The Arizona Coyotes’ intriguing offseason continued to make headlines last week, as it was announced the club would buy out veteran pivot Antoine Vermette.
The move was just another strange chapter in Vermette’s desert story. The 34-year-old spent three full seasons with the Coyotes before being shipped to Chicago at the trade deadline during the 2014-15 campaign.
After collecting his Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, he opted to return to his old club as a free-agent, signing a two-year deal worth $3.75 million per year.
And yet, here we are just one season later, and Vermette has once again been pushed out by the Coyotes organization. That should not be taken lightly in any assessment of his effectiveness.
It should be noted that Don Maloney was still the Coyotes’ General Manager when Vermette was signed to his new deal, and it was new GM John Chayka that reversed the decision via the buyout route.
So what exactly is next for the veteran?
Vermette’s effectiveness comes down to role. Any club looking for him to be more than a bottom-six presence is going to be sorely disappointed – as was evidently the case with Arizona.
Vermette wasn’t a total bust last season. He still managed 17 goals and 38 points in 76 games, and posted another dominant campaign in the faceoff circle, sitting at 55.8 percent in that regard.
Of course, that performance came with some notable flaws. As our own Cat Silverman pointed out, the most significant of those was Vermette’s troubling penalty trends. Wrote Silverman:
“Last season, Vermette finished the year with six individual penalties drawn… but with 25 individual penalties taken. Per Corsica Hockey, that was good for a minus-19 differential at even strength, worst on the team by a full five penalities (defenseman Connor Murphy was the second worst, with a minus-14).”
Vermette finished the year with 93 total penalty minutes – a career high by a mile. Thus, it seems two main issues sprang up between him and the Coyotes.
The first was the significant penalty issue, which was exacerbated by the fact that the Coyotes iced the league’s third-worst penalty kill, and the second was the price tag that came alongside his performance.
Nearly $4 million per season was plainly far too much to pay for the declining forward’s play, even if he brings a versatile skill-set, and the above-mentioned problematic trends made that price even more painful.
That isn’t an issue anymore, however.
With his Coyotes deal now off the books, Vermette is free to be re-signed to a more reasonable deal – one that aligns better with his current level of performance.
It’s unclear at this point whether or not the Calgary Flames are among the group that have reached out to the veteran, but there’s certainly a case to be made that he could help the club.
Vermette’s value would hinge on the club’s plans for young star Sam Bennett. Though drafted as a natural center, Bennett played the majority of 2015-16 as a winger, skating over 320 even-strength minutes alongside pivot Mikael Backlund.
With Michael Frolik manning the other wing, Bennett and Backlund found quite a bit of success together – posting a combined Corsi For percentage of 51.5 and an exceptional shot differential of plus-20 (132 shots for, 112 shots against).
That being the case, it isn’t inconceivable to think the Flames’ new coaching staff could opt to keep Bennett with Backlund for the time being. And if that is the path they choose, Calgary will have a hole at the third-line center position.
Matt Stajan would seem the natural name to slide into that spot, but beginning the 2016-17 campaign with that configuration would all but guarantee the Flames would be unable to compete with top clubs housing legitimate forward depth. Stajan is still a decent contributor, a solid fourth-line pivot, but he won’t be able to match up with opposing third lines the way that, for example, Backlund would.
And so, Vermette presents an interesting alternative. It’s become clear to all that he’s only valuable on a cheaper deal, so he likely won’t break the bank.
In return, he could provide a notable offensive boost for the Flames’ bottom-six. Vermette may not be the player he was a few years ago, but his 17 goals last season dwarfed the six that Stajan posted, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who considers the two forwards offensive equals.
Vermette would also very likely wind up as the team’s top faceoff practitioner (Monahan led the team with just 51 percent last season) and a valuable veteran voice on a team filled with young stars still trying to establish their identity.
Considering the trouble Calgary’s penalty kill ran into last year, Vermette’s penalty issue could be a problem. However, 2015-16 looks to be an outlier in terms of that aspect of his game. His 93 minutes in the box last season were the most he posted since 2011, and marked only the second time in his career he put up over 52 total penalty minutes.
He could very well continue to get his club into trouble next season, but there seems to be just as much reason to believe he could revert back to his usual level and regain a bit more control over his game. Playing on a deeper club, and in a smaller role, could certainly help matters.
That was certainly the case in Chicago, wherein Vermette racked up only 10 penalty minutes over 39 total games (regular season and playoffs combined). That averages out to just 0.26 penalty minutes per game, well below the 1.22 penalty minutes per game he put up in Arizona last season.
There’s no question Vermette could be a useful addition considering the limited role he’d be asked to fill in Calgary – a team with plenty of promising pieces, but still without the depth needed to take the next step. The biggest hurdle in getting a potential deal done are the pending extensions for young restricted free-agents Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
Calgary has a hair under $15 million in cap space at the moment, giving them little room to work until they know where exactly those extensions land. As we’ve recently written, all signs point to Gaudreau and Monahan signing for something in the range of $6.5 million per year apiece, meaning Calgary would be dishing out a total of $13 million for the pair next season.
That would leave roughly $2 million in space to work with, perhaps more considering the team is planning on moving defenseman Ladislav Smid to the long-term injured reserve, per the Calgary Herald’s Kristen Odland.
If Brad Treliving can lock up his young stars sooner rather than later, and can convince Vermette to serve as a valuable role player on a promising team for a reasonable salary, then a deal is there to be made.
Vermette won’t be a game-breaking home run for the team, but he could be just the low-key move that could bring Calgary’s wildcard bottom-six together, helping the Flames take another significant step forward in their promising rebuild.