Over the next month, we at NHLnumbers are going to be taking a look at where each team in the league currently stands based on what we learned from them last season, and where they realistically can and should go this summer with the resources and cap space they have.
The Arizona Coyotes are one of the most fascinating teams in hockey. Not only do they boast arguably the strongest collection of young talent in the NHL, but they also went ahead and completely reconfigured their front office around 26-year-old fancystats guru and co-founder of the Ontario-based hockey analytics company known as Stathletes John Chayka, who was named the team’s general manager earlier this month.
What this move clearly suggests is a fundamental shift within the Coyotes organization to focus on the use of data in player personnel decisions, which also makes them a trailblazer in professional hockey. Whether you believe in the practicality of analytics in hockey or not, what’s brewing in Arizona right now will certainly be very, very interesting to follow, especially considering they have a massive offseason ahead of them, with multiple draft picks, nearly $40 million in cap space, and damn near an entire NHL roster to flesh out.
The 2015-16 season was expected to be, well, I wouldn’t say a write-off, but one of rebuilding, and, of course, losing a lot of games for the Arizona Coyotes as they went full steam ahead in their pursuit of local hero Auston Matthews. The previous year, the Coyotes did a masterful job at tanking, winning only five of their final 19 games after the March 2 trade deadline, as they dealt Keith Yandle, Antoine Vermette, and Zbynek Michalek to contending teams.
I mean, it was certainly never publicly stated that the Coyotes were intentionally tanking last season, of course, because it never is, but after their blow-up and tailspin leading into the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, and the following offseason with an elite talent born and raised in the desert on the horizon, it doesn’t take much in the way of hard thinking to figure out what their ultimate goal was. Unfortunately for them and their quest for Matthews, though, the Coyotes actually had a pretty decent season last year, leaving them nowhere near contention for the first overall pick. Sure, it would have been nice to win, like, 20 games and have been awarded the first overall pick, because having Matthews playing for the Coyotes is a marketing dream, but you also have to take into consideration what it would have meant for the franchise to have a season dreadful enough for that to happen.
Now, if the Coyotes somewhat overachieved expectations like they did last last season based on excellent seasons from plug-in veteran depth players like Brad Richardson and Steve Downie, I would agree, yes, not ultimately getting the first overall pick would have been disappointing. The team played pretty well thanks largely to performances from young, up-and-coming members of their future core, which, in my mind, is probably better for them than drafting first overall at this point.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson had probably his best season yet — which is impressive, considering the fact he led the Coyotes in goals the year before — scoring 55 points, or 0.73 points-per-game, and putting up a team-leading 51.0 Corsi For percentage at even strength while playing in a variety of different situations. Obviously we’ve come to expect that from Ekman-Larsson, who’s clearly established himself as one of the game’s elite blue liners, but the seasons put together by rookies Anthony Duclair and Max Domi, who finished second and fourth on the Coyotes in scoring with 52 and 44 points respectively, are what really makes the team’s future exciting.
Stats courtesy of Hockey Analysis. Players in italics are free agents.
The Arizona Coyotes roster is somewhat of a difficult one to analyze because so much of it is up in the air right now. They have just six forwards, two defencemen, and one goalie from last year’s team signed into next season, meaning they have to make decisions on eight UFAs and over ten RFAs. That said, pretty much however you slice it, the Coyotes strength, whether it’s current talent on the roster or future talent in their prospect pool, is up front on forward.
Two of the Coyotes forwards that will be returning next season are Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette, which gives the team formidable consistency down the middle. Vermette will likely slide into a defensive role even more so than he did last season, while Hanzal, along with rookie Dylan Strome will be given a good chunk of the offensive minutes and situations that are available. As mentioned earlier, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair each had strong rookie seasons, and will continue to be key contributors in Arizona’s top six.
After that, with forwards, it becomes anybody’s guess, really. Brad Richardson and Jordan Martinook are the two other forwards who played a consistent role on the team that are currently signed into next season, while Shane Doan, Steve Downie, Alex Tanguay, and Boyd Gordon are free agents, and Tobias Rieder and Jiri Sekac are in need of new RFA deals. I would guess that the Coyotes will look to bring back both Doan and Tanguay, who can provide mentorship to their core of young forwards, and also play in a variety of roles up and down the lineup.
Beyond last year’s group, the Coyotes are also loaded with forward prospects who can step in and make an impact. The aforementioned Dylan Strome will certainly crack the roster next season, considering he has nothing left to prove at the junior level. Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini are both be graduating from the CHL and will have a reasonable shot of breaking camp with the Coyotes, but with so many young forwards already assured roster spots, they might be eased into the professional game with Arizona’s new AHL affiliate in Tucson.
The team’s weakness pretty clearly is on the blue line, as Oliver Ekman-Larsson is really the only true, bonafide top pairing option. After him, Zbynek Michalek, who’s adequate in a depth, shut down role, is the only other defenceman who’s currently under contract, unless, of course, you count Hall of Fame inductee Chris Pronger. Kevin Connauton, Klas Dahlbeck, Connor Murphy, Michael Stone, and Jarred Tinordi are all RFAs, and there isn’t any immediate help in the form of prospects ready to step in and fill a big role.
As of right now, the Coyotes are set in net with Mike Smith, who posted a pretty receptacle 0.916 save percentage in 32 games last season. In his absence, Louis Domingue and Anders Lindback shared the job. Domingue had an impressive rookie showing, earning a 0.912 save percentage in 39 games, while Lindback was pretty forgettable with a 0.894 save percentage in just 19 games.
For a full cap and roster picture, check out NHLNumbers.
As I mentioned earlier, the Coyotes only have six forwards, two defencemen, and one goalie from last year’s roster signed into next season. They come at a combined cap hit of just $32.5 million, giving the Coyotes more than $41 million to spend this summer on filling up the rest of their roster. Of course, as we know, the Coyotes are a team that operates on an internal budget, so there’s no way all of that $40 million is going to spent, but it certainly does give them quite a bit of flexibility, and it also gives general manager John Chayka the capacity to make a big move if he does see fit.
Looking beyond this year, the Coyotes are only committed to a few players after the 2016-17 season. Antoine Vermette, Martin Hanzal and Zbynek Michalek will both become free agents, and Chris Pronger’s get-us-to-the-cap-floor space-filling contract also comes to an end. That means that the Coyotes can spend some money and acquire some good veterans without really compromising their ability to sign Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, and other pieces of their young core when the time comes.
This really is the ideal situation for a fresh, young executive to inherit. John Chayka will take over the Hockey Puppies this summer with only a handful of players signed, meaning he can make decisions himself on who he feels are the best players to have around without really having to put much effort into dumping unwanted contracts. And, of course, he’s also got a loaded prospect pool to go along with a core of young players who have established themselves at the NHL level. At the draft, the Coyotes will have two first round picks thanks to the New York Rangers, and all of their own picks aside from their fourth rounder. So, overall, there’s a lot of potential for Chayka to really get this franchise moving in the direction he wants with the roster flexibility he has in front of him.
At the draft, the Coyotes will likely look to add an impact defencemen in the first round, seeing as how their group of prospects is heavy with forwards while lacking on the blue line. At seventh overall, depending on how things shake out, they should be left with one of Olli Juoleiv, a multi-dimensional defenceman who put up 42 points in 57 games this season with Christian Dvorak’s London Knights, or Jakob Chychrun, who also boasts tremendous mobility and hockey sense from the blue line.
After that, the focus shifts to making decisions on which current free agents will be offered new contracts.
Shane Doan remarkably had one of the best seasons of his career in terms of production, scoring a career-high 0.39 goals per game at 39 years of age. Even if he doesn’t put up numbers like that again next season, he’s certainly a player worth keeping around, as once upon a time he was a seventh overall pick who broke into the league immediately after being drafted. The only way I can see the Coyotes not signing Doan would either be his retirement, which he hasn’t given any indication towards, or a desire to play on a contender, which could even be accomplished with him signing in Arizona and then being shopped as a deadline rental.
Of the remaining UFA forwards, I don’t think the Coyotes will be in a rush to get any of them signed, save for maybe Alex Tanguay who actually produced at a fairly solid clip after being acquired from the Colorado Avalanche at the trade deadline. Tanguay, in a depth role, will produce offensively, and like I mentioned with Doan, can provide mentorship to young, skilled forwards. Otherwise, Boyd Gordon, Kyle Chipchura, and Steve Downie can all be replaced by better options on the free agent market, of potentially by prospects who earn a spot at camp.
There are five RFAs on defence to go along with only two spots being filled by Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek. Michael Stone is probably at the top of this list, as he was second on the team behind only Ekman-Larsson in both time on ice, points, and relative corsi for percentage. Connor Murphy will also very likely be handed a new contract, as the 23-year-old showed promise and an ability to suppress scoring chances in the second half of the season. The one defenceman I wouldn’t be surprised to see let go is Jarred Tinordi, who only managed to get into ten games last season thanks to a PED suspension.
I wouldn’t expect the Coyotes to be overly aggressive on the free agent market this summer, even though they have the money to do so. Big names like Eric Staal, Steven Stamkos, Kyle Okposo, Alex Goligoski, and Loui Eriksson likely won’t be chased by the Coyotes, as they’ll try to keep its roster and financial situation as flexible as possible as new, home grown talent works its way up through the organization. That said, if there was a match out there that could make some sense, it’s former Coyote Keith Yandle, who would fill a major need on Arizona’s blue line. I don’t actually expect it to happy, but the fit certainly makes some sense.
The Coyotes are going to be an interesting team to keep an eye on over the next few years. Their wave of young talent is unmatched by any other club in the league right now, and they’ve given the keys to an executive who’s interested in completely changing the way in which talent is understood and, in turn, how teams should be constructed to be successful.
The party starts this summer for John Chayka, who has over a dozen free agents to deal with, but while that may seem like somewhat of a nightmare situation to jump into at a quick glance, it’s actually perfect for a new regime looking to shake things up. Chayka and Co. will have the ability to alter the roster as they see fit, as the team only currently has six forwards, two defencemen, and one goalie from last year’s roster signed. So if there are players they don’t want to have moving forward, it won’t be difficult to let them go.
And finally, while the Coyotes have a boatload of cap space, I doubt they’ll be aggressive in free agency. Management obviously doesn’t want to put themselves into an unfortunate situation in which a bunch of bad contracts from a summer of rebuilding gets in the way of them keeping together their core of young players when the time comes. I expect the Coyotes to add a little bit here and there via free agency to help insulate their young talent, but certainly nothing major.
Previously in this series: