Coyotes center position still a big question mark moving forward

Jan 7, 2017, 10:06 PM | Updated: Jan 8, 2017, 8:37 am
Arizona Coyotes centers Martin Hanzal, Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller. (AP Photos)...
Arizona Coyotes centers Martin Hanzal, Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller. (AP Photos)
(AP Photos)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Only 12,380 fans paid to watch the Coyotes end a nine-game losing streak with a 2-1, shootout win over the New York Islanders on Saturday. That was alarming on two fronts, but the greater question — one that extends beyond this season — is when will the bleeding stop?

It was a welcome relief for the Coyotes to end a long losing streak with hard work and the shootout artistry of Anthony Duclair and Radim Vrbata, but it doesn’t change the hard fact that Arizona is headed towards its fifth consecutive season without a playoff berth; one short of the franchise record.

It’s easy to see promise on the blue line when you look at young players such as Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakob Chychrun, Anthony DeAngelo and maybe Kyle Wood. It’s easy to get excited about wings Brendan Perlini, Max Domi, Tobias Rieder, Jordan Martinook and maybe Christian Fischer (and Duclair if he can sort out his scoring woes).

But what do we know about the Coyotes center position, the Achilles heel that has afflicted this franchise at least since Jeremy Roenick left town, and arguably for its entire Valley existence?

The Coyotes elected to buy out veteran Antoine Vermette at the start of the season. Part of that decision was likely due to the feeling that Vermette did not give the Coyotes his all last season; most of it was due to a desire to give young centers Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak and Laurent Dauphin an opportunity to seize two of four available roster spots.

One month into the season, the Coyotes sent Strome back to the Ontario Hockey League because he wasn’t physically ready to handle the rigors of the NHL. Dauphin spent a good chunk of time in Tucson (AHL) working on his offensive game before the Coyotes recalled him Saturday to replace injured center Martin Hanzal. Arizona insists it sees daily progress from Dvorak (four goals, 12 points) but he hasn’t shown the dynamic side to his offensive game that he exhibited in juniors.

To be fair, Vermette’s presence here would not make this a playoff team and it would likely hurt the team’s chances at a higher draft pick so the gamble made sense. On the flip side, the Coyotes got another glimpse of what life looks life without capable veteran centers against New York. With Hanzal out and Brad Richardson still sidelined by a broken right tibia and fibula, the Coyotes depth chart was Peter Holland, Dvorak, Josh Jooris and Dauphin. Arizona gave good effort and got a win, but its scoring and offensive woes continue.

There is no sense reliving the opportunity lost in the last two NHL Draft lotteries when the Coyotes did not land Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, but where will the Coyotes find that transformative center they need to become a playoff team; maybe even a contender?

Should the Coyotes hang onto Hanzal, a soon-to-be free agent, to avoid depleting an already deficient position? Can Strome really make that much progress or will he be better suited as a No. 2 center? Can Clayton Keller handle the rigors of the center position at the NHL level, or does his diminutive size and his offensive-zone skills off the rush make more sense on the wing?

“Ideally with a guy that size, you don’t want him having to do all that extra defensive work that a centerman has to do,” Coyotes Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Bernhardt said. “At his size, that could be one of the reasons he ends up on the wing but I think it’s too early to say where he could play right now.

“When we drafted him, we were not married to the idea he would be a centerman and now it looks he can play on the wing. He’s looked very good at left wing in this tournament. He could even be a wing that slides into the middle sometimes.”

If Keller does end up on the wing and Strome belongs lower in the lineup, do the Coyotes draft another center with what promises to be another high draft pick? And who will be available if they do?

There are no McDavids or Stromes in this draft, and while there is the predictable chatter about center Nico Hischier stealing center Nolan Patrick’s No. 1 draft spot, it’s the kind of chatter that always comes at this time of year when people are trying to convince themselves there’s a better option.

“Nolan Patrick is a really good hockey player,” Bernhardt said. “He’s probably not in the class of McDavid and Matthews, but he is without a doubt the top guy in the draft. It’s really just a bunch of sorting out after that. I really don’t think there are one or two other names that jump out. There may be half a dozen guys that are pretty close to each other after that.”

Maybe the Coyotes can follow the Columbus Blue Jackets’ model and win without a franchise center; just a collection of good ones. Maybe they’ll be pleasantly surprised by one of their prospects, or another that they draft.

It’s too early to say, but it’s crystal clear that the same position that has troubled the Coyotes for their entire Glendale tenure is the position that is still holding them back.

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Coyotes center position still a big question mark moving forward