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NHL free agency primer: Coyotes look to add scoring in fluid market

Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka is interviewed by The Doug and Wolf Show on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Feb. 12, 2018. (Matt Layman/Arizona Sports)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There was a bit of an issue across the NHL as this year’s draft was going on in Vancouver.

Teams trying to put together a roster for the 2019-20 season in the salary cap world were burdened by an unknown variable: What would the following season’s salary cap be? The figure came in at $81.5 million, two million more than last season’s ceiling of $79.5 million. But that wasn’t announced until after the completion of the draft, which made it harder for teams to consummate deals involving draft picks.

The unknown constraint of teams’ payrolls next year is no longer a problem, and that makes it easier for teams to know exactly what kind of contracts they can take on and, conversely, which ones they’ll need to unload. The Coyotes already made one move by trading for Carl Soderberg, and this week, teams have been able to start speaking with free agents but aren’t permitted to sign them yet.

Free agency signings can begin Monday, July 1, 9 a.m. Arizona time.  

“A lot of discussion,” Chayka said Friday. “We’ve talked about a lot, too. It feels too long a period, to be honest with you. You end up going in circles a lot. You’re not able to go into the details and get a player signed, so you end up circling and circling and not probably getting as much done as you’d like. A lot of talking. It’s been active.”

On Monday, before that trade went down, Arizona general manager John Chayka said that even though the draft was done, the possibility was still there for trades — and then hinted that free agency would play a role in what gets done in swaps.

“I think now you’re in the part of the equation where teams kind of want to see, ‘Can I get a free agent?'” Chayka said Monday. “And if I can get a free agent, does that change their dynamics? Some teams will get free agents and that will create a logjam and someone will shake loose. Some teams will miss on free agents and that changes their trade approach. So yeah, it’s very dynamic right now.”

WHAT DOES ARIZONA NEED?

The Coyotes could use another scoring forward.

“We didn’t score enough to make the playoffs,” Chayka said. “We were a top-5 goals against team and didn’t get the big goals at the right time and didn’t have enough firepower to take that next step. But evaluating looking at the role of injuries, it’s tough. If you’re one of the top man-games-lost teams, it’s very rare that you make the playoffs.”

If forward Lawson Crouse re-signs (he was tendered a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent) and center Barrett Hayton (played junior hockey last season) were to make the team out of training camp, the Coyotes probably have one open roster spot — give or take — within their forward group as of Thursday:

FORWARDS (13): Lawson Crouse, Christian Dvorak, Christian Fischer, Alex Galchenyuk, Conor Garland, Michael Grabner, Barrett Hayton, Vinnie Hinostroza, Clayton Keller, Brad Richardson, Nick Schmaltz, Soderberg, Derek Stepan

DEFENSEMEN (7): Jakob Chychrun, Jason Demers, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Ilya Lyubushkin, Jordan Oesterle

GOALTENDERS (2): Darcy Kuemper, Antti Raanta

BELONGING IN THE DISCUSSION: UFAs Josh Archibald, Nick Cousins, Mario Kempe; prospect Nick Merkley

Keep in mind that this isn’t all a guarantee — players can get traded, injured or not make the team out of camp.

“Things change by the hour basically and teams are looking at all their options and alternatives, as are we,” Chayka said before the Soderberg deal. “We’re involved in a lot of different things. We’re not looking to do four or five things — we’re hoping to hit on one or two key opportunities.”

CAP SPACE

According to CapFriendly, the Coyotes only had about $2.6 million in cap space as of Thursday, but this doesn’t count the relief the Coyotes will likely get if and when they place Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve (LTIR). Hossa’s contract is currently accounting for a $5.275 million cap hit.

WHO’S AVAILABLE?

The question of “who is available” depends on your definition of “available.”

There are some top-tier free agents out there, but those players understandably have several other suitors with cap space and deep pockets. So deep, in fact, that Winnipeg’s Kevin Hayes’ rights were traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, who re-signed him for a whopping $7.142 AAV.

It’s been speculated that the Coyotes’ advancement toward new ownership, which is expected to close later this summer, could positively impact the team’s allotment of resources toward its roster, particularly in free agency. Chayka had this to say, in part, when speaking on that subject Monday:

“Teams can’t be built through free agency. They also can’t be built though trades. You’ve got to pull every single lever and the draft is our focus, like any team,” he said. “But if we get a chance to add a player that can really take us to the next level, then we certainly have the ability to do that.”

That being said, it sounds like the Coyotes are willing to forego doling out a big contract in free agency if it means bettering the long-term sustainability of the roster.

“I think there’s absolutely an anchoring effect to some of those deals,” Chayka said. “Obviously Hayes, they traded his rights and they signed him pre-July 1, so there’s a value in that. I think the key for us is the market sets the value. And if you want to get a player, then you’ve got to pay market value. For us, we set an internal value. The Kevin Hayeses and the other players can sign the deals that they’re going to sign, and if it doesn’t align with what we feel is fair value for our plan and what we’re trying to do here, then we’re not going to do a deal.

“So we’re trying to find the intersection between the market value and our internal value, and when that occurs, it’s a good deal for the player, a good deal for the team, that’s what we’re after. The market’s going to do things and people are going to make decisions for their own reasons, and that doesn’t mean it has to impact what we’re going to do.”

That being said, here are a few names out there on the UFA market:

Matt Duchene: A 28-year-old center who scored 31 goals last year. Has other suitors that reportedly include Nashville and Montreal. Probably will be one of the most expensive unrestricted free agents this offseason.

Joe Pavelski: A 34-year-old veteran who had 38 goals last year as San Jose went deep in the playoffs. Was the leading goal-scorer last season among current UFAs.

Ryan Dzingel: Only 27 years old, has scored a combined 49 goals over the last two seasons with Ottawa and Columbus.

Brandon Pirri: An under-the-radar guy who played only 31 games with Vegas last season but had 12 goals in the process. Is averaging almost 23 goals every 82 games in his nine-year career that has seen stops with five different franchises. Ranked 11th in points-per-game last season among players who are currently UFAs.

Brett Connolly: Had a career-high 22 goals in 81 games with Washington last year. Scored 15 goals each of the last two seasons before that. Owns an 18.0 shooting percentage over the past two seasons.

“If it doesn’t work out, we’ll look to improve our team through trade and just keep working away at things here,” Chayka said.

PROSPECT SCRIMMAGE

The Coyotes had their prospect scrimmage on Friday night, with a town hall featuring Chayka and CEO Ahron Cohen beforehand. The attendance for the event was 4,021.

“We are thrilled to see our great Coyotes fans coming out in full force to see the future of our team,” Cohen said. “I think the dramatic increase in attendance is a testament to what this community sees in the trajectory of this team.”

The scrimmage capped a week-long prospect development camp that began on Monday.

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