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When the 2022-23 season began, NHL analysts were not kind to the Coyotes. Most expected them to finish at the bottom of the standings. Some even termed this the worst roster ever assembled in the salary-cap era.
It didn’t pan out that way. Until the Coyotes lost 11 of their final 12 games (1-7-4) to close the season, Arizona was a collection of overachievers and emerging players, fueled by a coach who perfectly straddled the line between boss and friend.
Matias Maccelli pushed his way into the Calder Trophy race. Lawson Crouse set another career-high in goals and points. Christian Fischer regained his scoring touch while never losing his infectiously positive attitude. Connor Ingram opened eyes league-wide while solidifying the goaltending position. Juuso Välimäki proved that there is a regular role for him in the NHL. And Clayton Keller emerged as a bona fide NHL superstar, tying Keith Tkachuk’s single-season Arizona franchise points record (86) on the final night of the season.
Even when GM Bill Armstrong shipped off veterans Jakob Chychrun, Nick Bjugstad, Shayne Gostisbehere, Troy Stecher and Nick Ritchie at the trade deadline, the team took one game to recover before winning six of its next seven games.
“Especially with the situation, I think we battled,” said forward Liam O’Brien said, who thought that tendency showed “the character that we have, the work ethic that we have.
“It sucks that it’s over to be honest. It’s just such a special group of guys. It was just a fun year.”
NHL rosters are prone to turnover and the Coyotes will be no exception in 2023-24. There will be changes to this roster, but that’s not the only question facing the Coyotes in what figures to be one of the most pivotal offseasons in franchise history.
With the draft lottery approaching and a critical vote following shortly thereafter, here are 10 questions as the Coyotes clean out their lockers on break-up day today at the Ice Den Scottsdale.
1. Will Coyotes finally enjoy lottery luck?
Mullett magic was fun, but it didn’t help the Coyotes’ odds at jump-starting their rebuild. Arizona finished the season with the NHL’s sixth-worst record and the corresponding odds of landing presumed top overall pick Connor Bedard, or presumed No. 2 pick Adam Fantilli. That was due in large part to their 21-15-5 record at home.
We have highlighted it many times in the past, but the Coyotes have never enjoyed lottery luck. They have never moved up in the lottery, they have often moved down, and despite missing the postseason in 18 of their 27 Valley seasons, they have never had a top-two pick.
Here’s what the odds currently look like for each team in the NHL’s draft lottery, which is set for May 8 at 4 p.m. Arizona time. If the Coyotes get lucky and jump into the top two, you know the names to watch. If the Coyotes hold their position or fall one spot, the picture gets murkier.
“With everything we do in hockey ops, we always prepare for the best scenario and prepare for the worst,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “You’ve got a chance to win it, but the odds are pretty slim so let’s be honest. If we win we’ll be excited. If we don’t, then it’s back to work.
“It reminds me of the year (2010) with the Blues, where we ended up getting Jaden Schwartz (No. 14) and Vladimir Tarasenko (No. 16). Having two really good players come out of a draft really sets your organization up for a long time and we feel like there’s that possibility this year.”
If it helps at all, I ran one simulation the other day and came up with the following result. For the sake of this beleaguered fan base, I figured I would stop right there.
2. Will Tempe give Coyotes vote of confidence?
Eight days after the potentially pivotal NHL draft lottery, a more pivotal Coyotes event will take place. Tempe voters will decide the fate of the franchise’s proposed arena and entertainment district along the south bank of the Salt River.
Tempe voters will receive their ballots in the mail on Wednesday for propositions 301, 302 and 303. A simple majority vote on each of the propositions means that the arena portion of the Coyotes’ project is a go. If any of the three propositions does not get a majority yes vote on the all mail-in ballots, the project is dead in the water.
There are still lawsuits pending that could tie up other aspects of the project, but those do not impact the arena so theoretically, the Coyotes could begin clean-up of the dump site the following day. It will likely take longer before the project begins, however.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in town on Thursday to stump for the project and he could return if the vote goes in the Coyotes’ favor. The yes and no campaigns will also hold a debate from 6 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday that will be broadcast live on Tempe Channel 11 and live streamed on the City of Tempe website.
The elephant in the room is the other side of the equation: What happens if the vote fails? The league and team have both been mum on that possibility, although sources have indicated that Coyotes do have backup plans.
There have been reports that league owners have grown tired of the Coyotes saga and might demand a swift relocation from Bettman. That’s easier said than done. There are no ready-made solutions for the league if the vote fails, despite superficial reports that have not delved into the realities of the numerous North American markets mentioned. On the flip side, will the league and NHL Board of Governors have the patience to start over yet again?
Rumors of relocation have dogged this franchise for at least 15 years. The Coyotes are hoping they can finally put those to bed on May 16.
3. What will become of lawsuits?
Your guess is as good as anyone’s. Some legal analysts think the City of Phoenix has no case. Some think this suit is destined for a courtroom and an interpretation of the intergovernmental agreement between Phoenix and Tempe. Some believe a settlement is the most likely outcome.
The truth is, nobody knows. The law is complex but one thing is certain: For better or for worse, the American legal system is an effective means to foul up the works and delay this sort of project.
4. What will NHL Draft provide Coyotes?
Assuming the Ottawa Senators do not jump up to the second or third pick from their spot at No. 12 (they cannot jump to No. 1), the Coyotes will have 12 picks at the 2023 NHL Draft; two in the first round, one in the second, four in the third, one in the fourth, and two each in the fifth and sixth rounds.
It seems unlikely that the Coyotes will trade either of their first-round picks, but with 47 picks over the next four drafts, Arizona has the pieces to trade for an existing player if it wants to add a young prospect or NHL player to the mix. Such a move could help accomplish two things: It could give them a more known commodity to add to their core, and it could satisfy the core players who would no doubt like to see some sort of progress made toward eventual playoff contention.
Don’t rule out the possibility of trade on the draft floor either. For example, there was interest in Nick Schmaltz at the trade deadline. He has 117 points in 126 games over the past two seasons. His $5.85 million cap hit over the remaining three years of his deal is no longer viewed as troublesome by other teams. Schmaltz is 27 and could be on the other side of his most productive seasons when the Coyotes are genuinely ready to emerge from this rebuild. His salary also escalates dramatically over the final three years — always a concern for this franchise. He could fetch the Coyotes another first-round pick.
5. Will core members see rebuild through?
See the fourth question for some clues.
It’s one thing for a player to commit to a city and franchise through a long and difficult rebuild. It’s quite another to endure season after season of little progress while the club acquires draft assets and signs veteran players with the expressed goal of flipping them at the deadline for more assets.
GM Bill Armstrong may need to make some concessions to his core this summer to keep them content. No player wants to spend their prime in a perpetual state of rebuild (see Jakob Chychrun) with no hope of competing in the playoffs.
6. How will Coyotes handle Cooley, Guenther?
It’s hard to say until Cooley makes a decision on whether to return to the University of Minnesota for another year, or turn pro. Guenther will certainly be in Arizona next season, but it remains to be seen whether he will make the NHL club or spend some time in Tucson where he can develop away from the pressure cooker of the NHL, which affords no time for development.
Both Armstrong and assistant GM John Ferguson Jr. have espoused a belief that it is better to over-bake prospects in the AHL than to rush them to the NHL. That philosophy could be put to the test with Guenther and maybe even Cooley. Both need to get stronger and work on the details of their games to succeed in the NHL. Will management commit to ironing out those issues in the AHL, or let them work through those issues in the NHL?
7. How will Coyotes resolve goalie situation?
As of now, Karel Vejmelka is signed for two more seasons while Ivan Prosvetov and Connor Ingram will both be restricted free agents with arbitration rights after the season. Neither one will be waivers exempt, creating a dilemma for the team at 2023 training camp.
Arizona gave Ivan Prosvetov a good, long look late this season. After three promising starts in March, Prosvetov did not play well in April, allowing 23 goals on 129 shots (.833 save percentage). He has the only negative goals saved above expected total of the Coyotes’ three goalies.
“Ivan has shown two different sides. He has shown an elite side, and then there’s this fluctuation where he hasn’t been as good,” Armstrong said. “He’s got to work on that. It’s been a great opportunity for us to see him at this level here instead of waiting until next year and then we get two exhibition games and here we go.”
Theoretically, the Coyotes could put Prosvetov on waivers this fall and keep him in Tucson for another year of development, but all it would take is for one team to like his potential and the Coyotes could lose him for nothing. They do not have another goalie ready to replace him as Tucson’s No. 1 guy.
If that is their fear, then they will have to make a decision on either Ingram or Vejmelka. It makes little sense to walk away from Ingram’s contract because he is still an RFA, so a draft-day or preseason trade could be an option, depending on the market value for those two players.
8. Will Coyotes extend André Tourigny and staff?
Tourigny and his entire staff will be entering the final years of their contracts in 2023-24. I asked Armstrong how he sees that contract status playing out.
“We’ll sit down after the season to go through where we’re at: the good, the bad and the improvements we’d like to see,” he said. “There will be a lot of meetings where you listen to feedback on the coaches and the players and where we’re going and what we need to do to get better. Then you’ve got to take some time.
“We’re very transparent with everybody in our organization about pretty much everything and we’re just trying to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction. That could be a decision that’s a summertime thing. It could be in the fall. It could be at Christmas. We’ll see how that proceeds. We’ll focus on our [free agents] first and then get to that.”
Tourigny will be the head coach for Hockey Canada at the upcoming IIHF World Championship. Without the benefit of the deep dive that management will conduct on Tourigny and his staff this summer, here are Armstrong’s general impressions of Tourigny.
“He is exactly what I described when we hired him,” Armstrong said. “He is extremely focused, he brings culture into your organization and at the same time, he can get the best out of the players without leaving a scar.
“There were some other guys that were right in the running for the job and I felt that they were really good coaches, but at the end of the day, I was concerned that they would push so hard that they would leave a scar. With him, I wasn’t worried about that. I knew he would push to get the most out of them but at the same time he was not going to leave those scars. The proof is in the pudding. He’s done a nice job getting buy-in from everyone — from the older players to the young guys.
“We’re at a transition point as an organization. We’re not elite, so when players enjoy coming to the rink just because of the culture and what’s asked of them and they know they’ll get treated fairly, that’s a good situation. He has provided a really good culture for the players to get better.”
9. How will trip Down Under impact season?
The NHL officially announced this week that the Coyotes will play two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Kings in Melbourne, Australia on Sept. 23 and Sept. 24 at Rod Laver Arena. The Coyotes will spend a total of nine days in Australia, eating up the majority of their training camp time.
The team does not know yet how many players it will take, but I asked coach André Tourigny for his thoughts.
“Bill and I and the management had a little bit of opportunity to talk about it,” he said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us. We’ll have a chance to have a limited number of players going all together to kind of have a head start on team building, team play, special teams, spending time together. During that time, we’ll have games here in Arizona as well so plenty of players will have an opportunity to showcase themselves. There’s a lot of positives in that way.
“The main question on the hockey side is always how it will be energy-wise and physically? I will answer you around Sept. 26. I asked colleagues and guys who did it. It [ranged] from fantastic to really tough. We’ll take the fantastic.”
Here’s what Tourigny said about player selection for the trip.
“There’s a lot of details that need to be done in terms of playing and logistics over there. It’s in collaboration with the NHL. I know we need to bring a high number of veterans because it’s to promote the league so you want us as close as possible to our team. They don’t really care about the guys that we will pick this year at the draft. That’s not really what they want, but I don’t know if that’s in black and white.”
10. What will next season look like?
If you’re expecting the Coyotes to be a playoff team next season, you are probably either delusional or just a pollyanna fan. They won’t be a playoff team but they would like to take steps toward that goal next season. Some of that progress could be impacted by where they land in the draft lottery, and some of it will depend on the continued progress of their core and young players, but some of it could also be impacted by players whom they acquire via trades or free agency.
In a nutshell, this may not be a complete repeat of the past two seasons. The Coyotes may start looking for some young pieces who can grow with the team. They have the draft assets (and other assets) with which to acquire them.
“I think we’ve got a couple of pieces where we can go out and add more, but we’re certainly not going to get carried away with it,” Armstrong said. “There were teams that you saw in the summer that got carried away with it and it didn’t really get them where they wanted to go.
“You’ve got to let the team itself — the core pieces — drive you where you’re gonna go. If that’s in the playoffs then we’ve got lots of options to go acquire players and make us even better. But if we’re not there yet, we’ve got to let that happen naturally and not force it by all of the sudden signing somebody to a huge amount of money and not actually getting any better, and then you end up paying for it in the longer term. We have to let our players — the players that are here in our core — dictate where we’re going.”
Top photo courtesy of Getty Images
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