The Curious Case of the Coyotes – Pt. 1

Photo credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

As we enter more unfamiliar territory in the NHL landscape, a situation that will play out in curious fashion over the season will be the Arizona Coyotes. Fresh off a tumultuous 2019-2020 season, the Coyotes come into this shortened campaign with far more questions and curiosity of where the franchise is headed on the ice. We look ahead into the new season with this 3 part series.

The Coyotes and General Manager Bill Armstrong started a preview of what I would believe is more to come in the move of veteran center Derek Stepan to the Ottawa Senators for a 2nd round pick in the upcoming draft. With Stepan, a pending UFA off a contract that was far in the past in terms of value, this trade provided much needed salary relief and a pickup of a draft pick for a franchise decimated by former General Manager John Chayka’s actions.

Prior to the move, the Coyotes lost depth veterans in Brad Richardson to Nashville, Michael Grabner via buyout, Carl Soderberg to Chicago, and of course the disastrous Taylor Hall trade that turned negative dividends after he departed for Buffalo. Vinnie Hinostroza was also not tendered a qualifying offer by the club rendering him a free agent.

All of this, fresh off the Chayka scouting scandal that resulted in a bevy of draft pick losses in this previous draft and loss of picks to the Devils in the Hall trade have left the landscape for the Coyotes looking bleak.

Sure the Coyotes have picked up more depth players to replace the exits in John Hayden, Tyler Pitlick, Johan Larsson, and Drake Caggiula as well as re-signing forward Christian Fischer on a 2 year contract but the lack of high end elite talent and scoring touch appears daunting. Add in the addition of former Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Gauthier on a PTO and there is no quick fix for scoring woes in sight.

Add into this that somehow prior to the Stepan trade, with this roster the Coyotes were the highest salaried team in cap dollars is truly maddening. A slew of bad contracts and odd signings have hamstrung the Coyotes albeit thankfully for GM Armstrong it will only be a one year pain process. The team clears over $30 million in cap space with expiring contracts at season’s end but that is where thinks can get truly curious.

Is it safe to assume that the Coyotes will drop far down closer to the cap floor than cap ceiling next year? With the pandemic, the staggering losses for the Coyotes and ownerships holding business interests in a large swath of industries decimated by COVID-19, it would be far more realistic to expect a dial-back in spending. Just how far that dial-back in spending will go remains to be seen.

While on the subject of financials, let’s take a look at the current state of the Coyotes courtesy of CapFriendly.com

With the Derek Stepan trade, the Coyotes now find themselves sitting above $78M in projected cap with a space savings of just north of $3M thanks to the trade. Not only did the trade shed salary and open a roster spot which all likely locks the Coyotes top prospect Barrett Hayton into the starting roster, but it brought the Coyotes into cap compliance. Caution may be thrown there with that move though.

Looking at the remainder of the forward group, there is a top load of bad money currently sitting with Phil Kessel – can he rebound off a very difficult year? Clayton Keller is another large contract that has not yet lived up to the hype of his rookie season. Is a 40 point scorer at 7.15M really worth it? If Keller plays more to the liking of his playoff run of 7 points in 9 games then yes he will come into the elite talent level that was expected. Otherwise, this contract may go down as an all out albatross paid out far too soon into a young and stuttering career.

Next up would be Nick Schmaltz, while not blindly rewarded at such a high level as Keller, Schmaltz was paid handsomely on the “what could be” and not past or current production by GM Chayka. Schmaltz like Keller have all the tools, finesse with the puck but oft injured and oft doing too much with the puck has led to scoring frustrations with both forwards.

The Coyotes then round out with their – key word – number 1 center in Christian Dvorak. Dvorak flies under the radar and in many ways is unfairly valued in the fact that he is not a true number 1 center. On a strong competing team, Dvorak is more likely your 3rd line center maybe 2nd. What Dvorak does bring to the table is strength in faceoffs and he was trending towards a break out year prior to COVID. If Dvorak continues the trend, he is a terrific signing for the next 5 years at $4.45M

Finally the biggest piece of the puzzle on the forward group is Conor Garland. Garland is one of those players you love to root for and is arguably the fan favorite of the franchise right now. Garland does everything, he is the engine that drives the team. While not elite, Garland makes up for it in his drive, tenacity and willingness to do just about everything and anything when he is on the ice. Watching Garland reminds me of Martin St. Louis and not just because of his size but in the way he plays. As a pending RFA, Garland has to be the most important asset for moving forward in the future for the organization.

With all this said, the glaring problem the Coyotes will have as they inevitably do each season (besides injuries) is scoring. This team simply cannot score. They had hoped to address the issue with a variety of past signings which have not worked. Alex Galchenyuk came in as a flash in the pan and fizzled out quicker than his stay in the desert. Phil Kessel had the worst season of his career in the last decade by a landslide. Taylor Hall came in and provided an offensive boost but the lights went out on everyone else except him – not a recipe for success which was eminent by the team’s plight in the standings after the trade. How do the Coyotes go about fixing this inevitable problem that will rear its head once again this season? Will Phil return to the thrill or continue the downward spiral? Is it possible to move his anchor of a contract at that point ala Stepan to grab more picks for a prospect depleted system?

Can this team score under Rick Tocchet? (A discussion for part 3 of this series)

If I were to to be a betting man, I would look at the forward group and believe this is going to be a long try out style campaign and a development year for the likes of Barrett Hayton possibly Lane Pederson and Brayden Burke. For Hayton, the Coyotes have to see what they have in the former Team Canada captain with a long good look, not the up and down lack of playing time style he was involved with last year. Hayton bounced in and out of the lineup plenty as a healthy scratch managing to get in for only 20 games with the Coyotes and only 5 with the AHL affiliate Tucson Roadrunners. Largely to blame was his World Junior Championship injury but even after returning and being cleared, he sat scratched for many nights. He could have been in Tucson playing but he was ineligible due to his age and the NHL/CHL agreement for players under 20 and 4 years of junior service. In the games he did play, for the Coyotes he was not much of a factor and it has been a hindrance to his development albeit no fault of his own. Earlier I did say the Stepan trade essentially locks Hayton into the starting lineup with caution but that is more on a see where we are at basis. I would not be surprised if he started in Tucson as he is now over 20 and made a quick jump up to the Coyotes early on. If it is the other way around, or he sits more than plays that will spell trouble and may be more damaging to the development. Something that Coyotes absolutely cannot have happen.

Behind Barrett and more seasoned would be Lane Pederson. The undrafted center has faired well in Tucson posting strong progress each season with Tucson and is likely to be a strong contender at cracking the opening roster. Whether he makes the team, becomes part of the taxi squad or moves in and out remains to be seen. Injuries aside, Pederson has had to the most growth of the forwards and the Coyotes need to see where it translates in the NHL.

Brayden Burke is another undrafted player that stormed onto the scene in Tuscon and could pose a threat to making the lineup. With a weakened wing depth, the spot for Burke to slide in could be there with the final year of his ELC coming up.

One of the top prizes in the Coyotes organization and more than likely the best along with Victor Soderstrom is Jan Jenik. Jenik has taken significant jumps with each level and continues to excel after moving from Europe to the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. Jenik should be in Tucson to start the season and the hope is a continued growth of excellence for making a jump to the Coyotes in the next season or 2.

From there, the draft depth has growing pieces but nothing of elite standout talent albeit Matias Maccelli is turning heads. Players like Tyler Steenbergen need big seasons to start moving in the right direction. Fresh out of college Nate Sucese will be an interesting watch in Tucson for the season to see where he makes further strides. John Farinacci who is playing in the World Junior Championships for Team USA (3pts in 2GP) is shooting up the charts but is still far away from having big club impact. Lumping into that group would be players like Danil Savunov, Liam Kirk, Filip Barklund who should under no circumstance be expected to make an impact soon for the organization. Alexander Daryin could be an interesting piece of the puzzle but much remains to be seen of the possible dark horse variety same as Aku Raty.

Once we crossed out from Brendan Burke, it is clear there is no immediate elite draftee coming in to save the day the likes an Auston Matthews would have in 2016. There are some pieces and potential for high level undrafted talent but many could say it will be more of the same bottom 6 level forwards for the years to come. How do the Coyotes go about fixing this?

When looking at where the team is right now with the forward group and core, all eyes will be likely squared on Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz. For the latter, Schmaltz has to perform this season and make significant strides in his production and ability to stay healthy. While any use at center seems unlikely, he needs to get more poised and driven with the puck. If the progress is not significant enough, GM Armstrong will likely dangle Schmaltz out there for a trade but is he moveable? This is where the contract for Schmaltz is a hard sell as it has shown very little upside to this point. While it is lower than Keller by a large margin, there is no way to justify taking on $5.8M as a franchise right now unless you needed to add salary (not many teams need) and be locked into a dead contract for 5 more seasons after this. With Keller, while the contract is absurdly bloated, there is some production there and if one of the very small group of bright spots in the postseason continues, the Coyotes may come out ok. If neither are firing on the stats sheet, is it possible GM Armstrong gets Seattle to bite by leaving one or both unprotected for the expansion draft? That would be a bold but maybe not surprising move at that point. Phil Kessel has full protection on any moves or trades and unless he agrees and has a resurgence there is no expectation that he moves on from the Coyotes. If he does agree and is coming back to production levels that a contender may bite for a rental, GM Armstrong pulls the trigger for more picks and possibly a prospect. It is time to load up the coffers as much as possible.

If the fixes for the offense do not lie within the above or the forward group, where do the Coyotes go to get the ship righted? The answer to that question may come on defense.

Stay tuned for Pt.2 where we look at the defense and in net for the season and beyond.

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