Before Saturday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils, the Arizona Coyotes held a town hall meeting open to anyone who wished to come. The event was hosted by Coyotes TV play-by-play voice Matt McConnell. The two guests of honor that answered questions from fans were Team President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc and General Manager Don Maloney.
While some of the discussion centered around the off-ice news du jour, much of the discussion was focused on the Coyotes’ actual on the ice performance. Maloney had one of the more interesting comments in response to question regarding the timeline for the emergence of Arizona’s multitude of prospects:
“The ownership said ‘What is it going to take to build a winner?’ We wanna get to like the team we played on Thursday night (Chicago Blackhawks) or what the Kings are doing. That’s where we think we can get to, but it may take us a little bit of time to get there. There are better days ahead, I promise you that. It’s just going to take a little bit of time.”
A little bit of time is a fairly ubiquitous statement. It could mean a year, or two years and possibly even three or four. The Coyotes are certainly on a rebuilding path, but that path may not be as long as some people think.
The Edmonton Oilers have been rebuilding since making the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. The Buffalo Sabres have been a non-playoff team for three straight seasons going on a fourth. For fans of both of those franchises, a little bit of time has already passed and they are ready for a turnaround. The Coyotes haven’t made the postseason since a run to the Western Conference Finals in 2012, but finished just outside the playoffs in the last two seasons.
This season, Arizona finally bottomed out and the road to rebuilding officially begun. But Arizona’s path back to being a respectable, or potentially intimidating, opponent may not be as long as people think. Here are some reasons why.
1. The Coyotes prospect pool is deep
Domi is the son of former NHL enforcer Tie Domi, but unlike his dad, Max makes his living with soft hands and big skill. Duclair was a third-round pick of the New York Rangers whom Arizona acquired in the Keith Yandle trade. He’s received some NHL experience already in this season, but his time playing on a line with Domi in the 2015 World Junior Championships has everyone excited. Perlini was Arizona’s most recent first round pick and was piquing interest in camp before a fractured wrist determined his early season fate. Since returning to the OHL with the Niagra Icedogs, he has provided 23 goals and 32 assists for 55 points in 37 games. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Coyotes also have 2015 second round pick Christian Dvorak, Domi’s linemate in London and two time OHL player of the month. Ryan MacInnis is also in the system, another 2015 second rounder whose 25 goals and 61 points top the Kitchener Rangers leaderboard. Like Max Domi and current Coyote defenseman Connor Murphy, Perlini and MacInnis are the sons of former NHL players. A trend that continues with Arizona’s AHL talent pipeline.
Henrik Samuelsson and Phillip Samuelsson are both the son of former NHL defenseman Ulf. Both have gotten into a couple of games in the NHL this season and should get extended looks next season.
While not a list with number one overall talent like the Edmonton trio of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, the depth of talent in the Coyotes coffers is pretty strong. And that’s just for non-NHL talent.
2. The continued growth of Lucas Lessio, Tobias Rieder, Klas Dahlbeck and Oliver Ekman-Larsson
The Coyotes added some of the youth to the roster this season as things turned sour and they have received plenty of encouraging returns. Lucas Lessio is another second-round pick, and while five points in 26 games isn’t great, the other numbers show that Lessio’s game has actually been pretty good. He has taken almost two shots per game (44 shots in 26 games) and his possession numbers are not terrible for a rookie on a bad team. Given a little more puck luck, Lessio should be an effective NHL player.
Tobias Rieder already is, with 11 goals and 18 points in his rookie campaign. He had a historic moment in a game against the team that originally drafted him, scoring the fastest two shorthanded goals by a rookie in NHL history on December 1st against the Oilers. At 22 years old, the German born former fourth-round pick should only get better.
Klas Dahlbeck was the player the Coyotes acquired along with a 2015 first round pick from Chicago for Antoine Vermette. Dahlbeck has played all six games with the Coyotes since the trade and the young Swedish defenseman should only continue to improve. As should another 23 year old blueliner from Sweden, and arguably Arizona’s best player, Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
OEL is already one of the premier defenders in the NHL, but he is still only 23 and not even in his prime yet. Yes, he actually has the potential to get even better, which should terrify opponents throughout the league. The Coyotes also have 23-year-old Brandon Gormley and the aforementioned Connor Murphy, 21, that should also grow better with age.
3. The return of Mikkel Boedker and Martin Hanzal
The Coyotes have struggled to score this season, with only Buffalo having a more anemic offense. A big reason for the decline in the Coyotes scoring ability is the extended absence of two of their best players: Mikkel Boedker and Martin Hanzal.
Boedker has been sidelined since January 18th, when he ruptured his spleen in a game against Winnipeg. It was unfortunate for the young Dane, as he was on pace to easily surpass 20 goals and was in a stretch where he had scored five goals in seven games. For a team that has the worst puck luck in the league, losing its best goal scoring threat isn’t easy.
Then add in the loss of your number two center and things get really difficult. Martin Hanzal had eight goals and 24 points in 37 games before going down with an upper body injury after a game with the Torono Maple Leafs on January 29th. Turns out, the upper body injury was a nagging back issue that finally needed surgery to be relieved.
Losing two of your top six forwards for the season hurts any team, but for a team with as little scoring as Arizona has, it’s been disastrous. Both are done for the year, but the good news is, both should be ready to go for training camp next year. Something that is being overlooked in all the attention given to the prospects.
4. The Coyotes have money they will have to spend.
The Coyotes are a team with a pretty low payroll. According to NHLnumbers.com, they have $12.2 million in current cap room. With the NHL salary cap not expected to rise much above $70 million for next season, the Coyotes are looking at currently spending $47.493 million on 23 players. That number doesn’t include raises for any of the eight current NHL restricted free agents on the roster. But the current value of those player contracts is $7.406 million, so that would make the total around $54.899 million without raises if all eight players are retained.
The NHL has a salary floor that every team must meet, but that is in cap number only, not actual contract value. The Coyotes will be carrying dead money in the Mike Ribeiro buyout and the salary retention of the Keith Yandle trade next year no matter what. But they are still below the salary floor. They will have to sign some free agents, but those will likely be role player types, not front line players. Especially given the relatively lackluster free agent class. How does that cap space help the Coyotes if they won’t spend it on free agents?
The answer is in trades. With the cap not going up by much, there will be teams that are right up against the cap ceiling entering the draft and free agency. The Coyotes are prime trade targets for a team with cap issues when you take the prospect pool and likely high-in-a-round picks the Coyotes have. That could entice a cap strapped team to trade a useful and talented NHL player with a high cap number but a lower actual salary to the Coyotes.
For example, the Rangers are currently sitting on less than $1 million in cap space, a big reason why the Coyotes retained salary in the Yandle trade. New York has Derick Brassard, a good player who is only 26. He has a cap hit of $5 million over the next four years but here is his actual salary structure: $6 million, $5 million, $3.5 million and $3.5 million. The salary savings in the last few years would be enticing for Arizona and clearing $5 mil in cap space would help the Rangers. This isn’t a trade that is being discussed, nor do I expect it to be, but it’s an example of what Arizona’s cap space could facilitate in a trade. And that could help the Coyotes get better much faster.
5. The draft itself.
At this moment in time, the Coyotes are guaranteed at least the fourth overall pick. In a loaded draft class, that is premium real estate. The book isn’t closed on the Coyotes moving higher than that as well, whether through dropping lower in the standings or winning the lottery. Picking fourth could land the Coyotes Mitch Marner, the other linemate of Dvorak and Domi for the London Knights. That would make Arizona very formidable in time. But get the top overall pick and add Connor McDavid to Domi, Perlini and Duclair and the Coyotes could be a playoff team that season. There is a reason that tanking has been a Twitter trending topic since the new year.
And finally, the biggest reason the Coyotes road to back to respectability could be faster than anticipated…
6. The man calling the shots finally understands the position of his team.
General Manager Don Maloney didn’t have the greatest offseason between buying out Ribeiro and losing Radim Vrbata in free agency. The Coyotes had lived off of scrap heap reclamations as a low budget team with no owner while a ward of the NHL. But there is only so much you can do with other franchises’ castoffs. And as painful it may have been and continues to be for the Coyote faithful, the unraveling of the current team will help the franchise so much in the future. And Maloney’s ability to find talent in trades shouldn’t be overlooked.
That’s been Edmonton’s biggest weakness in their almost decade long rebuild. They haven’t had the best front office leadership and there is still a question as to whether Craig MacTavish is the right man for the job. Tim Murray is the new captain running the ship in Buffalo and his tear it all down to rebuild approach will either bear the richest of fruits or just miss out on it. But Don Maloney now has seen the path the Coyotes need to take as a franchise to keep moving forward.
“You really have to give ownership credit. They came to talk to me in November, December and what is it going to take to win here?” Maloney said during the meeting. “Really, it’s going to take patience. That’s the only way.” If everything plays out correctly that patience should be paid off sooner than the doubters would have you believe.
Author’s note: all salary numbers courtesy of NHLnumbers.com.