Back before this wild 2020-21 season began, Arizona Coyotes insider (subscription required), Craig Morgan wrote about the Coyotes ‘rat pack.’ The name was started by head coach Rick Tocchet and included Arizona Coyotes fifth-year players Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Christian Dvorak, Lawson Crouse, Jakob Chychrun and Christian Fischer. “They’re the rat pack,” Tocchet said. “A bunch of talented guys that are the heartbeat of our team.” So, the intention of this article is to analyze how this ‘rat pack’ is doing, and what the expectations for them could be going forward.
Six Arizona Coyotes Players And How They’re Performing
Tocchet may deserve some credit for such a catchy name for this group. Yet, if they are the heartbeat of the team… how well are they doing? We’ll go over each player to see if they have a future with the team, or perhaps should be dealt elsewhere. Keep in mind, new general manager Bill Armstrong still hasn’t made his mark on this team short of a few minor signings. He will want to make it his own. That may very well include a new coaching staff including a head coach, and some new players to move the franchise forward and into a more winning culture.
Arizona Coyotes Fifth-Year Players Performance and Their Future
Former GM John Chayka liked tying up young players with long-term deals. He bit the bullet and signed Keller to a huge eight-year $57.2 million contract in September of 2019. Can the kid take the pressure of having to live up to that contract? Maybe. It’s still unknown. What is known is that Keller is doing all the right things to deserve that contract. He’s bulked up to 173 pounds so he doesn’t get pushed around as much. He studies videos to see ways to improve his game. Tocchet calls him a “hockey nerd”, and that’s a compliment.
One thing in watching Keller is that he falls down a lot. Not pushed down, although that does happen. He needs to have his head up more and work on being able to avoid checks. That way he won’t wind up face-first on the ice. Not sure if it’s skating ability or what, but he falls an awful lot. Gaining weight should help with this flaw.
Will he Stay?
His other improvement needs to be consistency. He has improved upon that a bit. If he yearns to be an elite player and emulate Patrick Kane, he needs to work on being one of if not the go-to guy on the forward line. After all, he is the highest-paid forward on the team. If he can’t get up to that 60-70 point threshold, his usefulness on the team becomes decreased to the level of him getting traded. He has a no-trade clause in his contract but it doesn’t kick in until the 2024-25 season. Comparing his performance to a similar player like Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets shows that Keller has some work to do. Connor has averaged 0.82 points per game while Keller is only at 0.62.
This will be a close call for GM Armstrong. Does he hope Keller will finally start being the player worth $7.15 million a year, or does he throw in his cards and see what he can get for him in the trade market?
Schmaltz was traded here in the Dylan Strome deal in November of 2018. He has only averaged 0.61 points a game, just like Keller. So, does that mean that he may be traded along with Keller? It’s possible. He is signed (again by Chayka) to a seven-year $40.95 million contract he inked in March of 2019. Another player who perhaps was thought to blossom by Chayka, who hasn’t really gotten there yet.
His consistency leaves a lot to be desired. He has had two stretches where he has failed to score a goal totalling 10 (currently) and 11 games. It seems he is another possible trade candidate since he is not really improving up to the expectations of his rich contract. His deal has a no-trade clause starting in 2023-24, so evaluating his status to see his worth still has some time. But, how long do you wait?
While it seems many teams at the trade deadline were inquiring about Dvorak’s availability, is he also stuck in a lull of poor performance? He signed a six-year $26.7 million pact in August of 2018. While he is a skilled 200-foot player, his scoring has not equated to what is expected of him compared to his OHL career where he was a powerhouse scorer with 230 points in two seasons with the London Knights. Welcome to the NHL! He does fit the mould of what Armstrong likes in a player, so he will probably remain, although he will not be a first-line centre in the league, far from it.
Here’s another player with size and potential who was thought to have turned the corner last season when he had 15 goals and 25 points. This season has been a letdown for the big 6′-4″, 220 pound forward. He has really struggled and hit lots of posts, but hasn’t come up with the goals he needs to be noticed. With just four goals and seven assists, the three-year $4.9 million contract may have been overkill.
Sure, he’s big and only plays 13-14 minutes a game, but do you want to keep him on the bottom-six hoping he will improve? He could be traded as big guys are well sought-after commodities in the NHL. More than likely, as with Dvorak, Armstrong will keep him due to his toughness and physical play. Even the team needs a Lawson Crouse.
This young and upcoming defenceman has probably progressed the most especially this season. He now has surpassed Keller and is only two points behind team-leading scorer, Phil Kessel. Chychrun also has averaged 23:10 minutes of ice time telling all concerned that he is doing just fine. He seems to be the first line defenceman replacing Oliver Ekman-Larsson in not only minutes played, but offensive prowess. OEL is only averaging just shy of 21 minutes of play which is his lowest since his rookie year in 2010-11.
That has to mean that Chychrun is the heir apparent first line D-man if and when OEL departs the desert. That may be sooner rather than later, as OEL has even admitted his play is not helping his team win. Is that a roundabout way of saying he may be better off elsewhere? Chychrun isn’t going anywhere and may have a Norris Trophy on his mantle soon. He’s that good. His six-year $27.6 million deal is a bargain until 2024-25. He’s a keeper for sure.
Fischer has been a marginal NHL player who is going in the wrong direction as far as his progress goes. Sure, he’s a good fourth-line player who has the size and can forecheck. But, he has two goals, (yes that’s not a misprint) and the last one was an empty netter. His contract is reasonable with a $1 million AAV through next season. While he will never be a big-time scorer, his contributions need to be better than 16 points in his last 103 games. Many defencemen outscore him with ease. If any of the above-mentioned players are dealt and Fischer may be sent away in the same deal.
Each of these ‘rat pack’ players has value, it’s just how long does Armstrong wait to see production? This fanbase is itching to have a winner. It’s certainly clear that some roster adjustments need to be made to improve their chances. We’ll know soon enough after this season ends. Stick around this could get interesting.