The Arizona Coyotes are in such a weird spot right now. Call it unchartered territory, if you will.
In late July, just days before the Coyotes were set to kick off play in the Edmonton playoff bubble, GM John Chayka terminated his contract with the club despite having three years left on his deal. Assistant GM Steve Sullivan was promoted to the interim GM spot, only to have Bill Armstrong take over in mid-September.
In late August, the Coyotes were sanctioned by the NHL for violating the league’s combine testing policy, taking away the team’s second-round pick in 2020 (they had already traded the first-round pick to New Jersey for Taylor Hall) and the team’s first-round pick in 2021. Add in Hall’s expiring contract and, for the first time in the Salary Cap-era, zero cap space to work with despite still being in a rebuilding phase, and the Coyotes are definitely in a tough situation right now.
Speaking of the draft, the Coyotes didn’t have much to work with, and other than getting potentially good value from fourth-round pick Mitchell Miller (the team’s first selection), it was an otherwise unremarkable outing for the team. From the start of free agency on Oct. 9 until the 12th, the Coyotes signed five players who totaled 17 goals last season, with eight of them coming from bottom-six forward Tyler Pitlick. The Coyotes didn’t have much to work with to start, but that’s hardly inspiring for a team that lost Hall, an NHL MVP, for nothing after trading key assets to acquire him in December.
At this point, the Coyotes are not a better team than they were a year ago. In a normal year, the Coyotes wouldn’t have made the post-season, and they have just two playoff series victories in franchise history, both coming in 2012. It’s hard to get truly excited about a club that’s continously average and one with just four playoff births in the post-2005-lockout era. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope – the Coyotes have a strong defensive group, some promising young forwards and a goaltender that can battle with the best of them – but they’re just not close yet.
The future begins now, and it all starts with two key summer management situations:
Fixing the cap circumstance
If you were shocked to see the Yotes in such a tight cap situation this season, don’t worry: you’re not alone. The Coyotes have always been seen as a team that’s in the headlines for their financial instability more than their on-ice play, but new ownership and management should help downplay the constant rumors for at least a little bit.
Next off-season is one the Coyotes should be quite active in: five of the team’s seven defensemen will be UFAs, forward Conor Garland will need a new contract as an RFA and the club will need to find a replacement for veteran Derek Stepan. With very few players on long-term deals, that could open up some new trade partners around the league, even if it’s not before the season kicks off.
Having two quality goaltenders is the key to success these days, but tying up nearly $9 million for two goalies isn’t ideal if one of them is playing at a significantly higher level. If healthy, Darcy Kuemper was a Vezina Trophy candidate this season, no question. Raanta’s numbers were solid too, but injuries are a true concern with him. He missed nearly the entire 2018-19 season to a lower-body injury and missed time on multiple different occasions this past season for various issues. If he stays healthy, he’s a strong No. 2, but the Yotes just need to shed his salary – even if it’s just for draft picks – to free up some space. The goaltending market is booming rights now with teams seeing obvious needs to strengthen their goaltending duos, and the Coyotes have a cheap backup option in Adin Hill ready to go. But is another team willing to take on the risk for someone who hasn’t had much game action the past few years?
An instant cap fix would have been to move defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and his cap hit of $8.25 million until 2027, but that’s one heck of a deal to move. Ekman-Larsson is one of Arizona’s better players and it doesn’t look like he’ll be on the move, so who’s next? That’s the issue – Alex Goligoski ($5.47 million, 35-years-old) and Jason Demers ($3.93 million, 32) are far from their prime and not easily desirable on the trade market. Niklas Hjalmarsson has a no-movement clause and refused to waive it earlier this summer, but he would have otherwise been a fantastic target.
So if moving a defender isn’t an option (at least for now – they could become options at the trade deadline), what about forwards? Clayton Keller, Phil Kessel, Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak are unlikely on the chopping block, leaving Derek Stepan as the lone forward making over $4 million not in that group. Stepan proved hismelf to be a reliable 50-point scorer in the NHL (hitting the mark in six of his first seven NHL seasons, not including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign), but it’s been rocky over the past two years in Arizona. While he missed 10 games in 2018-19, Stepan has been relitivately healthy, but his 10-goal, 28-point effort this past season was a pure cry for help. If Stepan truly is a valuable player still in the NHL, he needs a new enviroment, and a team may be willing to take on his cap hit for a year of his services. That would be perfect for the Coyotes, but how can Armstrong convince teams Stepan still has some pep in his step?
The biggest question heading into the remainder of the off-season is not whether the Coyotes can get fair value for their assets, but rather they’re fine with taking a loss to focus on long-term growth with an uncertain salary cap situation moving forward. Even though the Coyotes aren’t contenders yet, that’s the only way they don’t make things worse this fall.
The never-ending goal-scoring search
In the past four years, only Conor Garland (22 in 2019-20), Clayton Keller (2017-18) and Radim Vrbata (2016-17) have hit the 20-goal mark and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the only player to do it twice in the past six years. Since 2009-10, the Coyotes have had players hit the 50-point mark just 16 times, with six of them coming in 2010-11 and 2011-12. In terms of 50-point seasons, Keller (65) and Derek Stepan (56) in 2017-18 being the only players to do so in the past three seasons.
So, yeah, scoring is a clear concern for the Coyotes, and Hall was supposed to be a short-term fix in that area. Hall wasn’t bad in Arizona, and he would have likely hit 60 points in a full season with the Coyotes at his pace of 10 goals and 27 points in 35 games, but that’s hardly the same player that won the NHL MVP title with 93 points in 2017-18. He’s never been a tremendous point producer (his two goals and six points in nine playoff games this year wasn’t ideal), but they likely expected a bit more production out of one of the franchise’s best players.
The Coyotes enter 2020-21 without Hall and with no true replacement. Phil Kessel, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with 861 points to his credit, is coming off of a dismal 38-point season, his worst point total since his sophomore outing in 2007-08 and a far cry from his 82-point output with Evgeni Malkin and friends in Pittsburgh in 2018-19. Nick Schmaltz led the Coyotes with 45 points while Keller finished just point back – not a lot of high-volume scorers, here. Scoring was at least varied on the Yotes with 12 players hitting the 25-point mark (Tampa Bay, the Stanley Cup champions, had just 11 players hit the mark), but the Coyotes still finished 23rd in league scoring with 190 goals and 2.71 goals per game. In a normal year, that’s nowhere near playoff-caliber, but at least the team allowed the third-fewest goals against with 183.
The Coyotes have some solid scoring depth in the system, but nobody that’s ready to make the jump up from junior or the AHL. Does that mean the Coyotes are going to have to play the status quo for yet another year until they figure the cap situation out? That’s the likely scenario, but just be glad you’re not the Coyotes’ GM right now.