalov Mike Smith Philadelphia Flyers Phoenix Coyotes Radim Vrbata Raffi Torres Vancouver Canucks Vernon Fiddler Washington Capitals

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