Chayka’s flurry of trades could accelerate Coyotes’ timeline
CHICAGO — John Chayka requested a favor after the Coyotes traded Mike Smith to Calgary last week.
“All I ask is that you wait to see the full picture before making a final judgment,” the Coyotes GM said.
That picture came into focus on Friday at the first day of the NHL Draft in Chicago. The view was both surprising and encouraging for a fan base that has endured ownership strife, arena uncertainty, the constant threats of relocation and five straight seasons without the playoffs.
In the span of one hour, Chayka landed a top-pairing defenseman, a No. 1 center and a starting goalie, before using the No. 23 pick on left-handed defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph from the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Coyotes sent defenseman Connor Murphy and minor-league center Laurent Dauphin to Chicago for Niklas Hjalmarsson, who will play the right side alongside Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Then, in a deal that Chayka has been working for more than a year, he landed New York Rangers center Derek Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta to replace Mike Smith, whom Chayka traded to Calgary last week.
It was a stunning roster makeover, not only because Chayka engineered three deals in a climate where few deals went down, but because he filled the team’s three greatest needs and because those moves may have accelerated the Coyotes rebuild. If the Coyotes fan base needed a pick-me-up after watching Smith, captain Shane Doan and coach Dave Tippett walk out the door, Chayka delivered a triple espresso.
“I think we’ve got some areas we can improve, but you add a No. 1 center, a top-pairing D and a starting goalie, that’s quite a bit in 24 hours,” Chayka said.
In Stepan, the Coyotes filled a slot that they have arguably been looking to fill since Jeremy Roenick left town in 2001.
“This organization has been looking for a No. 1 centerman for over a decade and he’s a guy that can fill that hole,” Chayka said of Stepan, 27, who has posted four straight seasons of 50-plus points. “Derek is a solid 200-foot centerman that can make plays, win faceoffs and can play in all situations (against) top competition. He just checks all the boxes for a top-line center for us. We’ve got a lot of great young wingers, but they need that stability up the middle of the ice to have success.”
Stepan said he is looking forward to mentoring young Coyotes centers Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak.
“A lot of the guys in New York always say that I X-and-O it up too much,” Stepan said. “I love talking the game. I love being a part of talking a play through with somebody. To be able to grab some of these younger guys that have this talent… I learned that from Marty St. Louis. That’s someone who taught me how to sit down and watch your game and figure out how you can get better on the mental side and how you can be better throughout the game.”
Raanta has been the backup for Chicago goalie Corey Crawford and Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist the last four years, affording him a unique learning experience.
“It’s been kind of like a step-by-step process for me,” he said. “Last year, I kind of felt that my game was finding the right way and my confidence level was getting better and better all the time. I felt like I was giving the team the chance to win every night … I feel I’m ready to take one more step and be playing more and get the No. 1 spot.”
Chayka said the staff evaluated several goalies who were exposed for the expansion draft, as well as some free agents, but the road kept leading back to Raanta.
“We’ve looked at it from every angle, quantitatively and qualitatively,” he said. “Of all the goalies that weren’t elite starters last year, we think that this is a guy that can do that,” Chayka said. “We think he needs some opportunity and some support. I think he can be that guy for us.”
Hjalmarsson has won three Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks. His shot-blocking acumen and games played have put some mileage on his body, but he has played with Oliver Ekman-Larsson in international competition and Chayka sees him as nearly the perfect partner.
“If God would have made him right-handed he would’ve been the perfect fit for OEL,” Chayka quipped. “I just think with Oliver, what makes him special is him playing with the puck and his offensive side of the game, the way he makes plays. Hjalmarsson is an elite defender; one of the best. He kind of covers up and allows Oliver to do his thing.”
Joseph, 17, scored six goals and had 39 points in 62 games last season. The 6-foot-2, 161-pounder was the 27th-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting and will need to do some filling out in the QMJHL, where he will likely spend the next two seasons.
“Eat everything whenever you can,” Joseph said, laughing. “Obviously the next goal I want to reach is to play in the NHL so I need to be bigger and I need to be smart about what I eat, but I will get there I’m only 17. I have time.”
Chayka said he came close to making another deal before the Coyotes made their pick, but he believes there are still opportunities available on Saturday during rounds 2-7.
“We had a bunch of different discussions,” he said. “We’ll circle back tomorrow and see what we can do.”
Arizona has five selections on Saturday:
Round 2 – No. 35
Round 3 – No. 69 and No. 78
Round 5 – No. 128
Round 7 – No. 190