The Arizona Coyotes’ regular season has come and gone. Again, we go another April without a White Out while a team of less than a year old has already won two games in their first playoff series ever.
It stings to be considered the second class of the ‘desert’ teams in the first year of actually having two desert teams. Vegas, at first, seemed to be defying expectations but instead is actually a competent team capable of hanging with the true contenders of the NHL.
All in their first year.
But what Vegas has done to the league opens a window for Arizona. They have shaken the power balance of the Pacific Division, and set some teams back years with their wheeling and dealing from last off-season.
Yet, perhaps most impactful to the Coyotes is that Vegas has shunted what the California teams expected to be easy wins for a playoff push. They made Anaheim slug it out for a seed in the Pacific with Los Angeles. More over, Vegas absolutely canned Western Canada to the tune of a 8-3-1 record.
That record sent Calgary into a death spiral, Edmonton away from ever getting a grip and Vancouver from getting marginally higher than their abysmal low. All the while, those three teams all called themselves bubble teams at worst (Vancouver) and playoff contenders at best (Calgary and Edmonton).
Now all three are entering various forms of reconstruction. Vancouver finally lost the Sedins to retirement and are now squarely looking down the sights of what might be the most fool-proof attempt at tanking in modern history next season. Edmonton has fallen under the gun of cap hell, with McDavid and Draisaitl’s new contracts kicking in on a team with no defense. Finally, Calgary has some glaring roster holes while grappling with some important free agents to re-sign.
So Vegas, by way of merely winning the division, upset the entire hegemony of the Pacific, and it isn’t to their exclusive advantage.
With the emergence of Antti Raanta, the uptick in Dylan Strome’s development and the coalescence of a defense planned to be one of the best in the West, the Arizona Coyotes stand to gain what everybody outside of Clark County, Nevada has lost: a competitive edge.
The Success of the I-10 Shuttle
The Tucson Roadrunners were good, and in more ways than one. Not only did they clinch a playoff spot by winning their division, but they won their whole conference. To put it comparatively, the Roadrunners play in a division that plays roughly 10 fewer games than the rest of the AHL due to travel restrictions yet won as many games (42) as the top team in the AHL Central Division, their conference sister division.
To compound that success, their win percentage, which determines playoff seeding and other critical positioning awards in the AHL, is best for second place in both of the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference divisions.
From a player development aspect, ten Roadrunners were called up to Glendale for NHL deployments and while few played over 20 games (Lawson Crouse, Mario Kempe, and Dylan Strome), they all made an impact through proximity. By being a hundred miles away, they took the pressure off of recalling for injuries, and allowed prospect players like Strome and Crouse a chance to show their developmental growth on the big stage.
Perhaps a critical combination of the two major points in the value of the Roadrunners is the cultivation of a winning culture in the organization, a culture which Arizona has not seen in recent memory. Thanks to masterful trading in the GM’s office and phenomenal coaching on the part of Mike Van Ryn, the Roadrunners run the AHL Pacific and that attitude will move upward as players promote to the Coyotes in the coming years.
Tempering Free Agent Expectations
This offseason has the Coyotes poised to make a splash. They took a developmental step during the second half of the season, and their young talent is positioned to mature during summer skates and workouts.
But despite the positioning to make a push for a top Free Agent (FA) in order to make the next step, FAs are often times more fool’s gold - garnering massive overpayments in bidding wars - than the jump needed to become part of the playoff conversation.
Yes, the Coyotes need a quality, top-6 winger. And yes, they could stand to even upgrade on a piece in their middle- or bottom-6. But is it worth getting ourselves into possible cap trouble moving forward considering we are already a team with limited financial capabilities?
This isn’t to say we don’t take a look or even check in to see if wingers like James Neal, Evander Kane, David Perron or James van Riemsdyk might consider coming to the Valley for reasonable term and cost, but we certainly shouldn’t be jonesing for a bidding war and/or overpayment just for the sake of making a splash.
Evaluating Internal Development and Realistically Identifying Possible Promotions
In terms of development, the Coyotes as an organization have bounced back from the first wave of talent breaking into the NHL. For the longest time, the Coyotes’ organization talent pool was primed on top by Christian Dvorak, Christian Fischer, Jakob Chychrun and Clayton Keller although the latter two were prospects for far less time.
Moreover, Dylan Strome will likely shed that prospect role within the next 6 months after proving himself over his last recall.
But where that group has moved on to become realistic NHL players, the next batch is maturing well. Tyler Steenbergen had a phenomenal season in Swift Current and P.O. Joseph was a top D-man in the QMJHL.
In Tucson, the goaltending prospects have been hot. Adin Hill has had a bounceback season after struggling last year and Hunter Miska has come in as advertised: dynamic and agile making his comparisons to Jonathan Quick look stronger by the game.
In front of net in Tucson, Kyle Capobianco, Lawson Crouse, Nick Merkley, Lane Pederson, and Dakota Mermis have all taken steps forward in their games cementing Tucson as a contender for the foreseeable future. All of those names, along with the goaltenders, should be on your radar for potential promotions or protracted looks in the coming season
Finally Tapping Into the NCAA Talent Pool
In the Don Malony era (2007-2015), the Coyotes franchise drafted 5 total players who played NCAA hockey. They signed virtually no quality college FAs.
In the current John Chayka era, the team has only drafted one college player (Clayton Keller; Boston University) and one committed college player (Patrick Kudla; Arizona State University) but has aggressively pursued college free agents. They signed Hunter Miska last off-season, a top goaltender in the 2017 Frozen Four, and added trade acquisition G Merrick Madsen after concluding his senior season at Harvard.
Most recently, Arizona penned a quality, right-handed puck moving defenseman in Jordan Gross from Notre Dame. In his first game with the Roadrunners, Gross racked up two assists to earn the night’s first star in a 6-3 win over the San Diego Gulls.
That’s 5 college players in just two years and a move towards a talent pool that has begun to deliver top defensive prospects in the league, as well as quality wingers like Johnny Gaudreau and TJ Oshie. The more Arizona can build a rep as a pathway to the NHL for NCAA players, the better that signing talent will get, especially if they attach themselves to drafting Arizona State hockey talent creating a virtual pipeline for hockey in the state of Arizona.
Much Ado About Drafting
Obviously, the Coyotes do not know where they are drafting for the coming summer. We could win a lottery slot, but with our luck over the years, we’re either due or due for continued misery.
Regardless, Coyotes fans shouldn’t let themselves fixate on Rasmus Dahlin, the projected franchise defenseman sitting on top of the draft prospect pool. Not only are we not guaranteed to get a shot at taking him, but he doesn’t necessarily fill our organizational needs too well.
Yes, he’s a franchise defenseman. Yes, he can lead a team into a bright future. But we have a cornerstone defenseman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who has done nothing short of publicly spell out his contract demands to John Chayka a whole two months before he’s even eligible to be re-signed.
Stepping beyond Ekman-Larsson, who would likely sign a league-max contract in terms of years, the Coyotes have a wealth of LHD signed over varied amounts of time or under a lengthy amount of control. Jakob Chychrun, Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson currently occupy those roles in the NHL where Dahlin will likely play next season, while the Coyotes have a plethora of LHDs in the minors and juniors.
Conversely, the Coyotes need able, top-6 projected wingers and any able right-handed defensemen, both of which are going to be available in the top 7 picks. In terms of wingers, Coyotes fans should be studying tape of Filip Zadina, Andrei Svechnikov, and Brady Tkachuk. On defense, we should be very interested in Adam Boqvist, a skilled skater with a knack for offense. Most importantly, he’s right-handed and potentially an option as soon as next season.
If you’re trying to imagine an ideal partner for Boqvist, his name is Jakob Chychrun. Where they both have offensive skills, Boqvist has the offensive jump to complement Chychrun’s defensive know-how.
Some Early Roster Considerations
Considering the draft and free agent options, we can not rule out Chayka keeping his word and making some aggressive trade moves. There is no way to know who Chayka is sizing up, or what that might subtract from the organization, but there is no doubt he’s crunched the numbers on all options.
While many have called Chayka’s stats-focus a false flag, claiming his stats emphasis isn’t actually reflected in publicly measured statistics, his values are surely internal and measured in a way that clearly developed in the success we saw in the second half of the season. You can put the right guys on paper together, but chemistry isn’t always instant. Like rust, it takes time for the metal to breathe.
Additionally, fans should temper expectations that the success we saw to end the season will immediately carry over. While momentum carries from game to game easily, it doesn’t necessarily move from season to season. A lot of off time can reset the work that defensive partners develop, or the complementary skills discovered by line-mates. They surely won’t start the same as last season, but don’t expect them to go off at an epic pace to start out. They’ll be better, but don’t be surprised if they trip up at points.
No less, we are currently looking at a Coyotes team constructed like this:
Richard Panik - Derek Stepan - Clayton Keller
Max Domi - Dylan Strome - [insert skater here]
Brendan Perlini - Christian Dvorak - Christian Fischer
Jordan Martinook - Brad Richardson - Nick Cousins
Essentially, this assumes Richardson and Domi re-sign without difficulty. Domi should command a fair, bridge-type contract to prove himself after a terrible start to this past season while Richardson may command a 1-year deal. His cost may be high, but the value brought to one of the most impactful 4th lines in the West may be worth giving him the cash to stick around. One could reasonably expect Lawson Crouse to compete for a roster spot, and I doubt he unseats any roster player but he could certainly push one upwards or earn himself that second line hole if off-season acquisitions don’t go ideally.
On the back end:
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Jason Demers
Jakob Chychrun - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Alex Goligoski - [insert skater here]
This all assumes OEL’s contract extension goes swimmingly. If they can’t get that extension in place, this all goes up in the air and who knows what happens. Regardless, we know that the bottom pair RHD is gonna need some attention. Kevin Connauton is capable of filing that role, but his play may warrant more money than a 6th D deserves on a cash-strapped team. Luke Schenn is likely going to be released, leaving either a cheap FA grab or promotion from within. A trendy pick right now seems to be Trevor Murphy, an AHL deadline pickup who impressed during his recall late in the season. He is left-handed, but impressed and could land himself an extension.
In net, we can surely expect Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper to be in net. Both have inked extensions to solidify Arizona’s goaltending for the foreseeable future. What a change that was from last summer’s start between Mike Smith and Louis Domingue, huh?
Regardless, the Coyotes and Chayka have some work to do. They gotta hustle to get OEL re-upped, they gotta dig into that draft and find some gems, and Chayka needs to weasel out another phenomenal trade to help grow this lineup.