GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes, by any measure, are off to an awful start.
It’s not just that they’re losing. Sometimes it’s by a lot. By three goals, four, occasionally more.
The Coyotes are last in scoring, last in goals allowed and could end up being one of the worst teams in NHL history.
Ugly, yes, but it’s all part of a bigger plan. Well, maybe not the blowout losses or potential for historical ineptitude. That was a bit of a surprise, exacerbated by injuries and one of the league’s toughest opening schedules.
But some tough times were expected before it gets better. Rebuilding projects can be tough to watch while the foundation is still trying to set.
“We had to look at it, are we making the playoffs if we go back and sign some free agents? Might be, might not be,” Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said. “We had to make the hard decision of looking in the mirror and saying, if we’re going to take a run the next five and try to become a championship organization, how do we do that?”
Armstrong was hired in September 2020 after the Coyotes had an acrimonious split with previous GM John Chayka. The upheaval occurred just before the team’s first postseason appearance in eight years, against Nashville in the NHL’s Edmonton pandemic playoff bubble.
The Coyotes managed to knock off the Predators, but were steamrolled by Colorado in consecutive 7-1 losses to bow out in five games.
Taking the advice of a fellow NHL general manager, Armstrong decided to wait a year before making big changes to see if the franchise could get headed back in the right direction or if it needed to switch tracks.
Little changed. The Coyotes were decent, yet came up just short of the playoffs, just as they had so many other seasons.
Something had to change, particularly with the team moving to the difficult Central Division.
All those seasons of trying to add a top-level free agent or bolstering the roster through trades wasn’t working. Fighting for a playoff spot, then getting blown out if they did get in wasn’t what Armstrong or new owner Alex Meruelo wanted.
“If you look at every team that’s won a championship in the last 10 years, it’s all been in the draft,” Armstrong said. “We knew that’s the direction we had to go.”
Armstrong started by firing Rick Tocchet after four seasons, replacing him with veteran assistant Andre Tourigny. Then he went about overhauling Arizona’s roster while stocking the franchise with future draft picks.
The NHL kept the salary cap flat at $81.5 million because of pandemic-related revenue losses, which gave the Coyotes an opportunity to take on contracts other teams wanted to dump while accumulating draft picks.
The Coyotes identified a core group of young, talented players they would build around: Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun, Nick Schmaltz and Lawson Crouse.
They also made the hard decision to trade some of the franchise’s most popular players, including captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, high-scoring wing Conor Garland, physical left wing Christian Dvorak and their top three goalies.
Replacing them was a group of veterans like Andrew Ladd, Johan Larsson and Antoine Roussel, players they hoped could help foster a winning culture while the rebuild got underway.
It’s been a slow roll so far.
Arizona opened the season with one point in its first 11 games and is 2-13-1 after Thursday night’s 5-4 shootout loss to Columbus. The Coyotes lack true top-line scorers and they are the only NHL team averaging less than two goals per game at 1.76. The recent addition of veteran goalie Scott Wedgewood has helped shore up Arizona’s defense, but it’s still last in the league, allowing 3.82 goals per game.
“It’s frustrating. No one wants to lose, and especially you don’t want to lose one or even two or three in a row,” said Jay Beagle, a veteran center who was traded from Vancouver to Arizona last offseason. “That’s obviously been tough, but you have to trust the process.”
The long-term process to build a championship team was to do it through the draft, a blueprint proven by Pittsburgh, Washington and Tampa Bay in recent years.
Armstrong’s wheeling and dealing netted Arizona three first-round and five second-round picks in what’s expected to be a talent-filled 2022 NHL draft. It includes projected No. 1 overall pick Shane Wright, a skilled forward who has been projected to be a generational player in the vein of Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.
The 2023 draft is considered even more talent-rich, headed by center Connor Bedard, another generational-type prospect. The Coyotes should have a high first-round draft pick in 2023 and could get another solid player in the second round.
“You never know, but right now it looks good in both years,” Armstrong said. “That’s an exciting process to go through to look ahead and see what you’re going to get.”
Right now, the Coyotes are getting a lot of losses. It’s still early and rebuilds take time — and patience.