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Arizona Coyotes owner: It’s ‘critically important’ team competes for playoff spot

LISTEN: Anthony LeBlanc, Coyotes CEO

The Arizona Coyotes were hoping to land one of the top two selections in this year’s NHL Draft.

No one is arguing that.

After all, who wouldn’t have wanted a chance to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, the top two prospects in this year’s class who are both viewed as franchise-altering talents?

“It was tough, it was really tough to go through that,” Coyotes co-owner Anthony LeBlanc told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Tuesday, speaking of being in Toronto where the NHL’s Draft Lottery was held. That night, the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres landed picks one and two.

The Coyotes, who had the second-worst record in the NHL last season, fell to the third spot and out of the running for one of the draft’s dynamic duo.

“It definitely took some time to get over that, but what helped us get over that is the fact that whoever we end up picking at three is going to be one heck of a player,” LeBlanc added. “The difference is, from everything I’ve heard, the one and two, these are generational players and, more importantly, they’re guys that are ready to play in the NHL this coming season.

“We don’t know if whoever we end up selecting in the third slot will be ready to play this coming season.”

A quick search of mock drafts shows the Coyotes possibly taking Dylan Strome, an 18-year-old center who tallied 129 points for the Erie Otters of the OHL last season, or Noah Hanifan, an 18-year-old defenseman who recorded 23 points in 37 games as a freshman for Boston College in 2014-15.

LeBlanc said he’s been told if not for McDavid and Eichel being in this draft, some of the players projected to be picked in the three to eight range would be comfortably viewed as potential top overall selections.

“So that’s really what’s helped us get over that emotional hurdle of not getting number one or number two,” he said.

For the Coyotes, who finished with just 56 points last season, the idea of having to wait a few years for their top three pick to contribute at the NHL level may be a frustrating proposition, but that may be the unfortunate reality the franchise is facing.

So if the team is to improve, which is the goal for this upcoming season, it may have to be done through different means.

LeBlanc pointed to the trades the team made during last season, including the acquisition of Anthony Duclair from the New York Rangers, as reason for optimism. He also said the team’s payroll, which according to HockeyBuzz.com is at just more than 36 million, will rise.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end, it’s definitely going to go up,” he said. “We continue to work with [GM Don Maloney] and [head coach Dave Tippett].

“Look, we know that we’re going to have some young players on the team, but we also know that we’ve got some holes to fill, and Don and his staff are at the combine right now in Buffalo, but we spent a lot of time talking about what holes are included in this team, where we need to add some veteran depth. We understand that we’re going to have to spend a little bit more money.”

The NHL’s salary cap limit is expected to be around $71 million for the 2015-16 season, and LeBlanc admitted the Coyotes do not plan on approaching that number.

“But where we end up, I’m being very honest with you, we haven’t flushed it out yet,” he said. “What we’re trying to do this year differently than last year, is last year we came with a number and sent Don back into it. What we’re saying this year is, ‘Don, give us what you need to be a competitive team like a Calgary or Ottawa did this past season and let’s figure out what we need to do.’

“Because we know it’s critically important that this is a competitive team and is vying for a playoff spot.”