After last week’s shocking - and frankly, exciting - retooling of the roster, the Arizona Coyotes now find themselves entering the unrestricted free agency period in an unfamiliar position of power.
There are still some holes that need filling, but rather than search for a top-six center in a market where none exists, the Coyotes can find role players and depth in a free agency class with several such options.
While the team’s lack of a head coach makes the overall direction and on-ice identity a little less than crystal clear, John Chayka has earned the benefit of the doubt that his camp can assess what players make sense.
Before we diagnose who exactly the Coyotes should pursue when free agency opens on July 1, it’s important to look at the depth chart and see where the organization could best use some additional pieces.
Now, this isn’t a “projected lines”, but my gross estimation of the depth chart in the interest of illustrating where exactly the Coyotes have needs:
LW - C - RW
Max Domi - Derek Stepan - Tobias Rieder
Brendan Perlini - Christian Dvorak - Anthony Duclair
Clayton Keller - Dylan Strome - Christian Fischer
Jordan Martinook - Brad Richardson - Jamie McGinn
Lawson Crouse - Nick Cousins - Jens Lööke
Michael Bunting - Tyler Gaudet - Conor Garland
LD - RD
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Alex Goligoski - Luke Schenn
Jakob Chychrun - Kevin Connauton
Kyle Capobianco - Kyle Wood
Cam Dineen - Dysin Mayo
A few things stand out in this depth chart configuration. First, it’s incredibly illuminating just how much organizational flexibility the Derek Stepan acquisition gives the Coyotes. Coyotes fans will likely clamor for Dylan Strome early and often, but the fact of the matter is that the Coyotes don’t need to rush Strome into the fold.
That being said, adding a center does not make legitimate sense for the Coyotes in this free agency period, and would arguably do more harm than good. So fans hoping for a Martin Hanzal reunion, a la Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek from a few seasons ago, I’m not sure it’s in play.
The other two things I really notice is just how thin on NHL-ready talent the Coyotes have at right wing and at right defense.
First, at right wing. Jamie McGinn, Brad Richardson, and Jordan Martinook represent flexibility and could likely suit up on the right, but as evidenced by Stepan’s effect on the center depth chart, another right wing would work wonders on the Coyotes’ flexibility.
Arizona does have some money to work with (they’re about $5 million from the salary floor, per Cap Friendly), so they don’t necessarily have to head straight to the bargain bin, but with Patrick Eaves and T.J. Oshie off the market, the availability of true impact talent isn’t exactly there. Nevertheless, there are good mid-six options out there.
As far as defense is concerned, the top four is all but set.
Outside of that, there’s no sugarcoating it; the Coyotes flat out need another right-defender, preferably one who shoots right-handed. But, with the acquisition of Niklas Hjalmarsson on the top pairing, the Coyotes don’t necessarily need to target a Kevin Shattenkirk type.
The left-handed Kevin Connauton represents the most talented option, and righty Kyle Wood will almost certainly see NHL ice time at some point this season. So, while talent-wise the Coyotes are close, again, flexibility is extremely valuable.
All that being said, here are some guys - or at least types of guys - I believe the Coyotes should definitely pursue.
Recognizable names, weird circumstances
Nail Yakupov, Ales Hemsky, Roman Polak
If former 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov isn’t already a bust, then the Russian winger is fast approaching it. The jury might be out on Yakupov, but this is the first time he’s hit the free agent market. He represents the prototypical low-risk, high-reward signing, but with legitimate evidence that Yakupov’s NHL days are numbered and some injury concerns to add to the consistency questions, it might not be worth the effort.
Injuries also complicate the two other relatively high profile targets. Ales Hemsky didn’t quite live up to his contract with the Dallas Stars, with a lingering hip injury marring his 2016-17 campaign in particular. Despite the dip in production, his possession numbers still suggest he has something left in the tank.
Roman Polak, on the other hand, ended the season on a sour note, with a season-ending leg injury in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Coming off an injury like that, the market for Polak likely isn’t booming but he brings veteran presence and penalty-killing experience in a bottom-six role.
Underrated, but potential strong performers
Beau Bennett, Alex Chiasson, Nikita Nesterov
Beau Bennett and Alex Chiasson are both young forwards who were surprisingly not extended qualifying offers.
In five seasons (four with Pittsburgh, one with New Jersey), Bennett has yet to have a true breakout, never eclipsing 20 points, but between injuries and a good number of healthy scratches, he’s had difficulty finding regular ice time. Still, possession numbers are quite kind to Bennett and suggest he could be a strong contributor if given a regular role.
Chiasson doesn’t have the same durability concerns, but is a similar player, albeit with a more proven defensive track record. Overall he’s been a disappointing player, which contributed to his trade from Ottawa to Calgary and the Flames subsequently not giving him a qualifying offer, but like Bennett, there’s reason to believe his best hockey is ahead of him.
In the same light, Nikita Nesterov is a younger right-handed defenseman who is an intriguing option on the third pairing as a puck-moving defenseman. Nesterov hasn’t found regular ice time in his young career just yet, but he offers a similar skill set to what the Coyotes lost in Anthony DeAngelo if Arizona is looking to replace that kind of niche in the organization from the right side.
Some projection involved, but maybe worth the risk
Petr Straka, Cody Goloubef, Yohann Auvitu
On the one hand, players who hit unrestricted free agency without truly breaking into the NHL are in that position for a reason. But on the other hand, these are the kind of players that are prime two-way contract candidates, there’s still a chance they find their game and become legitimate regulars.
Petr Straka was acquired by the New Jersey Devils after the Flyers placed him on waivers. He’s produced at a fair level in his AHL career and improved his scoring totals each year he was in the Flyers system. He’s still a bit of a project, but he’s only 25, with some raw speed and scoring instincts.
Cody Goloubef might not be more than just a seventh defenseman, but much like his teammate Eric Gelinas, it’s hard to adequately assess amidst the situation in Denver. Still, he could be an adequate third-pairing defenseman.
Yohann Auvitu is a little bit of different story as he’s not a right-handed defenseman, but in terms of potential hidden gems, Auvitu is an interesting piece. The 27-year-old had a 25 game stretch with the Devils in 2016-17, during which he looked the part of a true NHL defenseman. But, after Reid Boucher returned to the Devils lineup, Auvitu was demoted back to the AHL. His game never quite recovered from that demotion.
Nevertheless, meaningful NHL ice time is valuable and the most convincing evidence that exists. And Auvitu has it.
Reunited and it feels so good?
Radim Vrbata, Michael Stone
Of course, when looking at a list of available free agents, Coyotes fans will see two familiar names at their two most pressing needs.
To me, Radim Vrbata is an easy case. He led the team in points with 55 last year (coincidentally, the same number as new 1C Derek Stepan), and expressed a strong desire to return to the place that he has spent the most productive stretches of his career. It’s unclear how the exodus from earlier in the month affects that interest, but why not offer Vrbata a similar contract to last year, with potentially more guaranteed money this time around?
Michael Stone also fills an organizational need, but the market for a right-handed defenseman with solid production will undoubtedly be strong. But you never know.
Who on the free agent market would you like to see the Coyotes pick up?