It’s Thanksgiving this week in the United States, and the holiday season is right around the corner. Like the last few years, PHR will take a look at what teams are thankful for, but this year comes with a bit of a change. Normally teams would have an idea of where their season was heading, coming up on the one-quarter mark with mountains of statistics to analyze. Instead, in this unprecedented year, the season hasn’t even begun. We’ll still take a look at what each group is excited about and what each team could hope for once the calendar turns to 2021.
What are the Coyotes most thankful for?
2020 has not been good to the Coyotes. The team was docked draft picks for improper prospect testing, had its general manager leave the team right before the postseason began and then watched Taylor Hall—who cost three prospects and two high draft picks—leave in free agency only to sign a one-year deal in Buffalo, a team that has had even less on-ice success in recent years. Then what was left of the scouting department, running the draft without input from a new GM, selected a player who was immediately in the middle of a public relations firestorm, with the team eventually renouncing his rights. The Coyotes ended up with just four players from the 2020 draft, none selected higher than 142nd.
It was just blow after blow to an organization that seemed to be headed in the right direction after securing new, stable ownership last year.
Now, thankful for Bill Armstrong finally taking the reins of the front office, the Coyotes have a long way back. Armstrong has already made an important move, even if it did fly somewhat under the radar in NHL circles. The Coyotes secured the employment of Darryl Plandowski, who served as assistant director of amateur scouting in Tampa Bay. Plandowski is very well-respected across the industry as a leading scouting mind and hopefully will be able to turn around a department that caused catastrophic penalties for the organization, not to mention the fact that out of the last four Coyotes drafts (not including 2020), only Jakob Chychrun, Clayton Keller and Barrett Hayton have actually made it to the NHL. Armstrong and Plandowski have a ton of work to do.
Whom are the Coyotes most thankful for?
It seems clear now that Keller isn’t going to become the franchise-leading, game-changing offensive presence that the Coyotes hoped they were going to get when they selected him seventh overall in 2016. It’s not that Keller is a bad player, far from it. But since scoring 65 points in his rookie year and finishing third in Calder voting, he hasn’t taken any real developmental steps—even seeing his scoring totals go down in each following season. Keller is only just beginning an eight-year extension signed last September, which will carry a $7.15M cap hit through the 2027-28 season. Even if he does get back on track and improve his offensive totals, that deal doesn’t leave a lot of chance for excess value.
But all is not lost. The Coyotes had another first-round pick in 2016, this one 16th overall. That’s where they selected Chychrun, who, despite dealing with injury, has developed into a legitimate force on the blue line. Now four years into his NHL career, Chychrun looks like he will be a horse for the Coyotes as an all-situations defender who can log huge minutes. He averaged more than 22 minutes a night in 2019-20, reaching a new career-high in goals with 12 and points with 26 despite playing in just 63 games. Unlike Keller, Chychrun’s long-term deal, signed in 2018, looks like a steal for the Coyotes moving forward. Not only does he carry just a $4.6M cap hit through 2024-25, but the deal is also heavily back-loaded, meaning Chychrun will only actually earn $3.3M in salary this season. With the financial environment so uncertain, value like that is hard to come by in the NHL.
What would the Coyotes be even more thankful for?
A seller’s market at the trade deadline.
The Coyotes made the postseason this past year and have their sights set on it again, but it’s plain to see that this iteration of the team will have a hard time actually contending for a Stanley Cup. However, the Coyotes may be able to build a new wing for their prospect cupboard if they decide to sell off some assets at the deadline. Derek Stepan, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Jordan Oesterle, Ilya Lyubushkin and Antti Raanta are all pending unrestricted free agents, and though many of them have big cap hits, the actual salary owed by deadline time will be relatively low. If Armstrong plays his cards right, he could potentially add a massive wave of draft picks and prospects to the organization, provided there is a market for this group of veterans (and he’s willing to sell).
What should be on the Coyotes’ holiday wish list?
There are good prospects in the Arizona system, make no mistake. Hayton is already ready for prime time, and Victor Soderstrom is among the handful of best defensive prospects in the league. But you can’t just punt on an entire draft class unless you’re already one of the elite teams in the league. Not only did Arizona come away from this draft without any sure-fire NHL prospects, but the Coyotes don’t have their first or third for the 2021 draft either. There’s no way the organization will be able to climb the NHL ladder with that kind of gap in development, meaning it needs to find a way to add picks this season. Whether that’s through selling off expiring deals or even potentially trading the captain, it’s imperative for Arizona to get back into the early rounds.