Here’s a confession: last summer, I got a little too excited about the Arizona Coyotes’ progress.
It turns out that 2017-18 was a little too early to take the Coyotes seriously, but there are still reasons for optimism. The Alex Galchenyuk – Max Domi trade stands as the exclamation point at the end of a Coyotes fan’s sentence.
Sometimes teams improve by leaps and bounds. Other times, it’s more about baby steps.
After seeing Arizona stumble a bit this past season, it’s difficult to tell how far they’ve come. Either way, there are reasons to be increasingly positive about what GM John Chayka is doing, so let’s lay them out.
- The Galchenyuk trade looks like a win.
Time will tell if it’s a big win (or even a win at all?). At the moment, it seems significant. Sure, one can discuss some of the ways that things might work out better than expected for Montreal, but much of that optimism hinges on better luck for Domi.
If you had to make a safe bet, you’d wager on Arizona’s side. Most GMs would take that.
- Last summer’s trades quietly worked nicely.
There’s a solid chance that tuned-in hockey fans noted that Antti Raanta pulled off a solid first season as a starting goalie, at least after shaking off injury issues early on. He was rewarded with a three-year extension that carries a $4.25 million cap hit, a deal that finds a pretty nifty compromise between mitigating risks for the Coyotes with rewarding Raanta’s patience and hard work.
(Considering his fantastic .930 save percentage in 2017-18 and strong .922 career average, it could end up being a steal.)
The quieter development is that Derek Stepan played quite well, too.
Despite poor shooting luck (14 goals on 209 SOG for just a 6.7 shooting percentage), Stepan still scored his typical 56 points. That’s not a world-beating output, but it’s the type of production that the Coyotes more or less expected from the 27-year-old center.
Stepan can be part of the solution in Arizona.
- A team that once looked weak down the middle seems formidable.
Landing Galchenyuk and Stepan eases the pressure on certain players. If the Coyotes believe that Dylan Strome would be a more comfortable fit on the wing, that isn’t quite as disappointing now.
- They can add more talent this summer.
On one hand, it’s tough to gauge how much the Coyotes can really be a factor in free agency, considering their money challenges. Especially since they’re likely to pay up to extend Oliver Ekman-Larsson once they’re permitted by the CBA.
Still, there’s a chance they can add a small piece or two, and they also face interesting opportunities with the fifth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.
They could add to their very modern-styled group of defensemen (OEL, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers all appeal to “fancy stats” types) by landing a prospect like Quinn Hughes. On the other hand, perhaps they’d add a forward who could make a near-future impact such as Brady Tkachuk?
Sure, it would have been great if they happened upon the top pick and were gifted Rasmus Dahlin, but they can still add a blue chip next weekend.
- Their young players could improve.
It’s easy to forget that Dylan Strome is still just 21. Coyotes fans may always cringe at Mitch Marner‘s superior development (picked fourth after Strome went third overall in 2015), but that doesn’t mean that the ship has sailed on Strome as an NHL-caliber player.
The 2016 NHL Draft presents interesting questions as well.
“Beast” defenseman Jakob Chychrun‘s value is still unclear after his sophomore season was hindered by injury issues. Clayton Keller, meanwhile, looks like a fantastic find; the tantalizing question is: “How high is his ceiling?”
- Enviable flexibility
In recent years, the Coyotes served as an Island of Misfit Contracts, absorbing dead cap space in Pavel Datsyuk’s and Chris Pronger’s deals in exchange for futures. They’ll see Dave Bolland‘s contract expire after 2018-19.
The nice thing for Chayka and the Coyotes is that they can continue in that potentially fruitful direction, but only if they choose to.
Simply put, this team isn’t anchored to too many problem contracts of their own doing. As of this writing, their longest contracts run for three seasons. OEL will change that, and few would really complain. The point is, the Coyotes enjoy the luxury of room to maneuver.
No doubt, the in-house budget stands as a concern, yet the Coyotes don’t need to fret about dollars going to waste.
No doubt about it, the Coyotes have plenty of work to do. The good news is that, so far, this group is getting the job done.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.