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.