The dust has now settled from the much-anticipated NHL expansion draft, with the Coyotes perhaps coming off better than some would expect with the loss of Finnish forward Teemu Pulkkinen. Now, however, comes the time of year when the front office of NHL teams really make their salaries – the period of the NHL Entry Draft and Free Agency.
The Coyotes seem well placed going into the period that can often make or break a team's season expectations, with two first round picks (traditionally able to be sold at a premium, especially at this time of year) and a considerable amount of cap space available to be used, they're in a position many teams would envy. However, in the period of smoke, mirrors, and the fog of war which often descends around this period in the NHL, it's only smart and careful GM's who can profit. After all, with the FA market often comes an insane amount of inflated value and premiums that lead to David Clarkson being paid nearly $6 million a year based on one good NHL season.
So: what are the Coyotes needs and realistic options over the next few days?
The most pressing one, without question, is a starting goalie. With the trade of Mike Smith to Calgary, the most tenured goalie in the organization is Chad Johnson. Not a goalie you want to be going into a season as your starter, especially with a young team that is looking to progress. There are also needs on forward (with Dylan Strome's potential still resolutely deciding not to show itself at NHL level yet, there's still a need for a top line C to go with the young wing talent, for example). Defensive depth can always help, too.
Also, arguably, the Yotes need a veteran head to replace Shane Doan, if not as captain than at least as an experienced voice in a locker room that is among the youngest in the NHL right now.
The first round picks are perhaps the Yotes' strongest assets, both at 7 and 23.
Along with this, though, the Coyotes have several UFA rights to deal at the draft and also a whole load of cap space. In short, they've got a pretty stacked deck. But as any poker player will tell you, it's not just in the cards, it's how you play them.
So, what should the Coyote strategy be over the next few days? Well, here are some thoughts, along with some key tenets to follow
HEARTS AND MINDS WARFARE - DIRTY, BUT EFFECTIVE
Firstly, those strong asset picks? Don't get too attached to them, particularly the one at number 23. Why? Because the Coyotes may be far better served by using others' views against them and playing a psychological game using the weaknesses of more "established" GMs. And in John Chayka, as we've said before, they've got the advantage of a GM who might actually be willing to engage in such "non-hockey-man" behavior.
But how, you ask? Why are first round draft picks such a potent weapon in trade talks, particularly against "traditional" hockey men?
SELL YOUR RIVALS A (DRAFT) DREAM
This is because, even in drafts where the talent is more spread around than with a surplus of top-level talent like the last few, GMs value picks very strongly indeed, and first round picks probably way over the value they're actually statistically likely to provide.
Here is a very interesting piece by TSN's Scott Cullen attempting to analyze the actual statistical probability of what teams will get with their picks - it's a sobering read if you're an NHL GM looking to build exclusively or mainly through the draft the next few years.
Based on the figures Cullen has quoted, even with the number 7 pick, the Yotes have a slightly-less-than-even (41.7%) chance of getting a true impact player (top 6 forward, top 4 D quality) in the draft. With the 23rd pick, that chance drops to 1 in 3. This, remember, is based also on drafts between 1990 and 2013, which does contain some stinkers but also contains the historically-good draft period of the late 2000's/early 2010s, a period which this draft is perhaps not among the top levels of.
But, in seeming opposition to this, the players that get traded for first round picks are often legitimate NHL players. The most famous is perhaps Phil Kessel in recent years, but it's even more instructive to look at what first round picks even in a good draft are traded for once they've developed. The latest example of which we've seen literally as this article is being written, with Jordan Eberle being traded for Ryan Strome, or, last offseason, the first overall pick (Taylor Hall) being traded for Adam Larsson - both lopsided and almost absurdly cheap deals.
It seems that NHL GMs value the opportunity to select a player in the first 30 picks of the NHL draft often far more than the players they select as a result and this provides an opening for smart GMs like John Chayka to exploit.
For example, the chatter over Derek Stepan recently in Arizona is interesting because it's likely that a first round pick will be in the conversation. Would you trade a one-in-three chance of getting a legitimate NHLer in the future for a center who is 27 years old (just coming into his prime) and has averaged nearly 60 points in the NHL for the past four seasons?
Of course you would, from a "buying" standpoint. Put as baldly as that, though, you'd probably balk a little at selling one for the same price. However in the NHL, many do not, which means the imagined premium placed on first rounders could likely get the Coyotes their top line center for a (relatively) cheap price.
This is the avenue Chayka should be going down and with two first round picks, there are the assets there to pursue it.
USE SUPPLY AND DEMAND TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
This is applicable to the situation above, of course, but it is particularly so with the Coyotes' goalie problem.
The UFA goalie market is clogged with NHL starters this year. Not elite NHL starters, but goalies who are useful enough for AZ's purposes. Names like Ryan Miller, who might be looking for one last run in the NHL and will come cheap both due to age and a poor season in Vancouver. Or Jonathan Bernier, who at 28 is still good enough to improve further and is one of the safer redemption projects seen on the NHL UFA market in recent years. Or Steve Mason, who Philadelphia are sad to (potenitally) see leave, but are letting go anyway.
These are good NHL goalies. At least one (Bernier) was being touted as one of the next wave of elite goalies only a year or two ago, but has seen a combination of bad luck and coming out on the wrong side of partner battles (in LA vs Jonathan Quick) and a few down seasons (in Toronto) reduce his value, but still had a 92.5 SV% in Anaheim last season. While Steve Mason, too, is in a somewhat similar position.
All of the names above are goalies who could easily be given the chance to become the Yotes' next starter for a relatively cheap cost, especially if their UFA rights are traded for before July 1st. Of the three, Bernier is likely to be the most cost-effective, but Miller could be a good short-term, cheap option, too.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF VEGAS JOINING THE TABLE
There is, of course, also the unknown of Las Vegas, who will likely be sending players all over the NHL map as deals continue to be made. While it's hard to see any obvious deals that can be made with them at this point, there's definitely a possibility there for UFA rights deals, for one thing.
The trade landscape has also been changed a little by the expansion draft, in that it doesn't change team rosters, but shows other GMs what their rivals are, perhaps, willing to lose. Names like Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin are now on the table, where perhaps they wouldn't have been before. It was arguably more interesting seeing which players were made available but not claimed by some teams than the unprotected lists themselves.
Again, for an information-driven GM like Chayka, this will not have gone unnoticed and will almost certainly provide a little more leverage in potential trade talks in the desert.
LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
In short, this offseason, perhaps more than most, has presented a unique landscape for NHL GMs which is rarely seen in the NHL, one that will likely require slightly unconventional hockey thinking to get the best results. In John Chayka, the Coyotes have a GM who is more capable than most of doing so.
Thinking outside the traditional lines may well pay off handsomely for any team doing so this offseason and the Coyotes are well-placed to be one of those teams.