Pandemic Punts: Arizona Coyotes look stuck to start 2020-21 NHL season

Pandemic Punts: Arizona Coyotes look stuck to start 2020-21 NHL season
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Different NHL teams come into the 2020-21 season with different expectations. Yet, with COVID-19 looming to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans, PHT asks: what if each of the NHL’s 31 teams had to “punt” their 2020-21 season? Some situations are more realistic than others, but hopefully this serves as an interesting exercise. In the latest edition of Pandemic Punts, PHT looks at the 2020-21 Arizona Coyotes.

For previous editions of Pandemic Punts, click here.

Chayka leaves behind a mess for Armstrong, Coyotes

In leaving the Arizona Coyotes in a spectacularly messy fashion, former GM John Chayka might as well have handed new GM Bill Armstrong a live hand grenade. Armstrong inherited one of the toughest GM jobs in hockey, if not professional sports.

Most egregiously, the Coyotes blundered their way out of their 2020 second-rounder and 2021 first-round pick after violating the NHL’s Combine Testing Policy.

More understandably but still quite disastrously, the Coyotes also forked over their 2020 first-rounder (and a 2021 third-round pick) in the Taylor Hall trade. While the pandemic made the Taylor Hall rental an even shorter one than expected for the Arizona Coyotes, the bottom line is that it ended up being another mistake.

And when you look up and down that Coyotes roster, you’ll see plenty of Chayka mistakes.

It’s a mess, and the Bill Armstrong era began with a colossal blunder as the Coyotes drafted Mitchell Miller, only to renounce his rights. While it’s tricky to assign specific blame to that error — Armstrong wasn’t allowed to participate in the Coyotes’ 2020 NHL Draft — it’s an ugly mistake all the same.

Merely observe how overmatched the Coyotes were during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and you’ll struggle to find much reason to believe that this team will contend in 2020-21. And that rendition of the Coyotes got clubbed with a Taylor Hall hoping to salvage his free agent value. Without him? Well, the Coyotes’ best chances of competing may boil down to hoping their goaltending bails them out enough to compete.

(Seriously. Even when they beat the Nashville Predators, they did so while depending almost entirely on a splendid Darcy Kuemper.)

Coyotes can really only tank/punt to a limited extent

So, the Coyotes already stumbled into an extremely limited 2020 NHL Draft showing.

Combine the remnants of the Taylor Hall trade (2021 third-rounder) and that rules violation blunder (2021 first-round pick), and the Coyotes can’t even soothe any 2020-21 failures with thoughts of the 2021 NHL Draft Lottery. Brutal.

Considering those circumstances, it’s easier to defender their inability to trade Oliver Ekman-Larsson. While it’s fair to wonder if OEL was worth all of that hype, the Coyotes might be better off seeing if he can regain some value. Again, stripping everything down makes less sense when the Coyotes won’t even get a first-rounder following 2020-21.

At least … the Coyotes won’t receive their first-rounder.

What about going back to the earlier Chayka days, and taking on other teams’ cap problems, for a price? Is there another Pavel Datsyuk or Chris Pronger contract to absorb?

Well, even that is tricky.

Among other holdovers from the Chayka era of errors, the Coyotes don’t really have much salary cap space. Maybe an LTIR move or two could relax things a bit, but Cap Friendly puts them around zero. Stunning.

Pandemic Punts: Arizona Coyotes look stuck to start 2020-21 NHL season Kuemper Raanta
(Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Punting on future possessions? Some Coyotes positivity

To strain that football analogy, the Coyotes are basically hoping they can pull a Donovan McNabb and convert on 4th-and-26.

Maybe hope can come in “future possessions,” then?

Move things down the line, and the Coyotes may see some daylight. If you’re Bill Armstrong, that’s what you’re preaching: let’s make the best of this bad situation, then unveil our vision later.

Consider:

  • Quite a lot of bad money and/or aging contracts dissolve soon.

Via Cap Friendly, the Sabres go from basically hitting the $81.5M cap ceiling in 2020-21 to a hair under $50M to 12 players for 2021-22. Commitments drop again to $30.3M to five players for 2022-23.

While it’s not all peaches and cream even in that regard — it can never be easy for these Coyotes — this still gives Bill Armstrong a pretty clean slate next offseason. Derek Stepan‘s $6.5M cap hit goes off the books. Even the icky Phil Kessel investment ($6.8M) only runs through 2022-23.

  • Maybe some leverage opens up, too?

Memorably, Oliver Ekman-Larsson seemingly only gave the Coyotes room to trade him to the Bruins or Canucks. That’s the power, and peril, of a no-movement clause.

But what if he broadens that group, possibly after a strong individual but weak team season in 2020-21?

With patience, some windows could open up for the Coyotes, including one if there’s a 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. The room just looks especially dark right now.

Some caveats, even with that optimism

Of course, some of those shorter contracts rank among the Coyotes’ best bargains.

Kuemper, 30, could command a huge raise from his $4.5M cap hit after it expires following the 2022-23 season. If Conor Garland proves his 2020-21 breakthrough shouldn’t have been surprising at all, he’ll receive an enormous raise from $775K.

When Kuemper got hurt, Antti Raanta (31, $4.25M cap hit) showed why the Coyotes targeted him in the first place. Unfortunately for the Coyotes, they may not enjoy the Kuemper – Raanta luxury for much longer, as Raanta’s entering a contract year.

(Note: for Chayka’s many mistakes, he had his moments. The Coyotes made some absolutely deft goalie moves, from identifying talent to giving them affordable contracts.)

With goaltending in particular, Armstrong may find himself in a pickle.

On one hand, Raanta – Kuemper gives this flawed Coyotes roster its best chance to survive, if not thrive, in 2020-21. On the other hand, the Coyotes could draw a lot of value out of moving one, or even both, of those goalies.

Simply put, modern NHL goalies don’t tend to sustain Kuemper’s quietly impressive pace. Since 2019 began, Kuemper managed a sparkling .931 save percentage in 66 regular-season games. That’s the highest save percentage of any goalie with at least 20 games played. (Stars studs Ben Bishop [.928] and Anton Khudobin [.927] battled for second. Fourteen goalies managed .920+ save percentages.)

Combine that run with fantastic playoff play, and Kuemper’s stock is soaring. If it made sense for the Coyotes to punt, then it would probably be wise to trade Kuemper ASAP. But without the incentive of adding futures and cynically pumping up their 2021 NHL Draft Lottery chances? It’s less appealing.

(You can still debate that it could be the best move. After all, would it be shocking if Raanta ended up outperforming Kuemper, anyway?)

Deciding the longer-term plan for goaltending ranks as just one of the riddles Bill Armstrong must solve.

Overall: punting is a complex question for the Coyotes

Few teams want to land in puck purgatory. That’s a way of saying “not bad enough to win the draft lottery; not good enough to compete for the Stanley Cup.”

Oddly, the Coyotes might be best served hovering around that playoff bubble, though.

If the Coyotes scrape together a competitive season, it maintains trade value for the likes of Kuemper, Raanta, and even OEL. If the Coyotes are a little too good, it could be a PR problem to sell high. Conversely, a dismal Coyotes team could really submarine those trade values. Somewhere in between? That could be the perfect temperature for that punting porridge.

It all seems … quite difficult, right? If we’re marveling at a strong Coyotes team down the line, then give Bill Armstrong a lot of credit. This doesn’t look easy.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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