© Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Nobody really expected the Arizona Coyotes to come out of the gate flying, although they took something of a step forward in 2015-16. If you’ve forgotten: They finished the year fourth in an admittedly weak Pacific Division, but strong seasons from rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair and Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s best campaign to date gave Coyotes fans plenty of hope for the future. On top of that, the Coyotes firmly planted themselves on the analytics side of the fence when they named 26 year-old John Chayka general manager.
Chayka went on to make some canny moves in the offseason, including taking on some deadweight in salary cap and drafting two first-round picks in Clayton Keller and Jakob Chychrun.
You can’t blame Coyotes fans for being a bit optimistic coming into the year. Not to be dramatic, but they were let down by some catastrophic sophomore slumps, a disjointed roster, and a down year by Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s standards. Look — Coyotes fans can still be optimistic. The best is ahead. Looking ahead is the way to go, because looking into the rearview mirror for this season? Not so pleasant.
The Coyotes were pretty bad this year. Not disastrously so — the nice thing about the Colorado Avalanche being historically awful was that everyone else’s poor seasons paled in comparison — but a somewhat disappointing step down from 2015-16 nonetheless.
As previously mentioned, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair were not able to replicate their success from their rookie campaigns. In fairness, Domi did battle injury this year, and regained his footing late in the season. For Duclair’s part, he took a stint in the AHL before rejoining the Coyotes and looking, well, slightly better than he did before his spin with the Roadrunners.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson also had a rough year by his standards. He still put up 12 goals and 27 assists, but it was still a step back from the year before. However, no matter how seriously we take hockey sometimes, there are plenty of things bigger than the game. Ekman-Larsson’s mother was seriously ill and passed away late in the season, and if his mind strayed away from the ice, we certainly can understand. At 25 years old, there’s plenty left in OEL’s tank, and he’s a prime candidate for a bounce-back season. The Coyotes may have a few things to be concerned about heading into 2017-18, but Ekman-Larsson should not be one of them.
Another thing the Coyotes shouldn’t be concerned about? Their prospect pipeline. Quite a few of those prospects made their NHL debuts this year, including blue-chip prospects Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller — Strome at the beginning of the year, and Keller at the end. Several other rookies, though, made more than just a perfunctory appearance. (That’s not a knock on Strome or Keller — their time is coming, as soon as next year.)
Christian Dvorak, Jakob Chychrun, Lawson Crouse, and Brendan Perlini all played over 50 games for the Coyotes, with varying degrees of productivity and success. Chychrun in particular was a nice surprise, as he played himself into an everyday role out of camp despite his tender age and acquitted himself nicely with seven goals and 13 assists on the season.
Young’uns aside, the Coyotes also leaned heavily on some tried-and-true vets like Radim Vrbata, who led the team in scoring. All the credit in the world to Vrbata, who was great this season, but in an ideal world, Radim Vrbata is probably not your leading scorer. Free agent acquisition Alex Goligoski was reasonably productive as well, scoring six goals and racking up 30 assists — exactly on track with his career numbers.
Speaking of veterans, Captain Shane Doan did not replicate his 47-point season from 2015-16, putting up a modest 27 points in a pretty disappointing year. Who could have called that?
Conclusion: This year sucked. Next year will probably not suck this much, because Ekman-Larsson is bound to bounce back, and there is some serious young talent on this team. Arizona’s roster will probably have a bit of a different look with fresh faces (please, Dylan Strome, I believe in you) and the likely lack of Shane Doan (which is probably for the best), but we can call it now: The Coyotes should be able to surpass their underwhelming total of 70 points this season with ease.
Well, folks. The time has finally come. Chris Pronger is an unrestricted free agent, and for just a small fee, you too can hire him!
In all seriousness, Pronger’s off the books, along with a couple of other old guys. Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, and Zbynek Michalek are all unrestricted free agents this offseason, and sentiment aside, the Coyotes probably won’t be looking to bring them back. No, not even Doan, if they’re smart.
Chayka? He’s no fool. He’s got a lot of cap space to play with, even taking into account that Dave Bolland contract that’s on the books until 2019.
As it stands, Arizona has seven NHL forwards under contract for next year. If you’re of a mind that Strome and Keller will be regulars next year, they have nine. Their blueline is just about set, with seven players under contract. Ekman-Larsson and Goligoski carry the highest cap hits, and frankly, Ekman-Larsson at $5.5 million is an absolute steal.
The point is, the Coyotes are in good shape cap-wise. They’re going to have plenty of flexibility going into next season, and Chayka has some wiggle room as he handles the six RFA forwards who need to be taken care of this summer.
Conclusion: It’s the natural way of the world for old guys’ contracts to run their course, and the world is John Chayka’s oyster. But Ekman-Larsson’s sweetheart deal has two more years, and then a handful of your ELCs are up, and things get a lot more complicated. Chayka has to be careful right now.
Offseason Game Plan
Stay strong. Don’t re-sign Shane Doan. If you must, one year at a discount.
The Coyotes went to a great deal of trouble this year to try to rebrand themselves, even trying this strange Coyotes 2.0 marketing campaign that fell flat, considering the Coyotes did the same old thing they’ve always done: Disappoint their fans.
However, there’s a chance now to give the franchise a new face. As mentioned above, let Doan go. He’s served the franchise well, and a graceful exit is better than dragging out a career to its bitter end. There are new stars on the cusp of breaking into the desert market, and Ekman-Larsson has already been shining in his own right.
This summer should be a quiet one, with no major splashes. The RFAs up for new contracts aren’t big-ticket players, and they probably aren’t the major concern for the Coyotes’ front office.
Luckily, they’re in pretty good shape for the expansion draft right now. Many of the players Chayka would undoubtedly protect are automatically exempt, and the only player who has a no-move clause and therefore must be protected is Alex Goligoski, who would have been protected anyway.
Arizona will take care to protect Ekman-Larsson and Murphy on the blueline, and will likely want protect Tobias Rieder. Other than that… Seriously, almost everyone else the Coyotes would like to protect at this point is already exempt. Consider the following: Max Domi, Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Anthony DeAngelo, Laurent Dauphin, and Christian Fischer are all exempt, among others.
This can, of course, change if (and when) the Coyotes acquire players or re-sign their RFAs prior to the Expansion Draft, but as it stands… This summer is a piece of cake.
Conclusion: Don’t re-sign Shane Doan. And has it been mentioned that the world is John Chayka’s oyster?