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Coyotes add depth on Day 1 of free agency with Clendening, Cousins

(AP Photos)

Coyotes general manager John Chayka viewed this year’s free-agent class as both weak and potentially over-priced. He didn’t see the Coyotes making more than depth moves to improve the bottom half of their roster.

Long-sought right-handed defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk gave Chayka brief pause when it appeared he was open to multiple options, and Chayka admitted there were substantive talks between the two sides, but when Shattenkirk signed a four-year, $26.6 million deal with the New York Rangers, depth is exactly what Chayka added.

Arizona signed 24-year-old right-handed defenseman Adam Clendening to a one-year, $650,000 deal to shore up the right side of the blue line behind Niklas Hjalmarsson, Luke Schenn, and maybe Alex Goligoski, if he moves to that side. The Coyotes also signed restricted free agent center Nick Cousins to a two-year, $2 million deal, with deals in the works for remaining RFAs Anthony Duclair and Jordan Martinook.

“We got some good depth signings,” Chayka said. “Some guys that might not seem important on July 1 with all the money and term being thrown around.”

The Blackhawks selected Clendening in the second round (36th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft. He spent two years at Boston University and has played parts of three NHL seasons with six NHL clubs: Toronto, Chicago, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Edmonton and the Rangers.

Last season, he logged 15:49 of ice time in 31 games with New York, posting a 56.7 Corsi For percentage at even strength, with 68.3 percent of his zone starts coming in the offensive zone. He had career highs in goals (2), assists (9) and points (11), but he was never able to lock down a regular role. With some maturity, the Coyotes feel he may be ready.

“He’s just an efficient player,” Chayka said. “He moves the puck, moves it effectively, transitions pucks, gets it out of the zone and moves it to the offense quickly. He’s got a good stick, he’s smart and he makes plays. When you put all that together then you get a player who ends up playing a lot in the offensive zone.”

Clendening, 24, has never played more than 35 games in an NHL season. While the Coyotes haven’t promised him a top-six role, he is looking forward to that opportunity after what he called “a bit of a rough ride” in his first three NHL seasons.

“I think this is a good spot for me,” Clendening said. “I think they’re in a little more of a rebuild and looking to stay young and not in as much of a win-now mode. Some of the teams that I’ve been on have been that way and don’t completely give their young guys a nice little look. I still consider myself relatively young for the league.”

With Clendening in the fold, the Coyotes have seven NHL defensemen under contract, including Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Hjalmarsson, Goligoski, Schenn, Jakob Chychrun and Kevin Connauton. With the Cousins signing, they have 21 players under contract at a cap hit of $53,910,380, per capfriendly.com. If and when Duclair and Martinook sign, the Coyotes will creep over the cap floor of $55.4 million with the maximum roster of 23 players. That could mean they are finished with NHL signings, but Chayka said there are still opportunities he is eyeing, both via trades and in free agency.

“I had a lot of discussions with all the free agents and a lot of the top guys, too, just to see if there’s opportunity to grow our team,” Chayka said. “I haven’t got anything done yet but that’s a process.”

One player the Coyotes chose to move on from was leading scorer Radim Vrbata, who signed a one-year deal with Florida with a base salary of $2.5 million and $1.25 million more in incentives. The 36-year-old said his first option was to remain with Arizona, but he never got an offer from the Coyotes, while Florida contacted his agent, Rich Evans, as soon as the interviewing period began.

“Not that I saw it coming, but I had a feeling with everything that was going on over the summer here,” Vrbata said, referring to the departures of Martin Hanzal, Mike Smith, Shane Doan and Dave Tippett. “I’m glad they brought me back last year, I’m glad I was able to have the season I had and I’m grateful for them honoring my 1,000th game last year. I’ll never say bad things about Phoenix. I enjoyed all my years there and the support from the fans, I really appreciate it. I wish them nothing but the best.”

Vrbata would have taken less to stay in Arizona, asking simply for a higher base salary than last year with the same incentives. Chayka said the Coyotes informed Evans they wanted to see how the market set before moving forward on an offer.

“Obviously, he got a deal he felt was right for his family,” Chayka said. “That’s his right. He’s a UFA. When he gets to July 1, he has the right to make a decision on where he wants to play and Florida stepped up on him.”

Chayka said right wing is still an area he’d like to improve. The Coyotes were eyeing Nashville wing Pontus Aberg, but Vegas claimed James Neal instead in the expansion draft — a move Predators GM David Poile may have seen coming because Neal will have such a high asset value at next year’s trade deadline as a proven scorer on an expiring contract. That forecast allowed the Predators to keep Aberg despite his exposure.

In analyzing his right wing depth, Chayka said there are multiple possibilities.

“There’s internal options, other good players that are maybe left shots that can play the right side, there’s Christian Fischer who is not going to play in the same role as Radim but if he fills a role lower in the lineup to begin with and grows his game, maybe he allows someone else to play a bit higher in the lineup,” Chayka said. “We have some options and opportunities.”

To close out the first day of free agency, the Coyotes added four players to fill out their AHL roster in Tucson, with assistant GM Steve Sullivan playing a major role in those acquisitions.

Arizona signed forwards Zac Rinaldo, Michael Sislowith and defenseman Joel Hanley to one-year, two-way contracts, and defenseman Andrew Campbell to a two-year, two-way deal. Campbell, 29, played with the Toronto Marlies (AHL) last season. Hanley, 26, played with St. John’s (AHL). Rinaldo, 27, played with Providence (AHL), and Sislowith, 29, played with San Antonio and Toronto (AHL).

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