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New additions Caggiula and Brassard making noise early for the Coyotes

It took them a few months to sign after the opening of unrestricted free agency, but two of the newest (and cheapest) Coyotes are looking like they should have been among the first off the market.

San Jose Sharks v Arizona Coyotes
Coyotes center Derick Brassard.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When Bill Armstrong took over the reins as the Arizona Coyotes’ general manager on Sep. 17, 2020, he inherited a roster overflowing with players whose salaries vastly exceeded the value of their contributions.

Previous GM John Chayka had set out in May 2016 with the apparent goal to assemble a supporting cast with a wealth of experience and past success to help ease his future draft picks—including Jakob Chychrun, Clayton Keller, and Barrett Hayton—into the NHL.

In many cases, Chayka invested far too much either to acquire or retain the services of these secondary players.

For instance, Chayka dealt the seventh overall pick in the 2017 Draft and young defenseman Tony DeAngelo to bring high-priced center Derek Stepan and goaltender Antti Raanta to the desert. Raanta turned into a valuable (if oft-injured) addition for the Coyotes but Stepan’s contract, worth $6 million annually, quickly became a liability after the trade.

In 2016, Chayka handed defenseman Alex Goligoski a lucrative five-year contract worth $5.475 million per season after trading a draft pick for the 30-year-old defenseman’s negotiating rights ahead of unrestricted free agency. Two years later, the former GM signed penalty-killing specialist Michael Grabner to a three-year deal in UFA with a $3.35 million average annual value (AAV).

These moves, and others made by the previous regime, plunged the Coyotes into cap hell following their defeat in the 2020 playoffs at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. With Clayton Keller’s enormous new contract coming into effect in 2020-21, the Coyotes needed to make some moves to become compliant with the NHL’s $81.5 million salary ceiling.

Armstrong had lots of work to do. Chayka had previously traded the Coyotes’ 2020 first-round pick for Taylor Hall and the team forfeited its 2020 second-rounder and 2021 first-rounder as a result of a combine testing scandal, so the new GM had very little draft capital to weaponize in any potential moves.

With Pierre-Oliver Joseph, Kevin Bahl, and Nick Merkley having been jettisoned in previous “win-now” moves, Arizona had also lost much of its prospect depth. Armstrong aimed to clear salary by trading expensive veterans, but he had few blue-chippers at his disposal to replace them—and very little cap space to sign new UFAs.

Nevertheless, the Coyotes first struck in the opening days of free agency, signing bottom-six forwards Tyler Pitlick and Johan Larsson to reasonable two-year contracts with AAVs of $1.75 million and $1.4 million, respectively. To sign these players, Armstrong allocated the money saved by buying out the final year of the aforementioned Grabner contract.

Pitlick and Larsson have gotten off to solid starts in Arizona, both emerging as defensive leaders on the team through the first five games. With Pitlick on the ice, the Coyotes are at their stingiest, allowing just 1.39 expected goals’ worth of chances per 60 minutes; with Larsson patrolling the ice, that figure rises to 2.2, sixth-best on the team. Beware small sample sizes, of course, but things still look promising—and more flexible.

That said, Armstrong’s tidiest business came deep into the Coyotes’ off-season. With his team still a bit short on offensive-minded options at forward, Armstrong ventured far into the UFA crop and selected two overlooked prizes from the picked-over fields.

On Dec. 21, the Coyotes signed Drake Caggiula to a one-year contract worth the league minimum of $700,000. A teammate of Nick Schmaltz at the University of North Dakota, Caggiula emerged as a capable secondary scorer in Edmonton before inexplicably being traded to Chicago for Brandon Manning in 2018-19.

Caggiula spent parts of two seasons in Chicago, amassing 14 goals and 27 points in 66 games. The cap-crunched Blackhawks declined to tender him a $1.5 million qualifying offer this past off-season; Caggiula, now 26, became free to seek employment on the open market and ended up settling for less than half his previous salary.

Five games into his Coyotes career, Caggiula has found good chemistry as a supporting cog on a line with Nick Schmaltz and Conor Garland. Caggiula is no stranger to skating on his team’s top lines—per Natural Stat Trick, he spent over half his time in Chicago playing with Jonathan Toews—and he looked like a natural fit on his new unit in Arizona’s 5-2 win over Vegas on Friday.

Garland, Schmaltz, and Caggiula all finished in the Coyotes’ top-three for expected goals percentage in the “Victor-y”, with Caggiula coming in third at 64.44%. All three players recorded multiple points: Garland scored a goal and added two assists; Schmaltz, a goal and an assist; Caggiula set up both of his linemates’ goals.

Standing at just 5’10”, Caggiula is a quick player who can easily match the pace set by Schmaltz and Garland. His stick acts as a magnet for the puck, making him effective as a playmaker and on the forecheck. Caggiula has accumulated three assists through five games and is already looking like excellent value as the cheapest skater on the Coyotes’ roster.

With Caggiula under contract, Armstrong moved to address the Coyotes’ center-ice position. On Dec. 27, he traded Stepan to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2021 second-round pick.

The Coyotes had already paid Stepan’s $3 million signing bonus but they transferred the entirety of the center’s $6 million cap hit to the Senators. The move helped a cash-strapped Ottawa team reach the cap floor and only added $2 million in actual salary to its payroll.

On the other hand, the trade helped refill the Coyotes’ depleted draft pick cupboards and freed up a boatload of extra cap room. Stepan had become a fan favorite in Arizona but it looked unlikely that he would be retained upon the expiry of his contract in the 2021 off-season.

Three days after the Stepan trade, the Coyotes signed 33-year-old center Derick Brassard to a one-year contract worth $1 million. After a disastrous 2018-19 campaign split between three teams, Brassard rebounded in 2019-20 with a solid season as a depth piece for the New York Islanders but had yet to catch on with a team nearly three months into the 2020 UFA signing period.

Brassard has been a terrific bargain for the Coyotes thus far, scoring four points in five games while maintaining excellent underlying numbers. Even if the quality of his play diminishes during the season, he’ll likely retain some value as an experienced presence in the locker room (similar to Stepan).

To this point, Brassard leads the Coyotes in on-ice expected goals percentage, at 66.44%. When he’s on the ice, the Coyotes allow just 1.62 expected goals’ worth of chances per 60 minutes. 64.1% of his face-offs have been in the offensive zone, which looks high, but that figure actually only sits ninth-highest among team regulars—practically right in the middle.

Brassard and Caggiula (and even Pitlick and Larsson) represent an evolution of how the Coyotes appear to be approaching unrestricted free agency. Under past regimes, the team identified the right kinds of players on the market but ended up heavily over-committing to them in terms of salary and contract length.

Signings like Grabner, Goligoski, and Jamie McGinn added credibility to the Coyotes organization but hampered the team’s long-term flexibility. Conversely, Bill Armstrong’s new additions offer plenty of upside without much risk. In this flat-capped season, Brassard’s cheap contract could make him a coveted asset at the trade deadline if the Coyotes opt to look towards the future.

With Caggiula, the Coyotes would be smart to explore the possibility of keeping him around. He fits into their age bracket and some durability issues in recent seasons could scare teams off from giving him a massive raise. It remains to be seen whether his chemistry with Schmaltz will continue to carry over from North Dakota.

Armstrong took calculated, risk-free bets on these two players being able to alter the chemistry of the Coyotes’ top-nine. Right now, they both look like massive bargains—and if they regress, they won’t hinder the team’s future.