As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Arizona Coyotes offseason.
Arizona Coyotes Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
This list is LONG. They have, believe it or not, 11 unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents on the roster. That includes taxi squad players from last season. It can be assumed that this team will look completely different for the 2021-22 upcoming season. The most critical thing right now that faces newly appointed general manager Bill Armstrong is replacing Rick Tocchet behind the bench. The two sides came to a mutual decision that Tocchet would not be extended a contract renewal. As this is being written, at least three head coaching candidates have been interviewed or plan to be interviewed shortly. Keep tuned on that.
The UFA’s on the team include Derick Brassard, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Jordan Oesterle, Aaron Ness, Antti Raanta, and Michael Chaput. There are also three UFA G6 players who did not accrue the required games by age 25. They include Hudson Fasching, Michael Bunting, and Jordan Gross. The five RFA’s are Conor Garland, Dryden Hunt, John Hayden, Lane Pederson, and Adin Hill. As duly noted, the list is long and will test Armstrong’s managerial skills to the hilt. Out of seven regulars on the blueline, only three Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakob Chychrun, and Ilya Lyubushkin are under contract for the next season.
You can bet that Armstrong will be looking to the free agent marketplace for some help on the blueline in the Arizona Coyotes offseason. He no doubt will be entertaining trade options as well.
Salary Cap Outlook
The good news with all the free agents on the roster is that the team will have an estimated $31.4 million in cap space barring any of the players listed above re-signing with the team. They may not spend every penny as it has been mentioned by Arizona Coyotes insider, Craig Morgan the team may be spending in the $65 million range due to losses that owner Alex Meruelo sustained during the pandemic. Per Morgan:
“This is an enormously important offseason for GM Bill Armstrong. Right now, the Coyotes are projected to have a little more than $31 million in cap space. But this could change, based on other moves.
I don’t expect them to be able to spend all of that. Last season, I was told there was an internal cap of about $65 million and the Coyotes got below that threshold with the Derek Stepan trade. That cap may inch up by a couple million this season, but the Coyotes will not be a cap-ceiling team in their current economic situation — especially after losing so much money last season during the pandemic.”
Needless to say, former GM John Chayka gave out long-term contracts to Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, and Nick Schmaltz and while he may have thought the players deserved the deal, thus far they really haven’t been tearing up the league.
Major Likely Departures
The talented defenceman who gives up his body blocking shots will more than likely be playing back in his native Sweden next season. The 34-year-old rearguard wants to go back home and who can blame him. While he may be missed especially by the goaltenders on the team for his shot blocking abilities, his $5 million cap hit will go towards attracting some new players as the teams reevaluates its roster.
Another aging D-man at 33 who just didn’t seem to help the team all that much. He was a healthy scratch for a number of games under coach Tocchet. If he still wants to play in the NHL, he will seek a new team to do so. While he was a terrific locker room guy, on the ice his performance was below par. Some team will sign him. He will take a pay cut for certain with the Coyotes adding another $3.9375 million to their coiffures.
While Oesterle gained some notoriety playing well in last season’s bubble playoffs, his play went downhill this season. He too found himself in the press box for a number of games. There is a slight chance he could be re-signed. But more than likely depending on the talent Armstrong attracts to the desert, he will become a free agent.
His play wasn’t exceptional when you consider he only tallied eight goals in 53 games and had a hat trick one game. He will be 34 in September and while he is a veteran, the team seems to be moving towards younger players. Brassard will find some team who will want his experience and leadership going forward.
Hayden was brought on to contribute toughness and to some extent he did that. It’s just that five points in 29 games is not anything exceptional. He will sign with a team who needs his attributes.
Losing Raanta is a dual edged sword. He has decent statistics when he plays; he doesn’t stay healthy enough to make a difference or to be relied upon when needed. If he can determine how to limit his health issues, he will be able to contribute to an NHL team as a backup. He just isn’t in the picture anymore in Arizona, and that’s something that will be a huge question mark on his career going forward.
Major Likely Re-Signings
This player may just be the heart and soul of the Coyotes. They have been negotiating a new contract for him and it’s likely to be in the $4.5-5.5 million range. A term of two to three years seems right. While he was grossly underpaid the last two seasons at a measly $775,000, his well deserved pay increase is on the way. There were rumours recently before the trade deadline of him possibly being traded, but the Yotes would be crazy to let him go… at least for now.
He had a really good season this year, and helped craft Chychrun into a top-notch blueliner. Losing him would not make sense, and even if he takes a pay cut at age 35, he can still play. Some (including this writer) believe he had a better season that OEL. While the team wants to stay younger, a defenceman like “Goose” is hard to find. Armstrong had some good words of praise about his play, so he will stay if they can agree on contract terms.
This guy who lingered in the AHL really came into his own this season. Scoring 10 goals and 13 points in 23 games really showed that he has arrived as an NHL player. The Coyotes need his aggressive playing style and go to the net mentality. Keeping him around for a few more years will really help this team achieve their goal of being a regular playoff team. He’s that good. The plus here of signing him before the expansion draft will be he can then be protected. Get it done, GMBA.
Last but not least, is Hill. Given that the team is still determining whether to protect Darcy Kuemper or Hill, signing Hill at some point seems to be vital. If they leave him unprotected and Seattle doesn’t select him, the Arizona club needs to sign him. With Kumeper’s contract expiring in 2022 and his future with the team questionable, Hill is the next in line to take over in between the pipes either as a starter or a backup. His play has improved noticeably and he has matured well over this past season when called into duty when Kuemper went down with an injury.
Potential Free Agent Additions
The Coyotes desperately need a first line centre, but whether they can attract one to the desert is the big question over the summer. With names like Patrik Laine and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out there, those are great options to help the Arizona Coyotes offseason goals. Another need will be on the blueline. Whether Armstrong can get at least three defencemen to add to the roster will be vital to their usually strong defence. A guy like Dougie Hamilton would be more than ideal, if they afford him. He will be a free agent and has been making $5.75 million. And don’t forget that Seth Jones has made it known that he will be leaving the Columbus Blue Jackets.
With the forecasted cap space available for GM Armstrong, the Arizona Coyotes offseason needs must include moves to improve the team. The playoffs has to be their goal, and getting the players who can take them there as well as a new head coach leading the way… things could really improve in Arizona.