Many saw the 2020-2021 season as an evaluation period for General Manager Bill Armstrong and the Arizona Coyotes. After inheriting a lackluster roster and suboptimal draft capital, Armstrong was forced to decide which direction this franchise would head in the coming years.
Armstrong kept much of the team the same this season, but it is unlikely that will be the case next season. According to CapFriendly, there are 14 players currently on the 26-man roster without a contract for the 2021-2022 season. Nine of them are unrestricted free agents, and five are restricted free agents.
Management must decide which players to re-sign, but also which players to replace. This includes the core players who John Chayka signed to lengthy contracts during his tenure. The players who were impressive or disappointing this season may give Armstrong an idea of who to keep long-term.
7. Jordan Oesterle
Jordan Oesterle was not expected to be an all-star defenseman by any means, but his impressive play in the bubble heightened expectations. Unfortunately, his play this year lacked the reliability that coach Rick Tocchet had hoped for.
In 43 games, he recorded one goal and ten assists. Oesterle’s status as a bottom-pairing defenseman keeps him from reaching higher on this list. He still provided some value defensively, which is what the team needs from him.
He is a UFA, and he may need to take a pay cut on the $1.4 million he earned this year on his next contract.
6. Lawson Crouse
Ever since the Florida Panthers drafted Lawson Crouse 11th overall in 2015, he has never quite lived up to his potential. In 2019-2020, he had a breakout season with 25 points in 66 games. He opened the door for even more offense with the development of an effective backhand shot.
This season, the puck luck never seemed to go his way. In 51 games, he only recorded nine goals and only four assists.
He is an RFA, and his role as a penalty killer and a defensive player should be good enough to earn him another contract.
5. Clayton Keller
Many hoped Clayton Keller would surprise fans in a different way. There was a lot of doubt when Keller signed an eight-year contract that averaged $7.15 million in 2019.
Although his rookie season was promising, he has yet to find that success again. In his rookie season, Keller totaled 65 points over 82 games, averaging just under 0.8 points per game.
In the 56 games Keller played this season, he only scored 35 points or about .63 points per game. Keller struggled to produce for long stretches of the season, and the team suffered because of it. The team expects offense from him too, because unlike players like Schmaltz, he contributes little to the defensive side of the game.
Armstrong likely shops Keller to teams this season, but it’s unlikely a deal works out due to his contract.
4. Michael Bunting
On a more positive note, Michael Bunting certainly surprised fans with an unexpected offense upside. In 21 games, he scored 10 goals and a total of 13 points. This included his first career hat trick against the Kings in a 5-2 victory.
Michael Bunting of the @ArizonaCoyotes concluded April with eight goals in 15 games – the only NHL rookie with more during the month was Kirill Kaprizov (11).#NHLStats: https://t.co/pDHapy9QJE pic.twitter.com/A2I15LPCHa— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 1, 2021
Although it is a small sample size, his shooting percentage ended at 26.3%, meaning he scored about one goal for every four shots. He prospered despite setting a less than ideal NHL record of most consecutive road games (11) before playing at home.
Since Bunting has not played 80 NHL games over his three professional seasons, he is a UFA this offseason. Armstrong should try to re-sign Bunting for a value deal, but he deserves a raise on the $737,500 he earned this season.
3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is another player who suffers increased judgment due to his contract. In 2018, he signed an 8-year deal with an $8.25 million average salary. Few expected that just over two years later, the team would very publicly attempt to trade him. Ekman-Larsson never requested a trade, but he was pressured by the owner and management to waive his no-movement clause. He would only waive to go to the Boston Bruins or Vancouver Canucks, and a trade never occurred in time.
It makes sense to wonder if all the off-ice pressure affected his play this season. His 24 points in 46 games showed a decline in offense, but his defensive abilities also took a hit.
If Ekman-Larsson allows it, Armstrong may attempt to move him again this offseason.
2. Phil Kessel
When the Coyotes traded for Phil Kessel, they hoped to receive the point per game, two-time Stanley Cup Champion. Sadly, Kessel struggled without an elite center or a productive power play. In the 2019-2020 season, his 38 points in 70 games were his lowest since 2007-2008 in Boston. People considered if at 33 years old, Kessel’s play was finally declining.
In the 2020-2021 season, Kessel showed he could do better than his first year with the Coyotes. He led the team in scoring with 43 points in 56 games.
Kessel’s monumental play may result in a trade this offseason. As Armstrong looks to recoup draft picks and prospects, with one year left on an $8 million AAV contract, Kessel may draw interest around the league.
1. Jakob Chychrun
Jakob Chychrun’s breakout season cemented his prominent role with the team going forward. He built on his previous seasons and finished the 2019-20 season with 26 points in 63 games. But even with that offense, defensive lapses in the playoff bubble resulted in uncertainty on how he would perform next season.
This season, he silenced any doubt about his play in general. He led the league in goals by a defenseman with 18 in 56 games. He topped all Coyotes defensemen with 41 points and only trailed Phil Kessel for the team lead. Perhaps most importantly, he was reliable defensively. He jumped into the offense at the right time and returned to defend before getting caught up ice.
Jakob Chychrun leads the NHL in a pretty unique stat - one that measures a skill that’s becoming more and more important for modern defensemen.— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) March 17, 2021
I had a good chat with him about this impressive detail of his game.
Full Interview: https://t.co/sCcUnuidok pic.twitter.com/Nw9q5F2601
His 6-year, $4.6 million contract signed in 2018 looks to be a rare risk that paid off. During an offseason where Armstrong could look to trade anyone, Chychrun proved he should stay on the roster long-term.