Some NHL and sports teams are afraid to use the word “rebuild.” Sometimes calling it “reloading” or a “retool” is genuinely more accurate, as teams try to thread the needle between competing in the present, and building for the future. In the case of the Arizona Coyotes, their rebuild is so full-fledged, maybe it needs an even heftier term.
Call it a reset, even?
Slice it up whichever way you’d like, but this Coyotes rebuild is one of the most dramatic renovations the NHL’s ever seen.
The bad news is that the Coyotes still have a long, long way to go. That tracks both on and off the ice. People will reasonably call this the “easy part” of the Coyotes rebuild.
But even with some caveats, the Coyotes rebuild warrants praise. Frankly, other teams can learn from just how aggressive the Coyotes rebuild has been.
Let’s dig into what makes GM Bill Armstrong’s work, and briefly consider how far they still need to go.
An inventive Coyotes offseason powers rebuild with draft picks
Ever since the Hurricanes bought out Patrick Marleau to land a first-rounder, I’ve been pleading with rebuilding NHL teams to Xerox that template. As promising as the Red Wings and other rebuilding teams have been at times, we haven’t really seen truly savvy “weaponizing of salary cap space” often enough.
Even the Kraken produced underwhelming returns, despite once-in-a-franchise opportunities to exploit other teams’ cap problems for their long-term gains.
Instead, the Coyotes swooped in, taking short-term bribes that other teams should’ve embraced. That “weaponizing salary cap space” phrasing feels too soft for what the Coyotes have done, much like a rebuild almost feels like an understatement. They’ve truly assembled a war chest of futures.
[PHT’s 2021 NHL Offseason Trade Tracker]
If we went over every offseason move, we’d be here all day. Instead, a summary:
- Again, they took on problem contracts of one or two years, knowing they’re in tank mode anyway. That converted Shayne Gostisbehere, Anton Stralman, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and others into a bucket of picks. Theoretically, some of those players could be traded again for even more picks. If not … already a great use of cap space.
- Considering John Chayka’s many blunders, it’s already impressive that the Coyotes used the landmark Oliver Ekman-Larsson/Conor Garland trade to get into the 2021 NHL Draft’s first round. That also softened the blow of the Coyotes’ would-be 11th pick being “forfeited,” yet listed. Strange “hotel not having a 13th floor” vibes there.
- Most dramatically, all of that wheeling and dealing leaves the Coyotes with a ton of 2022 NHL Draft picks. If that draft lives up to the hype, the Coyotes would be in a great place. That’s true even if the Coyotes’ obvious tanking doesn’t net them Shane Wright.
Coyotes are LOADED with high picks in 2022
— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) September 5, 2021
- The Coyotes haven’t just accelerated their rebuild by loading up on the 2022 NHL Draft, either.
They already lined up three second-round picks for the 2024 NHL Draft, while other teams likely don’t feel comfortable looking that far ahead. The sheer volume of those picks could mean more dart throws, or assets to send for more immediate help.
Not every team is as willing to make painful choices like the Coyotes have during their rebuild
Considering Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s plummeting value, the Coyotes pretty much had to get out of his contract. Yes, the Canucks are holding out hope that they can rebuild OEL like a hockey Robocop. But the Coyotes packaging OEL in a way that actually landed them a first-rounder, rather than costing them one to shake that odious contract loose? Wonderful. (Unless you’re a Canucks fan?)
Zooming out, your mileage will vary on other trade sacrifices from this Coyotes rebuild. Conor Garland’s a gem, Darcy Kuemper conjured most of their recent flashes of brilliance, and Christian Dvorak will clearly be missed.
For being the ultimate teammate.
For being Mr. Consistent.
For the face-off wins and stone cold cellys.
Thank you for everything, Dvo! pic.twitter.com/8UMmliPXc0
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) September 4, 2021
In the big picture, it’s brilliant stuff.
At 31, and entering a contract year, the Coyotes risked Darcy Kuemper’s stock falling — or him leaving for nothing as a free agent. Instead, they exploited the Avalanche’s situation without Philipp Grubauer, getting an outstanding return.
Amid Montreal’s offer sheet misery, the Coyotes landed serious draft capital by trading Christian Dvorak. The cost-controlled 25-year-old could very well be worth the price for the Canadiens. But, for the Coyotes? It’s difficult to imagine a solid but unspectacular center moving the needle for a team blowing almost everything up.
[Could the Coyotes rebuild go even further with Kessel, Keller trades?]
Time and time again, the Coyotes exploited other teams’ angst. The Canucks were desperate both to improve (thus willing to gamble on OEL’s scary contract) and also to wiggle out of cap worries. With that in mind, the Coyotes got out of that OEL deal, landed nice picks, and only had to absorb a year of Eriksson/Beagle/etc. pain. Just splendid.
That would all seem like obvious stuff, but other teams don’t always strike when the iron’s hot. Among other things, other rebuilding teams could learn from the Coyotes in being so decisive. A wishy-washy team might have waited too long to take advantage of the Avalanche’s Grubauer situation, among other opportunities.
Most important steps still to come — and go beyond work on the ice
Truly, it’s rare to see a rebuild as dramatic as the Coyotes,’ at least if you focus on a single offseason. You might need to go to other sports, possibly delving into “The Process.”
Yet, despite a series of impressive leaps, this franchise is really just placing the first bricks of a foundation. That’s just how decimated things were after a series of dizzying errors by former GM John Chayka.
Collecting a ton of draft picks gives the Coyotes crucial extra “dart throws.” They still need to hit those targets, and develop players properly if they even select the right ones.
Wade through the Coyotes’ draft history, even just looking at high first-rounders, and you’re essentially doom-scrolling. From Barrett Hayton (fifth overall in 2018) to Kyle Turris and Brandon Gormley, there’s ample evidence that high picks won’t just automatically make the Coyotes rebuild an actual success.
If you only look at year-to-year disappointments, the likes of Scott Wheeler ranking the Coyotes’ farm system just 14th seems less than ideal. With all of the picks they lost because of Chayka’s scouting violations and expensive deadline rentals, though? It could be worse. But there’s still a ton of work to do.
[Looking back at the mess GM Bill Armstrong inherited]
Of course, the Coyotes face bigger hurdles than making the right draft picks, and getting the most out of them.
The Coyotes’ arena problems seem like they’ll never end. If they do, it could take a while. Either way, there’s no denying that money troubles made a Coyotes rebuild a no-brainer. To truly generate optimism, the Coyotes will eventually need to appear viable to potential free agents.
Back in February, the Athletic’s Katie Strang dropped a bombshell report (sub required) about the Coyotes. Beyond illuminating money troubles, it pointed to a toxic atmosphere. Ownership absorbed the harshest criticisms in Strang’s piece, but it didn’t always shine a flattering light on Armstrong, either.
Now, it’s true that successful NHL franchises aren’t immune to ugly scandals. Still, the general feeling is that the Coyotes have a lot of work to do both on and off the ice for this rebuild to actually come together.
Like the Sabres and others have shown, things can unravel in ways both expected and unexpected. The mission has by no means been accomplished just yet.
But give credit where it’s due. Looking at this offseason, the Coyotes have nailed their rebuild. Other NHL teams should take note.
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.