Christian Dvorak

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Coyotes betting big on questionable core

The Arizona Coyotes are the NHL’s strange beasts.

For years, they suffered through shoestring budgets as their ownership and arena woes continued into infinity. While there still seems to be some turmoil in that area – their majority owner once again changed this summer – they’re now becoming a team that raises your eyebrows for seemingly spending more than expected.

Wednesday’s announcement of Clayton Keller‘s eight-year, $57.2 million extension serves as the exclamation point on that sentence.

Consider the players who are now under long-term deals in Arizona:

Keller ($7.15M cap hit starting in 2020-21; runs through 2027-28): Many are pointing out that Keller’s contract now makes William Nylander‘s often-criticized deal look quite reasonable, while others groan that with Keller set to carry a $7.15M cap hit, it sets a higher floor for other RFAs, from Kyle Connor this summer to Nico Hischier entering his contract year.

As PHT’s writeup notes, the Coyotes are betting that the 21-year-old has a high ceiling, thus making this a signing with foresight.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($8.25M starting this season, goes through 2026-27): For quite some time, there was angst about OEL leaving the lowly Coyotes for greener pastures. Then the Coyotes sent all of that green his way, really setting the table for this run of early extensions, as they signed Ekman-Larsson at basically the first possible moment in July 2018.

So, the good news is that they kept the Swede in Arizona for the long-term future. The bad news is that it’s possible OEL might not be quite the difference-maker they’re paying for. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn listed Ekman-Larsson as an honorable mention for one of the worst contracts in the NHL (sub required).

None of this is to say that OEL is a bad player. Instead, it keeps with the theme that it seems like the Coyotes are paying premiums for players who haven’t yet produced truly premium all-around results.

Nick Schmaltz ($5.85M through 2025-26), Jakob Chychrun ($4.6M through 2024-25), Christian Dvorak ($4.45M through 2024-25): Again, these players aren’t necessarily “bad,” it’s just surprising to see so many of them get so much term without overly obvious savings right off the bat. It’s the sort of hastiness you’d expect from a team that’s been contending, not one that’s had money troubles for ages and has missed the playoffs for seven seasons in a row.

Beyond that questionable core, the Coyotes are also spending a considerable chunk of change on veteran players like Phil Kessel, Derek Stepan, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Raanta, and Jason Demers.

Even if you give the Coyotes some leeway for absorbing Marian Hossa‘s dead contract, it’s honestly jarring that they technically are out of cap space heading into 2019-20, according to Cap Friendly.

Now, sure, this is a team that nearly made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs despite a plague of injuries, and with all of this youth and the potential boost of Kessel’s sniping, could very well make it in 2019-20 — particularly in a Pacific Division that seems weak on paper.

Still, it remains a bit baffling that the Coyotes are spending this much for a team that doesn’t necessarily wow you with its overall talent.

That said, the Coyotes seem like they’re approaching RFAs as a market inefficiency, and if any players will prove your risks right, it’s young ones. While OEL is already 28, Keller is 21, Chychrun’s run of injuries make him a mystery of sorts at 21, and so on. As we’ve seen with Leon Draisaitl at $8.5M per year, seemingly shaky contracts can end up looking like steals, at least when it comes to players entering their primes.

The Coyotes have to hope this all works out as planned, as they’re gambling big on all of this term for young players, and some pretty big bucks for veterans.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Coyotes sign Keller to massive eight-year, $57.2M extension

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Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka described Clayton Keller as “elite in every sense of the word” in Wednesday’s press release. Considering the eight-year, $57.2 million extension Keller was handed, the Coyotes certainly are paying him as such.

This means that Keller, 21, will carry a whopping $7.15M cap hit beginning in the 2020-21 season, as he’s about to enter the final year of his entry-level contract.

“Clayton is elite in every sense of the word,” Chayka said. “He is not only an All-Star and one of the premiere offensive playmakers in the league, but he is equally special as a person with his drive and determination to be great. We are thankful to Clayton for believing in our future and look forward to him playing a vital role on this team for many years to come. We are also very appreciative of Mr. Meruelo’s willingness to invest in our future and solidify one of our core players here in Arizona for a long time.”

Keller’s agent confirmed details, including the structure (cue ominous music for lockout protection):

After bursting onto the NHL scene with a 23-goal, 65-point rookie campaign, Keller suffered through a sophomore slump in 2018-19, sinking to 14 goals and 47 points. Clearly, that regression — and any other potential pitfalls – did not sway the Coyotes from making this bold investment.

Chayka continues to be a fascinating GM, as while he has something of an analytics background, he also seems to walk to the beat of his own drum. In many cases, that means making sometimes surprising investments, like signing Christian Dvorak through 2024-25.

The analytics community has not been kind to handing Keller such a massive deal, some going as far as to call it “disastrous.”

Evolving Hockey doesn’t love Keller’s chances of justifying a $6.4M cap hit, let alone a $7.15M mark:

Of course, Keller is very young, and could see growth that makes criticisms look unfair in retrospect. Maybe Keller would have driven his leverage through the ceiling by combining his splendid playmaking skills with Phil Kessel‘s elite sniping?

Again, the Coyotes are spending big while hoping that they’re right, and others are wrong.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Arizona Coyotes ’15-16 Outlook

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We’ve often seen that teams committed to suppressing offense can often survive even with a lack of traditional talent.

The Arizona Coyotes know that well, as their better days with Dave Tippett included a three-year postseason run that culminated with a loss in the 2012 Western Conference Final.

Of course, that feels like quite a while ago now, as the Coyotes have missed three straight postseasons.

As mentioned in an earlier post, GM Don Maloney believes they can “compete every night” thanks to Tippett’s game plan and subtle (perceived?) improvements to their roster.

Let’s not kid ourselves, either: the Coyotes conveniently shed some key players in what certainly seemed like a tanking attempt to outside observers. It might not always be pretty, but Tippett teams can at least grind their way to competence.

Heck, Mike Smith even managed a .934 save percentage in 12 games during the month of March, so a mild turnaround isn’t a totally outrageous thought.

Light at the end of the tunnel

That said, the real reason to look on the bright side comes in the team’s youth movement, a trend powered in part by the spoils of tanking.

While fans can bask in the glory of blossoming star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson right now, things could really ramp up in a few years. ESPN’s Corey Pronman forecasts a very different stylistic future for the franchise while ranking the farm system fourth overall.

The Coyotes have long been an organization known for its emphasis on defense and goaltending, but the Coyotes have built a truly elite foundation of young forwards coming up the pipeline. Dylan Strome, Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Brendan Perlini, Nick Merkley, and Christian Dvorak, among others, give the Coyotes a ton of projected firepower. Today, the team is known as a boring, trap-and-defend-style club. In five years, the Coyotes could be a run-and-gun team.

Co-owner Anthony LeBlanc backed up Pronman’s sentiment to Yahoo, saying that other league executives are “so envious” of the group they’ve amassed.

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Long story short, Arizona might be a little pluckier than its 2014-15 record may suggest.

There’s a bright side even if they flop again, though: that would allow them to beef up their already-impressive prospect pool. It’s as close to a win-win situation as this embattled franchise has seen in some time.