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Coyotes’ free agency plan: A wing and a prayer

(Matt Layman/Arizona Sports)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – When Coyotes general manager John Chayka looks at the free agent offerings for wings in 2018, he sees a different picture than existed for GMs 10 years ago.

“There used to be a lot of desirable players in the primes of their careers, and a lot of teams would line up for them, but a lot of teams are starting to pivot away from free agency,” Chayka said. “There has been a bit of a trend in that guys are signing longer term deals earlier so less guys are making it to free agency.”

When you analyze Chayka’s major moves in his two-plus years as the Coyotes GM, most of the acquisitions (Jakob Chychrun, Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Richard Panik, Darcy Kuemper, Alex Galchenyuk) have come via trades.

The team did acquire the negotiating rights to free-agent defenseman Alex Goligoski one month after Chayka was named GM, eventually signing him to a five-year, $27.375 million deal on June 23. They also signed wing Radim Vrbata to a one-year deal and defenseman Luke Schenn two a two-year deal, but former coach and executive vice president of hockey operations Dave Tippett had a major hand in that season’s moves.

Since then, the vast majority of Chayka’s free-agency moves have been to re-sign the team’s own players, or sign depth players for the organization. Last summer, his biggest free-agent move was to sign defenseman Adam Clendening to a one-year, $650,000 contract. He lasted four months before the team waived him.

With free agency beginning Sunday, the Coyotes have positioned themselves again as team that won’t be overly active. After Wednesday’s agreement with defenseman Kevin Connauton on a two-year, $2.75 million contract, a scoring wing is the one significant item on Chayka’s shopping list as he rounds out his roster.

The list of free agents is not overly impressive, but there are some options.

“I think there are some really valuable players that can really help your group, but just like the draft, you can make a big mistake in a big way here,” Chayka said. “You’ve got to stay disciplined, you’ve got to have parameters and you’ve got to have a strategy. You’ve got to stay true to what you’re after and how you’re trying to build a team.”

Minutes after the Coyotes selected center Barrett Hayton — and not wing Filip Zadina – in the NHL Draft last weekend in Dallas, Chayka acknowledged that the team would be looking for a wing as the free agency period opens. The move could come via free agency. It could come via trade, but it won’t involve a major piece such as Artemi Panarin, who likely wouldn’t sign an extension with Arizona, and it may have to be a player that requires a bit of a gamble.

“You’ve got a group of guys who have, year to year, a lot of variance in their performance,” Chayka said when assessing the available players. “You’ve got to do your work and get the guy that maybe didn’t have the best year last year, but who you think is going to have the big year the following year. You’ve got to pay for future performance.

“That’s the hardest part of the job but it’s also the part where we do a lot of homework and research and we feel we can find a guy that can have a big year for us on the wing if they’re playing with the right center group. We think we have a good group of centers now and we can supplement them with some of these guys on the wing.”

Chayka is not opposed to acquiring a productive player who is slightly older than the team’s young core, which means that James Neal, Michael Grabner or James van Riemsdyk are theoretically in play, but if Chayka goes that route instead of trying to find a diamond in the rough, it will come with strict contract parameters.

“It all depends on the term,” he said. “It’s a sliding scale with term and age. If we’re getting a guy on a real short-term deal then that’s age involved. If we forecast and believe he’s going to have a big year, then age is not as concerning, but we know by going through, doing research and understanding aging curves, that the older a player gets and the more term he has, the more risk is involved. We’re not against doing that but you’ve got to price the risk in and it’s got to be a fair deal for both sides.”

On the flip side…

“There’s some guys that haven’t done it yet that we think with opportunity and the right role could be that guy and break out and have a big year, but we’re not ready to bet millions and millions of dollars on that,” Chayka said. “We’re trying to triangulate it; come at it from all sides. Our hope is that there’s a good risk-reward profile that fits with our age group and what we’re trying to accomplish. Those are the deals we’re looking to execute.”

Neal, Grabner, van Riemsdyk and David Perron are among the top free-agent targets, while Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and, less likely Max Pacioretty, are among the players reportedly available in trades.

Beyond that, there is a host of lesser known players such as Daniel Carr that the Coyotes’ research may point to as a possibility. The Coyotes have not even closed the door on a return by Brad Richardson, depending on how the market shakes out, but the free agent center’s camp indicated Wednesday that a return is unlikely.

The Coyotes are loaded with left-handed shots in their forward group. Christian Fischer and Josh Archibald are the only right-handed wings. If all other things are equal in their evaluation, the Coyotes would prefer a right-handed shot. Of the previously mentioned players, Perron is the only right-handed shot in the group.

There are few free agents with productivity in their past that fit that description outside Boston’s Riley Nash, Colorado’s Blake Comeau, New Jersey’s Jimmy Hayes and Philadelphia’s Matt Read, who was hampered by injuries the past two seasons. That could lend credence to the idea of a trade.

As a general philosophy, free agency is not the path Chayka wants to travel to build his team, but the wing position is the main exception to that philosophy if opportunity arises.

“That’s the right group to look to fill through free agency,” he said.

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