Jakob Chychrun

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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.

Three questions facing Arizona Coyotes

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Can Antti Raanta put together a complete season as a starting NHL goalie?

Raanta’s numbers from last season look quite good at a first glance. On a poor Coyotes team, he posted a 21-17-6 record with a very solid .930 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average.

Truth be told, however, he was horrible in the first half of the season but rebounded in a huge way in the second half of the season, posting 13 wins in his final 17 starts.

His impressive run earned him a three-year, $12.75 million deal in April, and a renewed commitment from the goaltender to spend the offseason working at becoming a bona fide starter.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Questions of Raanta’s fitness heading into last year’s training camp were a concern of head coach Rick Tocchet.

“It’s going to be good for me to know what it takes to play lots of games and it’s going to be good for me to kind of see what I need to do more in the summertime, what I want to improve, and come back stronger next year,” Raanta told the Associated Press after he signed his contract.

A .930 starting goaltender playing 60-plus games will very likely put the Coyotes in the playoffs and would just as likely have Raanta in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.

Can Dylan Strome build off the end of the season and make an impact as a full-time player?

Strome struggled to find a spot in the Coyotes’ roster last season.

Here’s a quick timeline:

Oct. 5-7 – plays the first two games of the season and is held pointless.

Oct. 9 – Sent down to Tucson of the American Hockey League.

Oct. 9 – Nov. 25 – tears up the AHL with 26 points in 15 games.

Nov. 26 – Earns recall back to Arizona

Nov. 27 – Dec. 18 – Scores his first NHL goal but that’s all in nine more games with the Coyote.

Dec. 19 – Sent back to Tucson

Mar. 20 – Called back up to Arizona, this time for the rest of the season.

From that point on, Strome seemed to find his stride, amassing three goals and five assists in 10 games to close out the year.

For everyone involved with the former third-overall pick, it was a sigh of relief.

“We’ve made him earn things, and playing a top-six center position as a 20-year-old is a very hard thing to do,” GM John Chayka told the team’s website in May. I think in his latest segment where he came up and played, I thought he showed a lot of improvement. I thought he proved a lot to himself and his teammates that he can handle that type of role and be productive. He’s been productive his whole life. It’s always good to see progression, and I think we’ve seen that with Dylan.”

A center by trade, Strome could make the jump to the wing.

Do the additions of Vinnie Hinostroza, Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk put them into the playoff discussion, or do they need more?

Those moves certainly point Arizona in that direction.

That’s 53 goals being injected to the Coyotes forward group based on last year’s numbers, and based on that, it would move the Coyotes from 30th place in the league to near the top-10 in goals-for.

That’s an excellent upgrade.

Couple that with Strome turning into the player they franchise wants him to be and Keller taking another step forward (and Raanta playing at his best), and the Coyotes could very much be in the playoff discussion providing they can reduce their goals against from last season. They gave up 251 — 11th most in the NHL.

That issue gets partially fixed if Raanta doesn’t get off to a poor start.

A healthy Jakob Chychrun (knee) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (core) would certainly help matters. Both missed significant time last year as a result of injuries.

The simple truth here is that the Coyotes look better on paper this year.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck