The obstacles of struggling to score goals and staying healthy didn’t force the Arizona Coyotes to wither and eye the NHL draft lottery last season. Instead, it was a “next man up” mentality that head coach Rick Tocchet continued to bark out to his players that put the team deep into the race for one of the Western Conference wild card spots.
The effects of losing a different teammate seemingly every week to another injury could have led to a team fading away, but the Coyotes’ close proximity to the wild card race was a key factor in not letting the situation take a toll on the roster.
“It’s a big kudos to our coaching staff and our general manager and our leadership group and our young guys to stick with the process, even though we had new bodies coming in almost every day,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago.
The Coyotes finished with 386 man-games to injury or illness last season, third-highest in the NHL. But their goaltending, led by Darcy Kuemper, who filled in for the injured Antti Raanta, was a big bright spot, as was their penalty kill, which tied for league best at 85%. The area of goal scoring, however, needed some help. Their 131 even strength goals were worst in the league, per Natural Stat Trick. To help solve that problem Alex Galchenyuk was traded to Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel, who is currently 43 goals away from 400 in his career.
It’s the confidence built up after overcoming last season’s hurdles and the addition a top offensive star in Kessel that has Stepan believing the playoffs can be a reality next spring.
“I certainly don’t see why we wouldn’t expect that,” Stepan said. “We were close last year. I think Chayka did a really good job of adding pieces to help us on the offensive side of the puck. It comes with that work ethic that we had at the end of last year, we kind of built that identity. I’m going into [the season] expecting to be in the playoffs this year.”
Stepan, who wasn’t sure yet if Tocchet would start him on a line with Kessel, added that the trade “re-energized” the Coyotes roster and with some internal improvementswhat held them back last season won’t stand in their way in 2019-20.
As far as integrating Kessel’s unique personality into what he described as a tight-knit dressing room, the veteran Stepan is eager to add the sniper to the group.
“I’m OK with him being a different cat,” Stepan said. “We’ve got a lot of dogs on our team. We could usea cat.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Arizona Coyotes have crawled up the Western Conference standings and have surprisingly played their way into the wild card race. With a roster that is second in the NHL with over 300 man-games lost to injury, they currently sit three points behind the Minnesota Wild with a game in-hand.
In the thick of the wild card race, you won’t find Coyotes general manager checking his phone to see the out-of-town scoreboard or updated standings on a nightly basis, however.
“You know what, we’ve got so many things going on here, and our guys have been on a roll that I just know if we keep taking care of things and keep winning we’ll be in a good spot,” Chayka told Pro Hockey Talk on Friday. “I can honestly tell you I don’t do a ton of scoreboard watching.”
While only three of their final 11 games in March are against teams currently occupying playoff positions, every game for the last few weeks has been “playoff mode” for the Coyotes. Fortunately for them, the players have stepped as injuries ravaged the lineup, including Darcy Kuemper, who’s played a career high in games (41) this season after Antti Raanta went down.
“This is the story of our season,” Chayka said. “A guy gets an opportunity they might not of otherwise had with some of the injuries and he steps up and elevates his game. He’s been a big story for us. He’s been a rock for us back there. He gives the guys a lot of confidence and allows them to go and play their game. Credit to [head coach Rick Tocchet], too, because he’s got the guys playing a very detail-oriented system, limiting chances and when there are chances given up, obviously Darcy’s done a nice job of stopping them. Any time you get a guy like that to step up, a goalie, be a No. 1 and stop as many pucks as he has, it’s a good thing for us.”
We spoke to Chayka about the Coyotes dealing with injuries, his approach to the NHL trade deadline, Dylan Strome’s success in Chicago and more.
Q. What’s impressed you most about your team this season and the way they’ve taken to the “next man up” mentality with all the injuries?
CHAYKA: “Just the leadership, and as a result, the resiliency. Rick Tocchet’s the ultimate leader of our team as a head coach. He hasn’t wavered, he hasn’t complained, he hasn’t felt sorry for us the next day after a big injury or two — it just seemed like every day we were getting a different one. He’s done a great job of keeping guys steady and obviously, [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson, first year as captain, new role. Some guys have trouble with it, some guys excel. I think he’s excelled. Him and Tocc together have been a great leadership duo through the good times and the bad here.”
Q. Was there a point this season where another guy went down and you’re like, ‘Come on, really?'”
CHAYKA: “Yeah, I lost count after a certain number. You know, injuries are part of the game. I think we did everything in our power in the off-season to add as much depth as possible in the event that you lose some guys. It’s not just the number of games lost, it’s really been the combinations of premium position players that have gone down. That’s been the frustrating part, but everyone deals with injuries. I think our guys have done a helluva job of managing it and staying steady. Now we’re in a place where we’re getting some guys back, too, and ready to make a push. It’s out of your control, for the most part, so you deal with it.”
Q. Are you surprised that with 300-plus man games lost you’re right in the mix for a wild card spot this late in the year?
CHAYKA: “If you had told me that was the case when we were perfectly healthy we probably would have taken that, too. We’ve shown great improvement year over year. Our young players continue to get better and continue to drive us and we want to play meaningful games down the stretch here and get ourselves a chance to play in the playoffs. We’ve had to weather the storm a little bit through the year. In a lot of ironic ways it’s been a really good season and hopefully our guys can have a good run down the stretch here and get us in.”
Q. You don’t want to make a panic move in response to injuries, but were you a little more aggressive around the trade deadline in seeking out some additional help to try and boost this chase for a playoff spot?
CHAYKA: “We worked hard at the deadline. We had a lot of conversations. We looked to improve our group. I think the key was that we’ve got a group here that’s done a good job and got us this far and in order to improve on our group we had to get a really good player. The status quo with some of these guys that come up, the [Conor] Garlands and the [Mario] Kempes and [Lawson] Crouses have elevated their games, and [Josh] Archibald’s been one of our better players the last number of games here. If someone was coming in to displace a player, they had to be a really good player. We wanted to do something that could make sense for now and in the future. We were willing to do some moves that we thought would part with significant futures, but it had to be the right fit, and unfortunately we weren’t able to find something that made sense. But again, we believe in this group. They’ve brought us this far and we thought we owed it to them to see it through and allow them to sink or swim, and so far they’ve been doing a heckuva job.”
Q. A number of players on the roster are young and have yet to experience playoff hockey. Playoffs or not this season, the intensity of the games of late has to be providing them with some valuable experience going forward.
CHAYKA: “Yeah, the last few months the [Jakob] Chychruns, the Kellers, the [Christian] Dvoraks, the [Christian] Fischers, Garlands, they’re all learning a lot and they’re learning by trial by fire right now. It’s great and it’s good experience for them. But I also know that these are guys that we selected for a reason and made them a part of our core future because they won at all levels, they expect to win, they expect to be the best, and they’re not taking anything for granted down the stretch. They want to get in, they want to be the best and that’s what drives these guys, and that’s why I think we’ll have success.”
Q. Do you look at what Dylan Strome has done in Chicago since the trade, and even Max Domi in Montreal, and ask yourself, ‘Did we give up on them too early?’
CHAYKA: “Our goal through trades is you draft players that you can draft and develop, but at some point you’re drafting for asset value and you’ve got to put together a team. You’re trying to find the right combination and right chemistry for your group. Obviously with Alex Galchenyuk, you get a pure goal scorer, a guy that can shoot them with the best in the league. There were many times last year where we were in a tight game, 1-1, with five minutes left and we get a chance and we can’t score and the other team gets a chance and their guys score and we lose the game. This year the tables have turned in that sense where Alex and Vinnie Hinostroza, some of these guys have come in and they’ve made a big play at the right time and that’s what we were looking for.
“You get a young scorer like Alex, [that] was something we were after and you’ve got to give to get. The same thing with Nick Schmaltz. With our system, with our style of play, we felt like speed through the middle of the ice is a rare asset and [he’s] a guy that can not only skate but make plays and make his teammates better and linemates better and think at a very high level and skate with a guy like Clayton Keller. We thought that that was something that really aligned with our vision of how we wanted to build out our team.
“We traded some good players and we got some good players in return. The end result will be what our group does here and so far we’ve been able to string together a really good stretch of games with a really good team. That was our goal in making those trades.”
Q. What characteristics did you see in Rick Tocchet that made him your No. 1 choice when seeking a head coach?
CHAYKA: “I don’t think people know who good of a coach this guy is. Just to see him day in, day out with what he’s capable of doing. His ability to wear many different hats and do it in a way that is very genuine, I think that’s been the key. He’s a hard-driving guy. He wants to win, he’s passionate, he’s won at all levels and won at the highest level in his career as a player and a coach. He knows what it takes and wants to impress upon our group what it does take. When I was hiring a head coach I was looking for a partnership, someone that can come in and I can work with that had a shared vision that I could trust. I’ve allowed Tocc to run his team and develop the systems and culture he thought would be best and so far he’s done a phenomenal job of that.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for turning around a culture and a franchise and getting us on the right track and getting the most out of his players every single night. That’s what he’s done.”
You have the power to name to the expansion NHL Seattle franchise. What are you choosing?
SEAN: Kraken is already a popular choice, and as a fan of hockey history (and their original jerseys) I’d love to see the Seattle group bring back the Metropolitans name. But do you then keep the Metropolitan Division name? The NHL is stubborn for change sometimes, so I doubt it.
Let’s get crazy in this post-Gritty world and go with Sasquatch. It’s perfect for the region (ever watch “Finding Bigfoot?”) and would allow Seattle to welcome back Squatch, the Sonics old mascot. The jerseys would be great. The plushy toys at the arena team stores would be sold out on a regular basis and he’d be a welcomed addition to the annual mascot game during All-Star Weekend.
Squatch is legendary, and with the NBA likely returning to Seattle at some point, might as well get him started before he has double duty. He was a dynamic performer, willing to take big risks to entertain the crowd, and even had his own theme song, thanks for Chris from Presidents of the United States of America:
JAMES: Deep down, my answer is the Sonics/Supersonics, but I’m aware that a ton of people from Seattle are giving me the stink-eye just for bringing that up, so I relent. Go ahead and name the Seattle team after the Kraken, or some other mystical and/or tuff beast.
For my money, the greater battle revolves around the mascot.
Allow me to introduce “Jittery,” an anthropomorphic cappuccino mug with cartoonish arms, legs, and comical googly eyes. Let’s face it; we’re in a Post-Gritty world, so you have to go big – which usually means some combination of garish, frightening, funny, and cute – or go home.
Jittery would have the potential to edge the Golden Knights’ gila monster, with the far-flung dream of at least competing with Gritty for viral potential/mindshare.
The greatest potential would be in what you could put in the Jittery’s head, which, again, is a coffee mug. Would mysterious, coffee-like liquid splash out of its head when Jittery is excitedly celebrating a goal? Would Jittery cry coffee tears upon defeat? Maybe you could fill Jittery’s head with toys/treats for the kiddos, and the young-at-heart. Just imagine Seattle winning a Stanley Cup, but drinking out of their mascot’s head, instead.
This is clearly a bullet-proof, genius concept, and I demand royalties.
ADAM: I know there is virtually no chance of it happening, and I think any reference to it has always been made in a joking manner (or maybe even a half-joking manner), but I am 100 percent on board with the Seattle Sasquatch. I think the biggest reason I like it is just for the mascot possibilities. Look at how crazy everyone went over Gritty. But I think Sasquatch seems to have just as much potential, maybe even more. Think Harry from Harry and the Hendersons.
But given that Sasquatch doesn’t seem to be a realistic option, I think I can accept Kraken. I was originally opposed to the Sockeye suggestion but I’ve even come around on that, too, and I assume Sockeye Salmon hitting the ice will be a thing at some point no matter what. I’m not on board with Metropolitans. I get the history — and I love hockey history — but we need something new, fresh, unique. Sasquatch is the answer.
JOEY: I’m going with Metropolitans. That was the team’s name when they became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup in 1917, and that’s the name they should keep. Yes, I realize that you’d have to re-name the Metropolitan Division, but I don’t care. There’s hockey history behind the name and I think it would be pretty cool if they came back with it in 2021.
SCOTT: Seattle Kraken. Scrap the skyscraper odes and all that other garbage and RELEASE THE KRAKEN!
I’m all for this shift in marketing philosophy made popular by the Philadelphia Flyers this year with Gritty. It’s opened the door to other possible ideas that are, well, not just the same old cliche, safe stuff we’re used. Seattle Kraken has so much potential. Incredible jerseys, a ridiculous number of options for a mascot, a title sponsor with the Kraken Rum brand. There’s probably some death metal band with Kraken in their name that could sing the anthems and fit right into the Seattle music scene vibe.
I’m not holding out much hope here. They’ll probably be named the Skyscrapers or something like that with the Space Needle as their logo and some type of fish as a mascot.
We talk a lot about head coaches and hot seats, but what about some general managers who could follow in Ron Hextall’s footsteps out the door?
SEAN: It’s pretty amazing that Marc Bergevin’s seat has cooled considerably when you think about all the talk last season, but the Canadiens are playing better than expected and owner Geoff Molson isn’t close to making that kind of move.
Two GMs who should be feeling the heat are Doug Armstrong and Stan Bowman. I’ve harped on Armstrong since the Mike Yeo firing and am curious how long owner Tom Stillman will wait before making a change. Another season appears to be wasting away and some big names could be out the door by the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Then what? It won’t be a complete teardown, just a retooling if that’s what happens. But does he get one more season to make it work?
The move to fire Joel Quenneville hasn’t gone as planned and Chicago could be another place where big names are dealt, whether by the trade deadline or in the summer. Bowman’s helped construct championship teams and now some of those heavy-term, big money extensions have hamstrung building around the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat. Another playoff-less season won’t make upper management happy and you wonder if the changes won’t stop with Quenneville.
JAMES: Honestly, it boggles my mind that Peter Chiarelli survived last season, so if his Hitchcock Hail Mary falls short, that Oilers era should come to a merciful end. It’s nigh-criminal to accomplish so little with Connor McDavid and a bucket of other high-profile picks (which Chiarelli’s squandered either through trades, bad picks, or stuttered development).
I like a lot of what Doug Armstrong’s managed, particularly since – beyond Alex Pietrangelo – the Blues really haven’t been built by lottery picks. Still, it’s clear that the Blues need a change of direction, and a fresh voice would be more inclined to undergo the painful, necessary surgery to right the ship … which may, in fact, come down to trading Pietrangelo.
There’s also Ken Holland, if the Red Wings truly are planning on moving to Steve Yzerman, but can’t say out loud because of tampering.
Three more who I’d say are less pertinent, but interesting to watch:
• Jim Nill – Yes, he’s made some great trades, not unlike Armstrong. But the Stars also failed to truly take advantage of Jamie Benn‘s former-bargain contract, and seem headed toward the same with Tyler Seguin‘s $5.75M expiring after 2018-19. They’ve made significant missteps in slowing down their style (baffling with Seguin & Co. as their best players), failed to find difference-making goalies despite paying huge money, and have whiffed hard on some key drafts. Nill’s been there since April 2013. It’s fair to wonder about him if Dallas can’t make big strides.
• John Chayka – The Coyotes are in a much better place than they were when Chayka took over, and it would be nice to see him get some more time to bring them to the next level.
Sometimes sports can be especially cruel, however, and there are factors that make you wonder about Chayka. For one, the Coyotes have made some bold moves to get better, yet they seem on track to miss the playoffs once again. Ownership might grow impatient.
Let’s not kid ourselves, either: the ownership situation is often in flux, and if that changes, they might want to bring in “their guy.” Hopefully Chayka gets at least a bit more time, but it’s something to watch, either way.
ADAM: My answer earlier this season was Peter Chiarelli in Edmonton, but the Oilers have gone on enough of a roll and Ken Hitchcock seems to have them doing something right (mostly playing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl until the wheels fall off) and I think that is going to buy him some time.
I think now we have to look over at the Central Division and either Doug Armstrong in St. Louis or Stan Bowman in Chicago.
The Blues spent a ton of money and gave up a ton of assets this summer after missing the playoffs a year ago, and now they stink. They already fired the coach, so that card has been played, and the next logical conclusion is the guy that built the team. Other than a run to the Western Conference Finals in 2015-16 this has been a first-or second-round team at its best (usually a first-round team) and now is on track to miss the playoffs for a second year in a row. Not a great sign for the GM who has, again, already played his “try to save the season” card by changing coaches.
This might be a controversial position to take, but I think if Stan Bowman were named Stan … Smith. Or Stan Johnson. Or anything other than Stan Bowman his seat would probably be a LOT warmer than it is now. His track record in Chicago is obviously great, but it’s been a few years now since the Blackhawks have been a Stanley Cup team, they missed the playoffs a year ago, are currently one of the worst teams in the league, and it didn’t really have to be THIS bad. I know they had salary cap constraints and they have some big contracts, but he has made a lot of questionable to bad moves over the past couple of years. Then he went and fired the most successful coach in franchise history and one of the best coaches in NHL history and the team has completely sunk after that. Not sure the Blackhawks are going to make a change now or even after this season, but if this season keeps going as it is and they do not get better next season they might consider doing something.
JOEY: You can’t mention general managers being on the hot seat without bringing up Doug Armstrong’s name. Last season, he traded Paul Stastny away because he felt his team was a year away from being a serious threat, but that hasn’t been the case in 2018-19. He pulled the trigger on a major deal for Ryan O'Reilly over the summer, and although O’Reilly’s been good, the team simply hasn’t been. Armstrong has fired a coach this season and if the Blues can’t turn it around, he’ll be next. With Jake Allen struggling for the most part over the last few seasons, Armstrong hasn’t found a solution to the problem between the pipes. This might be it.
Stars GM Jim Nill is also likely on thin ice. His team has some high-end talent, but depth has been an issue for them since he’s taken over. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alex Radulov and John Klingberg can only carry the team so far. Getting contributions from the rest of the team has been an issue. As of this moment, the Stars are on the outside of the playoff picture. If they were to miss the postseason again, you’d have to think that someone will play the price. It won’t be new head coach Jim Montgomery, so who else can it be but the GM?
And you can’t forget ‘Pistol’ Pete Chiarelli. Like Armstrong, Chiarelli also made a coaching change to try to get his team going. The Oilers are currently sitting in a Wild Card spot, but if they were to fall out of the playoff picture again at the end of the season, you’d have to think that Edmonton’s decision makers will want to make a change. You can’t just keep wasting all of Connor McDavid’s great years.
SCOTT: It would seem that Peter Chiarelli has bought himself some time after bringing in Ken Hitchcock to be the team’s savior. Edmonton is in a playoff spot, which isn’t something you would have uttered a month ago.
Of course, a losing streak of four or five games would change the above narrative, so Chiarelli is still certainly in the conversation and is by no means out of the woods just yet. He’s done little to improve this team since he arrived and still probably needs a miracle to happen if he’s to be in the same position this time next year.
Sticking in the west, Doug Armstrong’s leash must be retracting a bit. There were a lot of people who believed the Blues won the summer. But as we approach Christmas, we now know that wasn’t the case.
The Blues don’t look half bad on paper, but their on-ice product has been truly poor this season. Maybe the Blues just need to head in a new direction.
The last guy I have on a hot seat is Stan Bowman. If Bowman’s last name wasn’t Bowman, he’d probably already be gone.
I suppose he bought some time firing Joel Quenneville, but it’s clear Quenneville wasn’t the problem. Jeremy Colliton has been tasked with the impossible and it hasn’t worked out so far.
Bowman did well to win the Stanley Cup three times (partly due to drafting done before he got there), but there’s little coming up through the system these days that provide any hope for better times ahead. And trades to get picks and younger assets don’t seem to be in the cards either (see: Brent Seabrook contract). All the “bad” contracts are shrouded with no-movement clauses.