With more than $30 million in cap space, no first-rounder, and a new head coach, the Arizona Coyotes could conceivably surprise us. Instead of rebuilding, they could swerve and gobble up free agents — retaining their own, and signing prominent players from other teams.
Overall, it doesn’t feel like the Coyotes will primarily be in buy mode, though. Back in February, The Athletic released a scathing report (sub required) of not just a “toxic workplace,” but also money challenges.
So, looking at the Coyotes’ Cap Friendly page, you can see some mysteries. Rival NHL GMs should instead look at Coyotes trade targets and pending free agents as opportunities.
One Coyotes trade rumor magnet not to target: Oliver Ekman-Larsson
As you may remember, OEL’s representatives reportedly gave the Coyotes two trade options last summer: the Bruins or the Canucks. Clearly, it didn’t work out, yet reporters indicate that Ekman-Larsson might be more relaxed with his no-movement clause this offseason.
Yet, for a smart front office, OEL’s contract is his real “no-movement clause.”
At age 29, Ekman-Larsson’s $8.25 million AAV (through 2026-27) would be risky, but maybe boil down to the price of doing business for a star. The problem is that, instead of being a star, OEL’s experienced one of the most startling plummets in recent memory.
Evolving Hockey’s player cards capture the bewildering fall from grace quite well. From 2015-16 through 2017-18, Ekman-Larsson was what we thought he was: a defenseman the Coyotes couldn’t afford to lose.
Yet, during the past three seasons, he’s devolved into a defenseman the Coyotes might not be able to give away.
Now, could Oliver Ekman-Larsson rebound? Maybe he’ll thrive with Rick Tocchet out of town? Stranger things have happened. Smart NHL teams don’t just make huge, expensive trades based on hope, though.
Instead, the wiser path is to identify value, and the Coyotes boast interesting opportunities in potential trades/free agent signings.
Potential Coyotes bargains for other NHL teams: trade targets, pending free agents
Now, it’s crucial to realize that the Coyotes could easily strike a deal with pending free agents, especially with RFAs who lack some leverage. They may want to bring back some UFAs, too. It’s possible they’d prefer to wait for the smoke to clear with the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, among other variables.
Still, here are some potential Coyotes trade/free agent targets who should be on other teams’ radars.
Conor Garland, emerging star
Bafflingly, the Coyotes reportedly pondered trading Conor Garland during the trade deadline. On June 23, Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli reported that there wasn’t much communication between the Coyotes and Garland’s representatives after his agent submitted potential contract proposals.
As an RFA, Garland is subject to some of the Coyotes’ whims. It’s perfectly plausible that they’ll simply hash out a new contract. Frankly, it would be in the Coyotes’ best interest, as they’re not exactly brimming with potential prime-age stars.
Conor Garland doesn't get nearly enough love for how good he is + how fun he is to watch. His highlight reel this season is absolutely filthy. pic.twitter.com/LHqAgdqyn7
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) March 10, 2021
Now, the disconnect might be that the Coyotes don’t want to pay Garland as if he’s a true core player. It’s great that, as Five for Howling’s Sarah Bird notes, Garland was the best cost-per-point player in the NHL last season, generating 39 points in 49 games on a microscopic $775K cap hit. The Coyotes might just not want to pay more money for those points.
If the price is wrong for the Coyotes, someone else could get a real bargain for Garland. He won’t be as dirt-cheap as his last contract was, but he still could provide excellent value. It’s just unclear where he might be providing strong bang-for-the-buck.
A potentially lucrative reclamation project in net
When the Coyotes brought in Antti Raanta, they were hoping a consistently great backup could progress to become a standout No.1 goalie.
With a strong .921 save percentage over four seasons with the Coyotes, he’s technically stopped pucks at that level. The problem is that he’s rarely been healthy enough to even flirt with the workhorse status one associates with a top goalie.
After playing 47 games in 2017-18, Raanta was limited to 12 games both last season and in 2018-19, while he played in 33 games in 2019-20. Even with COVID possibly throwing off chances to rack up reps, that’s alarming.
But those factors could also make Antti Raanta a worthwhile “buy low” candidate. Some of that boils down to due diligence. If your people think that Raanta can at least play often enough to be a “1B” goalie, you could arm yourself with enviable goaltending depth at a nice value. If those injury issues persist, or limit his effectiveness, then you might be just as frustrated as the Coyotes likely have been.
At minimum, Raanta’s a gamble worth considering.
Veteran defensemen who might flourish in the right situations
Like with Raanta, there are buyer beware elements to even the most marketable of those three. Most obviously, they’re all old enough to be past their primes (Demers is 33, Hjalmarsson is 34, and Goligoski is 35).
So it would be foolish to look at them as the solution to big problems, and maybe even unwise to view their ceiling as anything beyond a fourth or fifth defenseman. Ideally, these options would be of the supplemental variety.
In the cases of Hjalmarsson and Goligoski, they could fit quite well into very specific roles. Hjalmarsson is almost comically one-sided as a defensive stalwart and offensive liability, while Goligoski could be most useful in opposite areas. Consider how they line up by this even strength RAPM comparison from Evolving Hockey:
No, you wouldn’t break the bank for either Goligoski or Hjalmarsson if the Coyotes allow them to reach free agency. You certainly won’t want to put Hjalmarsson in many scoring situations. But if the market is relatively tepid on them, they could be specialists who can boost your defense. That’s more than you can say for most of the UFA defensemen options, at least once you get beyond someone who could cost an arm and a leg like Dougie Hamilton.
Some other tidbits
- In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman mentioned Coyotes center Christian Dvorak as a potential trade target.
For the purposes of this post, Dvorak sits in the murky middle. At 25, he’s affordable with a $4.45M AAV that’s cost-controlled through 2024-25. He’s more solid than especially intriguing, though, so it would boil down to how much the trade would cost in assets, and how much a given team likes Dvorak as a player.
- Here’s one interesting change of direction: what about Phil Kessel? After all, Rick Tocchet was a selling point to Kessel accepting a trade to the Coyotes, and now Tocchet is gone.
Now, here’s an important if unpleasant note. After scoring enough to (mostly) overcome his defensive shortcomings in Pittsburgh, Kessel’s really struggled with the Coyotes. The defense remained porous, while his offense festered. (Whether the empty-calorie points happened or did not, his ability to drive offense basically evaporated.)
So, if I were a rival GM, I wouldn’t be giving up something to get Kessel; instead, I’d want a bribe to take him. In other words, I’d float the type of deal where the Hurricanes received a first-rounder for taking on Patrick Marleau‘s contract from the Maple Leafs.
Kessel, 33, carries a $6.8M AAV (after salary retention), and his contract expires after next season. Via Cap Friendly, Kessel’s deal boasts a $5M signing bonus and $1M base salary for 2021-22.
If you’re the Coyotes, you’d probably love to get out of that last year, especially before the signing bonus kicks in. A rebuilding team (or, with the Kraken, a building team) should pounce on that opportunity — assuming Kessel would comply.
For the Kraken or a rebuilding team, there’d be worse options than just sort of enjoying Kessel’s presence, right?
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) May 8, 2021
To reiterate: the Coyotes may bring several of these free agent/trade targets back. Letting Garland go to save a few bucks would be especially egregious. And even an, um, cost-conscious team like the Coyotes needs to get to the cap floor.
But if the Coyotes would listen to offers, I’d call them up. Their loss could be another team’s considerable gain.
(Just don’t call about OEL.)