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What could have been: Kyle Turris, Blake Wheeler and the Arizona Coyotes

What would the Arizona Coyotes look like if two of their most important draft picks stayed with the team?


Could the Mike Ribeiro debacle have been completely avoided? What if Radim Vrbata's departure was a minor setback to the offense as opposed to a major concern? Would the Martin Erat trade have even happened?

Every team has its share of drafting horror stories (think Rick DiPietro and the New York Islanders or Alexandre Daigle and the Ottawa Senators), two of the Arizona Coyotes' misfires are particularly painful in light of the team's offensive woes: Kyle Turris and Blake Wheeler. But unlike the Sens and Isles draft nightmares, the Coyotes selections have panned out...for other teams.

The winner of our Dream Team Challenge, DBake, asked us to envision what the Coyotes would look like in a world where Turris did not depart in late 2011. We went one step further and added Blake Wheeler to our considerations. So let's peer into a crystal ball and imagine what may have happened had two of the team's budding stars blossomed with the Coyotes.

Where Did Turris and Wheeler Go?

Wheeler may be the most frustrating player in Coyotes history. After being drafted fifth overall in 2004 by the Coyotes, Wheeler opted to attend the University of Minnesota. After his collegiate career ended, the Robbindale, MN native refused to come to terms with the Coyotes, despite being offered the maximum entry-level deal allowed under the CBA. He became an unrestricted free agent in 2008.

He would not be unemployed for long. The Boston Bruins snatched him up in August of that year and Wheeler went on to score 21 goals in his rookie season. Now a member of the Winnipeg Jets, Wheeler posted 69 points (21G, 41A) last season, his best NHL season thus far. He boasts a positive Corsi For Percentage (shot attempts the team took while a given player was on the ice versus shot attempts given up when that player was on the ice) in all but one season with the Jets.

Turris, on the other hand, actually gave the Coyotes something for their trouble. Drafted third overall in 2007, he started playing for the Coyotes immediately, appearing in 63 games in the 2008-09 season. However, the young center was overmatched in his first season of league play, and only put up 20 points (8G, 12A). He finished the year in the AHL. During the offseason, Wayne Gretzky, the man who helped draft him, had been replaced with Dave Tippett, whose commitment to two-way hockey and earning ice-time stifled (albeit understandably) the young Canadian center, who spent the full 2009-10 season in the minors before being recalled for 65 games in 2010-11.

The youngster seemed to finally be coming into his own during the Desert Dogs brief 2010-11 playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings. The improved play and ice time with top 6 players was too little/too late for the blossoming forward. He asked to be a traded. A request GM Maloney denied. Turris held out for the first 23 games of the 2011-12 season, before finally signing with the Coyotes. His return to club was somewhat awkward and he struggled to produce. Maloney soon relented and gave the unhappy player his wish by dealing him to the Senators in December 2011.

In his first full season with Ottawa, Turris blossomed. He scored 26 goals and recorded 32 assists while solidifying his role as Ottawa's 1C with Jason Spezza injured.

His possession numbers in Ottawa have been similarly spectacular; in his three seasons with the Senators, Turris has posted Corsi For Percentages of 54.6%, 52.5%, and 52.4%, respectively. For comparison's sake, current Coyotes 1C Antoine Vermette's Corsi For Percentages have been 50.2%, 49.4%, and 48.5%.

Predicting the Future

Of course, every action has consequences and the flapping of Turris and Wheeler's butterfly wings toward other NHL teams produced a series of reactions that led to the Coyotes fielding the roster they do now. If those two stayed, there is a ripple effect on the rest of the roster.

Whether or not Vermette makes his way to Phoenix via trade with Columbus in 2012 is the largest question. On one hand, Turris' departure exacerbated the organization's relative weakness down the middle and made Don Maloney more eager to acquire a center to fill the void, which he did with Vermette. Keep in mind, Coyotes GM Don Maloney used the second round pick gained in the Turris trade as part of a package to acquire Vermette. Had Turris stayed, the need to make that move would have been less dire, and perhaps it would not have happened at all.

On the other hand, if Turris demonstrated his capability to be a true 1C, then the Coyotes would still need a dedicated 2C, which Vermette demonstrated he could be in Ottawa behind Spezza. So perhaps Vermette, or a player like him, comes to the Coyotes via trade to fill that role anyway.

The other major consequence of Turris remaining with the Coyotes is that the team likely avoids gambling on the free agent market with Mike Ribeiro. Turris managed to post comparable Corsi For Percentages (52.4 percent for Turris versus 52.8 percent for Ribeiro), so their ability to drive possession appears to be relatively the same, except that Turris played considerably harder minutes.

Of all of his shifts in 2013-14, he started 28.6% in the offensive zone, 35.9% in the neutral zone, and 31.8% in the defensive zone, while Ribeiro's shifts were divided 48.4%OZ / 32.2%NZ / 19.4%DZ. So the Sens' center was able to generate roughly the same amount of offensive production despite starting significantly more shifts in the neutral zone or in his own end.

This suggests that Turris could provide the offensive punch of Ribeiro without the need to be sheltered by giving him favorable zone starts like Ribeiro needed.. That translates to Turris playing with solid offensive players like Mikkel Boedker or Wheeler where Ribeiro was paired with David Moss and Lauri Korpikoski, mainly to offset his defensive issues than give him a chance to succeed.

Several minor transactions also may not have happened with Turris sticking around. One time Coyote (and subject of FFH Staff Writer Carl Pavlock's unhealthy obsession) David Rundblad does not come to Arizona from Ottawa, and he subsequently does not get flipped to Chicago for a second round draft pick that turns into 2014 pick Christian Dvorak. Brandon Gormley potentially gets an earlier look at NHL time with one less roster spot taken up by a fringe NHL defenseman.

Draft Day Decisions

Wheeler's situation is a little more complicated. The fact that Wheeler never joined the Coyotes meant the team had to replace his spot in the team's prospect pool. Mikkel Boedker, also a winger, could conceivably have been that replacement. So it is possible Boedker does not get drafted if Wheeler sticks around.

Additionally, perhaps the team considers drafting at a different position if Wheeler signed and was expected to be a top tier winger for Phoenix. Some other NHL notables that were available in the 2008 Draft (the year Wheeler walked as a UFA) include centers Cody Hodgson and Josh Bailey, as well as defensemen Erik Karlsson and Tyler Myers. If the team did not feel like it had to draft a right wing in the first round, would a player like Karlsson be wearing Sedona Red? And would that have meant the Coyotes passed on Oliver Ekman-Larsson the following year and opted for someone like Nazem Kadri or Magnus Paajarvi? The possibilities are intriguing to consider.

The Roster as it Stands Now

For a clearer picture as to why the departure of Turris and Wheeler is so painful, consider the depth chart as it currently stands for the Coyotes:

Mikkel BoedkerAntoine VermetteShane Doan

Max Domi(?) - Martin HanzalMartin Erat

Lauri KorpikoskiSam GagnerDavid Moss

Kyle ChipchuraJoe VitaleRob Klinkhammer - (B.J. Crombeen)

This lineup lacks the punch up top that many of its Pacific Division rivals possess. Vermette is an excellent two-way center, but does not produce the same number of points as guys like Ryan Getzlaf or Anze Kopitar do. Hanzal is a sizable center, but injury problems and subpar offensive production have plagued his career. And quite frankly, Hanzal is nowhere near the caliber of player that the other Southern California centers are.

The Roster as it Could Have Been

There are numerous intriguing possibilities as to how the roster would be shaped with two former first round picks in tow, but for simplicity's sake, let's assume that Maloney still acquires Vermette in 2012.

Mikkel Boedker - Kyle Turris - Blake Wheeler

Martin Erat - Antoine Vermette - Shane Doan

(David Moss) Max Domi - Martin Hanzal - Rob Klinkhammer

Lauri Korpikoski - Kyle Chipchura (Joe Vitale) - Brandon McMillan (Lucas Lessio/Tobias Rieder)

The entire composition of the Coyotes could have changed dramatically had Turris and Wheeler stayed in the Valley. Turris could have easily been the top center with Vermette taking a more appropriate role on the second line, where Tippett could give him plenty of ice time while keeping him fresher for late game or penalty kill situations.

Additionally, Hanzal would fall into the 3rd line center role, which would likely keep him much healthier and more productive (playing fewer minutes against weaker competition). Domi could also be given a third line role with consistent minutes that would allow him to adjust to the NHL without placing enormous pressure on him to succeed immediately.

The trade that brings Sam Gagner to Arizona likely doesn't happen. That isn't to say that Gagner isn't a good player, but he was brought in to both offset the loss of offense from Ribeiro's departure. So a player like Brandon McMillan, Lucas Lessio or Tobias Rieder could slot into the spot currently occupied by B.J. Crombeen, while Joe Vitale might not have been signed at all.

Final Thoughts

Speculation on what could have been is ultimately little more than a thought exercise. But this should demonstrate the importance of drafting and keeping talent in the system. The retention of just two players could have potentially increased the Coyotes offensive acumen substantially while simultaneously allowing its current roster to play roles more suitable to their skill levels. Ultimately, the holes left in the roster by the exits of Kyle Turris and Blake Wheeler are large ones which have proven difficult to replace.