The Coyotes will conclude their fourth straight season without a playoff berth this weekend with games in Nashville and San Jose. While there is no arguing the team has improved from last season’s 56-point low-water mark, there is much work to be done before Arizona can become a consistent playoff contender.
The franchise’s quest for a new arena will dominate headlines over the next two months, but there are several personnel issues that must be addressed this summer if the Coyotes are to take the next step. Here is our top five.
1. Blue line help
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a No. 1 NHL defenseman and Connor Murphy improved so much this season that the Coyotes should feel comfortable having him in their top four, even if he was playing a little over his head in the No. 2 role alongside OEL this season at age 22 (he just turned 23 on Mar. 26). If Murphy’s improvement continues, he could be a consistent No. 2 defenseman, but the team needs another right-handed defenseman for its top four, ideally one to play alongside OEL.
The Coyotes tried to land Dougie Hamilton last offseason, but obviously that didn’t pan out. Maybe they should try to land St. Louis’ Kevin Shattenkirk this year if the Blues truly are looking to trade him entering the final year of his deal.
That would allow the Coyotes to strengthen their blue line depth by sliding Murphy into a second-pairing role where he would still need a partner. Michael Stone and Kevin Connauton showed promise this season, but if the Coyotes could call that their third pairing with Zbynek Michalek and Klas Dahlbeck thrown in, they would be in excellent shape on the blue line.
Stone’s ACL/MCL surgery compounds the need for a another defenseman, however. While the most optimistic estimates have him returning by the end of training camp, the more likely scenario has him missing the start of the season. The defensive corps must be addressed this offseason and once again, the free-agent pool looks thin so it might have to come via trade.
The Coyotes have no top-four defensive prospects either, so they’ll need to address that in the NHL Draft.
2. What to do with Martin Hanzal
GM Don Maloney is on record saying he wants to sign Martin Hanzal to a contract extension this summer before he enters the final year of his contract. In the short-term, this is completely understandable. Nobody else can match up with the big centers of the Western Conference like Hanzal, and he touches a lot of other areas of the game, including faceoffs and net presence.
That said, long-term, it doesn’t make quite so much sense.
Hanzal has never scored more than 16 goals in a season, he regularly misses a good chunk of the season due to injury (he has already missed 16 games this season), and he has a history of back problems. Hanzal will turn 30 in February. It’s clearly speculation, but an extension has the distinct possibility of looking like a bad contract two years down the road.
Plus, Hanzal’s marketability may never be higher. Maloney confirmed that the team received numerous calls about him at the trade deadline. If Hanzal can help land the team a top-pairing defenseman in a trade, why not consider that move?
On the flip side, if the return isn’t that high, there’s no sense dealing him. As Maloney noted at the deadline in Pittsburgh: “It would take a pretty special deal for us to part with him.”
3. Speaking of centers
If the Coyotes do sign Hanzal to an extension, what will their center depth chart look like next year?
Antoine Vermette is under contract for another year with a no-move clause, Brad Richardson played well this season, mostly between Shane Doan and Jordan Martinook, and is under contract for two more years. The Coyotes are looking to clear room for prospects Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak, both natural centers.
Some have wondered if Dvorak could move to the wing, but the organization’s brain trust is unanimous in the belief he is a center and that’s where he will play. Clearly, something has to give. Richardson can play the wing and that might be the move if both Strome and Dvorak make the team out of camp. If one has to play in the AHL for the season, the problem would be solved, but Richardson made it clear he signed in Arizona to play center and doesn’t like playing the wing.
File this under good problems to have.
4. Scoring help on the wing
Mikkel Boedker isn’t coming back to Arizona in free agency and the Coyotes must decide if they want his replacement, Alex Tanguay, back, as he will turn 37 in November. When you look at the top six forwards, it’s logical to pencil in Hanzal, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair.
If Strome and Dvorak both make the team, that complicates matters with three centers, but the Coyotes still need another top-six wing. Arizona likely wants prospect Brendan Perlini to spend a year in the AHL where the organization’s own coaches can work with him after a mediocre season this year in the OHL. Maybe they’ll re-sign Tanguay, maybe they’ll bring back Radim Vrbata at a discount, or maybe they’ll sign another free agent.
5. Goaltending depth
This is less of a concern after Louis Domingue showed an ability to play at the NHL level. Domingue could probably man the backup spot behind Mike Smith, but the Coyotes need another NHL-ready goalie in case of injuries.
That point was underscored when both Smith and Anders Lindback went down this year, forcing Domingue to shoulder a greater load than any other NHL goalie because the team did not have a backup ready to play NHL games. Niklas Treutle and Adin Hill need a whole lot more development before they can make this leap. The Coyotes must sign or deal for a No. 2/3 goalie and then decide whether Domingue would be better served playing a lot of games at the AHL level or backing up Smith.
A final note
The Coyotes have nine players on the current roster under contract for next season, along with injured forward Joe Vitale. They also have at least six key restricted free agents they will look to re-sign (Tobias Rieder, Murphy, Stone, Connauton, Dahlbeck and Domingue), and everyone is expecting Shane Doan to return. That still leaves several spots available and plenty of money with which to fill them.
With the salary cap projections ranging from flat to a modest increase, Maloney expects a number of teams to be bumping against the cap, creating trade opportunities for the Coyotes. It’s one thing to talk about making trades; it’s another to consummate them.
The Coyotes have the second-lowest cap hit in the NHL per generalfanager.com and nearly $5 million of that hit goes to retired defenseman Chris Pronger. It’s hard to know how much of the team’s cap situation was due to Maloney’s budget, how much of it was due to Maloney’s inability or unwillingness to make trades, and how much of it was due to the ongoing rebuild and the logic that it made no sense to swing for the fences so early.
The latter logic no longer applies because the team has a chance to make the playoffs next season with another step forward. It’s time for Maloney to swing one or two of those big-name deals, as the Coyotes already have depth players in abundance.
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