Jakob Chychrun

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Deep defense and lots of questions: Examining Arizona Coyotes’ cap situation

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A shift is happening with the Arizona Coyotes, and if this summer is any indication, this might not be a slow evolution.

Faces of the franchise such as Shane Doan, Mike Smith, and (former) head coach Dave Tippett are gone, but just as importantly, the Coyotes are beginning to use their cap space to add NHL-ready players, rather than absorbing other team’s mistakes or problem salaries in exchange for assets.

This post discusses how the acquisition of Jason Demers makes this Coyotes team one to take more seriously in 2017-18, but let’s go the extra mile and examine the team’s salary structure.

(For cap analysis on a growing number of NHL teams, click here.)

That defense

Let’s start with a unit that’s rising among the league’s best, though still a tier below, say, the Nashville Predators’ impressive group.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: 26, $5.5 million cap hit through 2018-19

You know a defenseman is a deadly scorer when a 12-goal year is a letdown. For “OEL,” 2016-17 probably qualified as much, and yet he’s still an off-the-charts guy. One of the potential bonuses of a competent Coyotes team would be Ekman-Larsson getting more attention as a true star on the blueline.

About the only problem with Ekman-Larsson is that, like fellow high-scoring Swede Erik Karlsson, that bargain deal won’t last much longer. OEL will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Coyotes snatched him up in the summer of 2018. Really, they’d do so if they’re as smart as they seem.

Alex Goligoski – 32, $5.475M through 2020-21

For all the excitement that surrounds the Dallas Stars seemingly every summer, it sure seems like they might have dropped the ball by letting “Gogo” go. He’s a transition gem and an underrated all-around player; hopefully his game will age well, but at the moment, Goligoski’s a very nice value for Arizona. With 36 points, he wasn’t far behind OEL last season.

Niklas Hjalmarsson – 30, $4.1M through 2018-19

Maybe Connor Murphy will pan out for Chicago, but the Coyotes were reasonable in trading some potential for a “sure thing.” It’s difficult to believe that Hjalmarsson is only 30, considering his remarkable achievements.

As one of the best examples of a modern “defensive defenseman” alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Coyotes can lean on Hjalmarsson for tough matchups, freeing more offensive-minded guys to focus on scoring.

The only bummer is that he, too, only has two years remaining on his resounding bargain of a contract.

Demers – 29, $3.938M through 2020-21

Personally, shaving off 12.5 percent of Demers’ cap hit makes it more palatable by an almost odd degree. He’s another Coyotes defenseman who subtly impresses, and at a reasonable price, one made even more reasonable in parting ways with an expendable piece in Jamie McGinn.

The Coyotes have room to either fill in gaps or, if they need to, replace players who get too expensive.

Jakob Chychrun suffered an injury setback, yet there’s still time to assess where he figures into the bigger picture. Adding some firepower also allows him to ease into the mix in a more organic fashion. GM John Chayka can determine if Luke Schenn, Kevin Connauton, and/or Adam Clendening figure into the equation, as all of those guys are on expiring contracts.

Few teams enjoy defense corps as promising as the Coyotes,’ which must be frustrating for other teams, considering that many of these players were available through trades or free agency (or falling a bit in the draft, in the case of Chychrun).

Flexibility but uncertainty in net

In many cases, you’ll see a team immediately sign an acquired goalie to a new deal or an extension. One fresh example is Frederik Andersen, who signed a five-year, $25M contract before he stopped a single puck for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Chayka didn’t do that, or at least hasn’t done so yet, after acquiring Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers.

That could cost the Coyotes some extra cash if Raanta converts his strong backup numbers to full-time expertise, yet it also gives Arizona room to maneuver if Raanta doesn’t pan out. This also opens the door for Louis Domingue to prove that he’s either a) more than a backup or b) a backup worthy of another contract.

Cheap, young forwards

The Coyotes’ forward group feels a bit like Derek Stepan, Dave Bolland‘s cap hit, and a bunch of potential.

Max Domi enters the final year of his rookie deal with considerable dollars to either gain or lose, especially if Arizona rides it out without an early extension. Anthony Duclair is just one of other forwards with something to prove.

Dylan Strome could be a nice little bargain if he finally works things out. The Coyotes managed to give him a look without burning a year off of his entry-level contract, so they could get three years at a bargain rate if it all starts to “click” at the NHL level.

Really, the Coyotes are counting on some ifs turning into an emphatic “Yes” or two. Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller, and Brendan Perlini all have at least two years left on their ELCs, opening the door for the Coyotes to at least fill out roster spots at a discount.

How effective can this group – which also includes some fledgling veterans – be as soon as 2017-18? If nothing else, they should get a real boost from defensemen who can move the puck.

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Overall, the Coyotes are in an intriguing spot, even if they’ll need to battle to make the playoffs.

From a long-term perspective, the real question might come down to the team’s internal budget. If this team starts to make serious gains, will ownership be able to pay up to keep OEL, Raanta, Domi, and other players?

If the answer isn’t positive, the Coyotes might find themselves in rebuild stages over and over.

At least the foundation looks sturdy this time around.

Yes, you can probably take the Arizona Coyotes seriously now

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Even if you assume that intriguing young defenseman Jakob Chychrun won’t really be healthy until late in 2017-18, the Arizona Coyotes suddenly boast a remarkably promising defense after acquiring Jason Demers.

(Read more about that significant trade here.)

Demers joins a group including stud blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson, underrated puck-mover Alex Goligoski, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, one of the best pure “defensive defenseman” in the game.

Jamie McGinn has quietly put together a solid career, yet his kind are easier to come by in the NHL, a league where competent top-four defensemen are at a serious premium. Just ask Coyotes GM John Chayka.

That top four has something for everyone, and generally boasts the sort of mobile, talented defensemen that are coveted in the NHL.

Ask yourself for a moment: how many teams, particularly in the Western Conference, can confidently say that they have a better defense corps than the Coyotes do right now? The Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames are immediate answers, while the St. Louis Blues likely boast a stronger group, too.

Things get a little fuzzier once you reach down the conference’s ranks.

The San Jose Sharks boast bigger strengths on the high-end with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, but the Coyotes might have them beat from a depth perspective. The Winnipeg Jets boast some interesting talent, yet you wonder if Paul Maurice is really harnessing that potential. And so on.

We can quibble over Arizona’s exact place among those groups, yet it’s difficult to dispute that, suddenly, the Coyotes seem respectable in that area.

They have the makings of a team that can make a surge in other areas, too.

If Antti Raanta can covert strong backup work to full-time difference-making (see: Cam Talbot, Martin Jones), suddenly the Coyotes are that much tougher to score against.

Stepan gives that forward group some credibility, while things could get interesting if Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, and Dylan Strome take steps forward. And, really, a signing like this might inspire the Coyotes to push to add a little more offense.

(Maybe older guys [who can be more than mere mentors] like Jaromir Jagr or Denis Zaripov deserve at least an exploratory phone call right now?)

There are a ton of “Ifs,” right down to how well Rick Tocchet can mold what, to many, looks like a roster that’s about as polished as a ball of clay.

Don’t be surprised if the Coyotes become a chic dark horse candidate as previews start trickling in, though, either.

Coyotes will once again be patient with Dylan Strome

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The Arizona Coyotes figure to be one of the youngest teams in the league this season and could have more than six players on their roster under the age of 23.

One of those players could be 2015 No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome, one of the centerpiece prospects of their current rebuild. But just as they have done the past two seasons the Coyotes figure to be extremely patient with their most prized prospect.

Strome received a brief seven-game look in Arizona at the start of the 2016-17 season where he recorded a single assist before going back to the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League where he absolutely annihilated the league for a third consecutive season, recording 75 points in just 35 games. In that sense, he has absolutely nothing left to prove at the junior level because he is clearly a step or two (and maybe more) above the rest of the league.

But the Coyotes still want to make sure he is able to play the sort of game they are looking for at the NHL level before he gets a permanent look in that role. They had no interest in trying to let him play a depth role this past season.

Here is general manager John Chayka talking about Strome’s development and what they are looking for, via Jerry Brown of NHL.com.

“We could have had Dylan here and had him play a depth role or play on the wing,” Chayka said. “He would have been fine doing that, but that’s not what we’re looking for out of him. We’re looking for him to be a 200-foot center who impacts the game in all areas. That’s a very difficult position to play and excel in at a young age. We’re trying to bring him along the right way and do the right thing for the right reason. We are looking for the same thing this year. It could happen for him as early as Game 1 of the preseason, where he grabs a spot and runs with it and away he goes. It’s my expectation that he will have a strong camp.”

First-year Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet has already talked about wanting a creative, skilled team, especially when it comes to the organizations young players, and Strome could potentially be a great — and perhaps even exciting — addition to that roster if he earns a spot.

Along with Strome the Coyotes also have young players Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvoak and Anthony Duclair all at forward and all under the age of 23, while Nick Cousins, Jordan Martinook and Tobias Rieder are all 25 or younger. Injured defenseman Jakob Chychrun is also only 19.

The Coyotes have tried to complement that young core with some veterans additions this summer, including center Derek Stepan, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and new starting goaltender Antti Raanta.

Raanta is ready for the No. 1 job with Coyotes

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Antti Raanta has spent the past four seasons backing up two of the NHL’s best goalies in Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks) and Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers). After handling those duties as well as just about any other backup in the league, not to mention performing better than a lot of the league’s starters, he is finally going to get an opportunity to get a No. 1 job with the Arizona Coyotes after the team acquired him, along with center Derek Stepan, in a blockbuster trade centered around the No. 7 overall pick.

It is a role that Raanta seems to be more than ready for.

He talked about that preparation, along with what he learned from playing behind Crawford and Lundqvist, with Dave Vest of the Coyotes’ official website.

“I have been privileged to play behind Corey Crawford in Chicago and Henrik Lundqvist in New York, and working with great goalie coaches in Chicago and New York,” Raanta said. “… It’s been kind of like a step-by-step process for me. Last year, I kind of felt that my game was finding the right way and my confidence level was going better and better all the time. I felt like I was giving the team the chance to win every night. There’s going to be other goalies and there’s going to be a battle for the No.1 spot (in Arizona), but I feel my game is going in the right direction … and I feel like I’m ready to take one more step and be playing more and get the No. 1 spot.”

He has certainly earned the opportunity to get a No. 1 spot.

Over the past three seasons his .924 save percentage ranks third (behind only the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray) among the 61 goalies that have appeared in at least 50 games during that stretch. His .931 even-strength save percentage is tied for fourth.

He even had a stretch last season where he was playing well enough to take a few starts away from Lundqvist. It’s probably not realistic to expect him to continue to maintain that sort of performance in a No. 1 role (bigger work load, not always getting the most favorable matchups, and all of those variables), but all he has done in the NHL is perform at a high level when given the opportunity.

Probably one of the best case scenarios for the Coyotes is that Raanta is able to duplicate what Cam Talbot has done since the Rangers traded him to the Edmonton Oilers two years ago. Talbot, Lundqvist’s backup before Raanta came along, was also 27 at the time he was traded and had performed extremely well in a limited backup role.

He has been an above average starter with the Oilers ever since.

The Coyotes have made some significant changes this offseason, parting ways with coach Dave Tippett, trading Smith, letting Shane Doan leave and bringing in Stepan, Raanta and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. Those veterans join a young core being built around Max Domi, Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and, of course, standout defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. It has been a rough few years for the Coyotes on the ice, but they have young talent to build around and added some outstanding veterans to that core this summer.

After earning Memorial Cup MVP, Coyotes prospect Dylan Strome faces another important offseason

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Dylan Strome began this season in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes. He ended it in junior, earning most valuable player honors in the 2017 Memorial Cup.

Strome and his Erie Otters didn’t capture the championship, as their season ultimately ended with a loss in Sunday’s finale. The Memorial Cup title went to the Windsor Spitfires thanks to a dominant performance from Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco.

Still, Strome posted 11 points in five games at the Memorial Cup, including a record-breaking seven points in a single game. That was on top of a campaign in which he had 109 points in 57 games combined between regular season and playoffs.

“There are a lot of players who get sent back and have trouble overcoming the disappointment,” Erie’s head coach Kris Knoblauch told NHL.com. “But Dylan has never been like that. That’s a major reason we are here.”

Taken third overall by the Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Draft, Strome began this season with the big club, but after appearing in only seven games with one assist, Arizona made the decision to send its prized prospect back to juniors. (Remember, Strome wasn’t eligible at the time to play in the AHL.)

That 2015 draft was loaded with top-end, first-round talent. It started with Connor McDavid, then Jack Eichel as the top two picks. Strome was third, followed by Mitch Marner at fourth.

The Strome vs. Marner debate and comparisons started well before the draft took place. Marner has played 77 games in the NHL for the Maple Leafs, with an impressive 61 points. Could’ve been rookie of the year had it not been for playing in the same freshman class as Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.

Of the top 11 picks in that draft, Strome has played the fewest NHL games so far. But he also plays center, and physical strength, especially at that position, seemed to be a focal point of his development when the Coyotes sent him down earlier in the year. His skating, too, is something Central Scouting had previously identified as needing improvement, even before the draft.

“I think Dylan, physically, it’s going to take him some time,” said Coyotes general manager John Chayka earlier in the season. “That’s where we got to — that he needs to get stronger.”

Chayka later added that on-ice performance is what the Coyotes would be keeping track of while Strome was back in Erie. Strome was certainly productive — again. He had a goal and an assist in the Memorial Cup final, before receiving his MVP nod.

Last year, Strome made the Coyotes roster out of training camp, along with other youngsters Jakob Chychrun, Lawson Crouse, and Christian Dvorak.