The foundation of any sports franchise is built through the draft. In the salary cap era, it is imperative to fill out a roster with skilled, cost-efficient players and the only way to do that is to draft and develop players.
Some teams are able to make up for poor drafting by spending to the cap, but even the best teams, at their core, are built through the draft. Look no further than the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings who built the foundations of their teams on draft day.
The Arizona Coyotes are missing from that list, and for good reason. Not only have they failed to win a Stanley Cup, but they have drafted quite poorly for most of their existence.
From 1997-2007 the combination of General Managers Bobby Smith, Cliff Fletcher and Mike Barnett drafted so poorly, the franchise still has not fully recovered.
In those 11 years, only seven players drafted even managed to play 110 games with the Coyotes. Those players are: Ossi Vaananen, Fredrik Sjostrom, Daniel Winnik, Martin Hanzal, Keith Yandle, Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris. Of those seven, just two still play for the team (Hanzal and Yandle).
While it is not uncommon for teams to have a similar amount of players that meet the 110-game benchmark over that same period of time, the quality of those players and the amount of players who remain with their original team are much higher than the Coyotes.
Arizona has a quality issue more than a quantity issue. In those 11 drafts, the Coyotes only managed to find one top-six forward (Hanzal) and two top-four defensemen (Vaananen, Yandle) that played those roles in Arizona for multiple seasons.
The Coyotes' real trouble has come in the first round, where year after year they fail to not only get players who contribute at a significant level, but players even willing to play for them at all. Between 2002 and 2007, four first round picks (Jakub Koreis (19th overall), Ben Eager (23rd overall), Blake Wheeler (5th overall) and Nick Ross (30th overall)) never played a single game in Sedona Red. Koreis and Ross never played an NHL game. Late round picks are just glorified lottery tickets as the odds players drafted after round two are long shots to make the NHL, but missing on first round picks year after year is devastating.
There was a brief reprieve for the Coyotes in the 2005 draft, as they may have had their best draft ever. They only had five picks, but two turned into regular NHLers. Arizona selected Hanzal 17th overall and Yandle 105th overall and both have played more than 450 games in a Coyotes sweater.
The fortunes of the franchise turned around on May 28, 2007 with the hiring of New York Rangers' vice-president of player personnel and Assistant GM Don Maloney.
In retrospect, Maloney's first draft as Coyotes GM is the recipient of mixed reviews after selecting Turris third overall in 2007. It took a few seasons, but the 24-year-old finally emerged as a bonafide top-six forward at the center position. The criticism surrounding the pick is fair since Turris produced very little in Arizona. Maloney should get some credit for drafting a quality player, even if it didn't work out for the Coyotes (although the same could be said for Barnett drafting Wheeler).
Following the '07 draft, the Coyotes drafted players like Mikkel Boedker (8th overall), Michael Stone (69th overall), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (6th overall), Brandon Gormley (13th overall) and Connor Murphy (20th overall), all players who will play significant minutes in 2014-15. The big prize is the selection of Ekman-Larsson in 2009, who is already a top pair defenseman at the age of 22 and is quickly blossoming into one of the best defensemen in the entire league.
The jury is still out on players like Jordan Szwarz (4th round), Mark Visentin (1st round) and Lucas Lessio (2nd round) as well as their last two first round picks Henrik Samuelsson and Max Domi, but there is no doubt that draft day has been much kinder to the Coyotes over the last half dozen years.
It is imperative to a relatively cash-strapped team like the Coyotes to draft well and develop talent. The cheapest way to retain players is by retaining player's rights as RFAs and locking up talent long-term before they reach unrestricted free agency (i.e. Ekman-Larsson).
Maloney has mentioned time and time again the "Detroit model" of drafting well and slowly developing players as a means to a successful end. The Coyotes appear to be on their way, slowly but surely.