Recapping the Arizona Coyotes’ busy offseason
To get a sense of how thoroughly John Chayka has remade the team’s roster in his 26-plus months as Coyotes general manager, all you have to do is take a look at the 2016-17 roster. Only nine players who logged at least 10 games with that team remain.
The summer of 2017 was transformative for the organization, with the departures of captain Shane Doan, goalie Mike Smith, wing Radim Vrbata and others (not to mention the departure of the former ownership group and coach Dave Tippett), but Chayka has been active this summer as well.
Between the re-signing of foundational players and the filling of specific needs, the Coyotes’ 2018-19 roster is arguably the most intriguing group since the team moved west to Glendale in 2003.
The aspect of Chayka’s performance that is most often overlooked is the fact that he’s had to do it on a tight budget. While the Coyotes are well above the salary cap floor of $58.8 million in cap hits due to the contracts of Dave Bolland and Marian Hossa, they are much closer to the floor in actual money spent — $63.2 million, per capfriendly.com.
“It was a complete rebuild, but it really was about asset management,” Chayka said. “We had to find creative solutions to recreate this roster.”
Chayka will never commit to a rest period or admit to a satisfactory roster. He’ll be on the lookout for deals to improve the group ahead of training camp in September. With that caution flag in place, here is a look at what he has accomplished this summer (and spring).
RAANTA RE-SIGNS: Antti Raanta’s fate was uncertain as last season’s trade deadline approached. Some analysts thought the Coyotes would trade him rather than pay him. That was poor analysis.
Once Raanta established that he could shoulder the responsibility of being a No. 1 goaltender, Chayka made it clear that re-signing him was priority No. 1. He didn’t wait until the season ended to do it, signing Raanta to a three-year extension with an average annual value of $4.25 million that will keep the goalie under contract through the 2020-21 season.
Once Raanta settled into a groove after the new year, the Coyotes posted a 20-13-7 record. Raanta finished the season first in save percentage (.930) and goals against average (2.24) among goalies who logged at least 35 games.
SOLIDIFYING THE DEFENSE CORPS: Throughout the team’s impressive second-half run, Chayka and coach Rick Tocchet referred to the blue line as the heartbeat of the team. The organization did everything it could to keep that heartbeat healthy.
The Coyotes re-signed franchise defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year, $66 million extension; they re-signed consummate pro Niklas Hjalmarsson to a two-year, $10 million extension; and they re-signed Kevin Connauton to a two-year, $2.75 million contract, putting the team’s top six defensemen from last season under contract. They added defenseman Jordan Oesterle in a trade to provide a potential veteran No. 7.
“I look at our group now and I think it’s one of the best in the league,” Chayka said.
SHORING UP THE CENTER POSITION: While some teams waited until the NHL Draft to consummate trades, Chayka pulled off his biggest deal of Arizona’s offseason on June 15, sending wing Max Domi to the Montreal Canadiens for forward Alex Galchenyuk. While the Canadiens were convinced Galchenyuk is better suited to the wing, the Coyotes (and many in the Montreal media) believe he is more effective at center where he scored 30 goals in 2015-16.
With Derek Stepan, Christian Dvorak, Dylan Strome and Brad Richardson also on the roster, the Coyotes are arguably deeper and more talented at center than they have been in their entire Arizona tenure.
SCORING ON THE WINGS: John Tavares’ availability in free agency was a rarity, but wing is the one position at which Chayka believes teams can find consistent help on the open market. The Coyotes pursued James van Riemsdyk aggressively but ultimately landed speedy wing Michael Grabner, who has 54 goals combined over the past two seasons. Grabner’s 51 even-strength goals over the past two seasons are tied for eighth in the NHL with Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and the New York Islanders’ Anders Lee.
The Coyotes were hoping to add a right shot and eventually landed that as well when they agreed to take on the final three years of Hossa’s contract to add forward Vinnie Hinostroza, Oesterle and a 2019 third-round draft pick in exchange for center Marcus Kruger, forward prospects Jordan Maletta, MacKenzie Entwistle, minor-league defenseman Andrew Campbell, and Arizona’s 2019 fifth-round draft pick. The Coyotes feel Hinostroza, who had 13 goals and 39 points in 99 games over the past two seasons with Chicago, was undervalued and has significant upside.
ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH & SPEED: Injuries to multiple defensemen exposed a lack of NHL-ready depth on the blue line last season, so the Coyotes signed right-hander Ilya Lyubushkin out of the KHL, signed right-hander Jordan Gross out of Notre Dame, acquired right-hander Robbie Russo in a trade, then re-signed restricted free agents such as Dakota Mermis and Trevor Murphy.
“We have better depth up and down the lineup, actually,” Chayka said, including the forward group. “We’ve created a lot of versatility with Galchenyuk and Hinostroza and we enhanced our overall speed with those players and Grabner. As the game gets faster, it’s important to always be mindful of team speed and we think we have one of the faster winger groups in the league.”
DYLAN STROME’S PLACE: With Stepan, Galchenyuk, Dvorak and Richardson seeming locks at the center position, it’s unclear where Strome, the team’s first-round pick in 2015 (No. 3), will slot into the lineup. Maybe he’ll be a part-time wing and a part-time center. Maybe he’ll move exclusively to the wing. Maybe Chayka has another trade up his sleeve. Nobody knows for certain right now.
“If you look at Dylan from an unbiased perspective, he had an unbelievable first year of professional hockey, from being a dominant player in the American [Hockey] League to the end of the year when he had a great run in the NHL,” Chayka said. “Dylan is going to come into camp and try to earn a spot. You can look at that as a negative of where does he fit or you can look at it as a positive where for a young player to play, he has got to come to camp in great shape and prove he deserves a spot.”
DARCY KUEMPER’S PLAY: The Coyotes acquired Kuemper from the Los Angeles Kings last season to solidify what had been a rocky backup position. Kuemper did not solidify the position, posting an .899 save percentage and a 3.22 goals against average in 10 games. It’s fair to assume Kuemper needs time to adjust to a different style of play and different personnel so the jury is still out on this move. The Coyotes signed him to a two-year, $3.7 million extension in February.
JAKOB CHYCHRUN’S STATUS: By all accounts (including his Twitter account) Chychrun is recovering well from offseason knee surgery. He is likely to start skating in another week or so. If he returns to full health, is ready for training camp and plays well early in the season, expect the Coyotes to extend Chychrun’s contract before he reaches restricted free agency next summer.