After gruesome elimination, Arizona Coyotes must ask: Now what?
The Arizona Coyotes don’t have a lot of capital to spend, literally or figuratively.
Literally, the team is at the ceiling of the NHL’s salary cap, which because of the pandemic isn’t going to go up any time soon. The Coyotes don’t have draft capital, having already dealt this year’s first-round pick and then some to get pending free agent Taylor Hall. They (probably) don’t have an elite future superstar in the pipeline to come up and score 100 points next year.
Figuratively, the team may not even have the social capital with their fan base, corporate partners and community to enter a rebuild after selling everyone on a future built on Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Darcy Kuemper for the past year.
Things aren’t all bad in Coyotes land. The team just made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. There are several young players whose potential may not have yet been reached. They have one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. And their roster includes what might be the biggest bargain in the league, Conor Garland, who led his team in goals this year despite being the lowest-paid player.
OK — So, now what?
Head coach Rick Tocchet frustratingly pointed out that the Coyotes were overmatched against the Colorado Avalanche, which is true. The Coyotes don’t have a player like Nathan MacKinnon, or a line like MacKinnon-Gabriel Landeskog-Mikko Rantanen, or a young stud defenseman like Cale Makar. Not even close. Most teams don’t, but then again, a team whose strength is defense and goaltending managed to get outscored 14-2 in the last two games of its season when the hockey mattered the most.
Tocchet also said he couldn’t understand the “dumb” penalties the Coyotes took in the first period on Wednesday. That should be the more alarming reality. It’s one thing to lose to team that’s better than you are. It’s another thing to get blown out twice in a row by a team you just beat in the past week.
Some will blame leadership.
Ekman-Larsson, the captain, was involved in a bizarre press conference exchange in which he was asked whether it reflected poorly on leadership that the Coyotes were embarrassed 7-1 in back-to-back games. He said no, but then finished by half-heartedly stating, “If you want, I’ll take the blame for that.” Derek Stepan appeared to nod and snicker at the question.
But even if Ekman-Larsson and Tocchet and others can get the most out of this team next year, you still have to construct the right roster. This one was built by John Chayka, whose departure from the Coyotes and a scandal involving alleged illegal prospect scouting each have created their own P.R. problems for a team that can’t afford them.
Whether you love Chayka or hate him, his fingerprints are set in stone here. Ekman-Larsson is just getting started on a contract paying him more than $8 million per year. Keller was Chayka’s biggest gamble of all, receiving a massive $7M+ payday that he hasn’t yet justified at the NHL level. Arizona traded for Kessel — a seemingly great move at the time — only to see him put up the worst year of his career (he was Arizona’s highest-paid forward this year). And Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak are each locked in for years to come.
Chayka didn’t have an Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel or MacKinnon to build around. So he did what he could: Chayka gambled on high-risk, high-reward contracts for some of those younger players and then surrounded them with solid veterans: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Carl Soderberg and Stepan are a few. Many of his moves made quite a bit of sense when he made them.
Those high-risk gambles still have time to pay off big.
But if they don’t, the next GM will be stuck with the cap bill for the Kellers, the Ekman-Larssons and the Schamltzes, and a team that just lost in the first round of the playoffs.
You can blame leadership for not getting the most out of the players. You can blame the old GM for not putting together a good enough roster, although it’s hypocritical not to acknowledge the good in his body of work, too (like that guy Kuemper). That’s up to you to decide, but the point is, as Tocchet said, “we’ve got a long way to go.” And thinking the Coyotes’ misfortunes will be solved by a better arena location is no longer the reality.