Expansion Draft Preview: Arizona Coyotes

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

When you look at the Arizona Coyotes’ stats, the thing that jumps out at you is the plus-minus column. Of the players who put on the ‘Yotes jersey for at least 5 games last season, exactly 1 — defenseman Alex Goligoski — was above 0. How Arizona expects to make the playoffs with such consistently abysmal defensive performance is beyond me — especially when the offensive output is equally unremarkable.

Arizona is somewhat in “reset mode” at present. Several years back they threw the entire league a curve-ball by hiring a twenty-something stats wonk with zero history in hockey as their General Manager. You read that right. It’s as if they decided to replace a combat-proven F-15 fighter pilot with the guy who came in first in the Drone Racing League.

Predictably, that experiment went completely to hell just this past year, with the individual in question resigning from the club. It was uncovered shortly thereafter that he had egregiously violated league rules pertaining to the amateur draft, and was suspended from taking part in operations for any NHL team. That left his successor, Bill Armstrong, with a middling roster that finished the season 9 points out of a playoff spot, but only 11 points north of last place in the West Division.

Faced with this mess, (now former) Head Coach Rick Tochett had the proverbial line blender on “Puree” most nights trying to find any kind of scoring chemistry and put games in the win column. It didn’t work, with just one player reaching the 20-goal plateau (Phil Kessel) and just 6 players cracking the 30 point mark on the season. No defense plus no offense means a losing season, and that’s exactly what the results were.

And as if this wasn’t enough, the Coyotes recently underwent a change in ownership, and a scathing report in one of the major hockey media outlets went into startling detail about allegations of stiffing vendors with legally binding contracts, failure to pay employees, COVID-19 health policy calamities, sexual harassment, and a toxic work environment — and singling out the owner by name as the cause of the problems across the board. Despite the team having been taken over by the league several years ago following insolvency, new ownership still managed to lower the bar for hockey in the desert.

Given the level of chaos surrounding this club at every level, we must first introduce the caveat that the details shown below are subject to significant and unpredictable change. When the team owner could be in jail or sued into bankruptcy at any moment — or, not — nothing on the team operations level is certain. Additionally, with a team performing so poorly and a new GM taking control of the purse strings, there may be a significant amount of movement in the Coyotes’ roster even before the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft gets underway. Armstrong most recently spent 15 years in the St. Louis front office, so expect him to be eyeing some acquisitions from the recently-eliminated Blues’ lineup.

Protected List

The advantage the Coyotes have given themselves is that 4 of their top 6 earning defensemen will be unrestricted free agents come summer. This allows Arizona to use the 7-3-1 protection scheme without worrying about who they might lose from their defensive ranks — they’re going to lose two-thirds of them anyhow — and makes the question of who gets protected an easy one to sort out.

So with Arizona using the 7-3-1 protection scheme, we predict the following players will be protected:

Forwards: Clayton Keller, Phil Kessel (NMC), Nick Schmaltz, Christian Dvorak, Tyler Pitlick, Lawson Crouse, Conor Garland

Defensemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson (NMC), Jakob Chychrun, Kyle Capobianco

Goaltender: Darcy Kuemper

We will note here that there is the usual list of players with expiring contracts who will be neither protected nor selected. Those names include forward Derick Brassard; the aforementioned defensive quartet of Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, and Jordan Oesterle; and goaltender Antti Raanta. And finally, nobody who made a significant contribution to the Coyotes this season is exempt from the draft, making Arizona one of only a handful of teams in this circumstance.

Who’s Left?

The remaining choices consist mostly of middle-career forwards on expiring contracts, as most of the defensemen who are left unprotected are pending free agents. There is a goalie on the list, but as you will see, that situation is definitely “buyer beware.”

C Johan Larsson, $1.4 million AAV, signed through 2022. It’s hard to get a read on what a guy is capable of when he spent his entire career with Buffalo. That’s the situation with Larsson, who logged 14 minutes a night in his first season with the Coyotes, contributing 14 points in 52 games, and winning just shy of half his face-offs. He also has more than his share of fight videos on YouTube.

RW Christian Fischer, $1 million AAV, signed through 2022. A defensive forward who is minus-38 for his career doesn’t look like a good deal, but it’s possible that his surroundings are a contributing factor. A product of the US National Team Development Program, Fischer notched 90 points in 66 games with the OHL Windsor Spitfires prior to turning pro. Fischer has 74 points in 265 career NHL games, contributing 530 hits in the process. A true utility forward, he plays up and down the lineup and logs time on both the power play and penalty kill. Not bad for a cool $1 million.

LW Dryden Hunt, $750,000 AAV, RFA. 72 games, 58 goals, 58 assists — 116 points. That was Dryden Hunt’s claim to fame with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors in 2015-16, and it was enough to put the undrafted forward on Florida’s radar. He followed that up with several consistent and productive seasons (though nothing that rivaled his pace in Juniors) with the AHL Springfield Thunderbirds before signing with Arizona this year. If the kid ever returns to that level of output, watch out. So far all he has shown is potential.

C Lane Pederson, $737,500 AAV, RFA. Briefly with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Pederson earned his first NHL action this season after three productive years with the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate Tuscon Roadrunners. A right-shot center who holds his own at the dot, he is an opportunistic scorer who the Coyotes were using on their #2 power play unit to end the season. Pederson could see middle-six assignments within 2-3 years.

C Frederik Gauthier, $700,000 AAV, RFA. The 6’5″ first-round flame-out still plays a solid defensive game, though he only cracked the Coyotes’ lineup for 2 games this season. He has performed consistently well at the face-off dot, has competitive speed, and does use his big frame to lower the boom. He would be an imposing figure centering the fourth line, and the cost can’t be beat.

RD Ilya Lyubushkin, $1 million AAV, signed through 2022. A right-shot defenseman with reasonable instincts; gives you 14 minutes a night on the bottom pairing, where he averages 1 blocked shot and 3 hits per game. His best asset is, he’s cheap.

G Adin Hill, $800,000 AAV, RFA. Hill is the consensus pick from the Coyotes, but the former Portland Winterhawk may not be ready for the big time. He has had some terrific performances this year, but his consistency is a serious problem. To wit: notching the win while allowing 2 goals on 38 shots against LA on April 5th; then fast forward 2 nights later when the Kings lit him up for 4 goals on 30 shots. Same team, same arena, double the goals against on fewer shots: what happened? Two days after that he made 27 saves, let in 5, and got yanked after 40 minutes. Every decent showing is mirrored with one or more painfully bad efforts, and the jury is still out on whether this kid can cut it in the NHL. That having been said, Hill has value as a trade asset for teams with porous goaltending; for that reason I hope that the Kraken only select Hill if they can immediately flip him for a more valuable asset.

Not Cut And Dried

With the Coyotes in disarray all the way from the executive board room down to ice level, Arizona’s GM might just decide this is the perfect time for a shake-up — send somebody like Nick Schmaltz or Christian Dvorak over to the Kraken for a young defenseman to help replenish the depleted ranks. That would certainly be a preferable outcome given the disappointing list of choices shown above.

In the absence of a deal that sends assets to Arizona in exchange for something more substantial, this decision is definitely not cut and dried. The good news is, none of these choices is going to dent the bank account in a significant way. The bad news is, they’re not going to dent the scoresheet much either. It will depend on what the Kraken think they need, and what they can arrange with other teams.

The only marketable asset is the goaltender Hill, who could potentially be flipped to a team in need of a young, cheap goaltender. Lyubushkin doesn’t measure up to the other bottom-pairing blueliners available in the draft, so I don’t think he’ll get much of a look. Beyond that I would argue that any of Fischer, Hunt, or Pederson could make the Kraken’s opening night lineup, or at least provide some depth in the minors.

Watch for the glow on the southern horizon as Arizona may be burning some bridges in order to right the ship and put a competitive team on the ice next season. How the Kraken fit into those plans, we’re left to wait and see.

Author: Tim Currell

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