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A step forward: Coyotes make good on offseason goal with surprising signings in NHL free agency

Craig Morgan Avatar
July 2, 2023

The Coyotes marketing department may have other thoughts, but if the team needs a tagline for the 2023-24 season, Bill Armstrong’s pre-draft prognostication may have supplied it. 

Expect the unexpected

Three days after the scouting department shocked the NHL Draft audience by selecting defenseman Dmitri Simashev at No. 6 and his Yaroslavl teammate Daniil But at No. 12, the Coyotes were at it again in free agency, signing forwards Jason Zucker and Alex Kerfoot on Saturday, along with once-and-future Coyotes Nick Bjugstad and Troy Stecher.

The Coyotes GM said Friday that the approach to free agency would be “to make our team better for tomorrow, but not worse in three to four years.” But he also noted that the team would not “be shopping in the Gucci or the Prada aisles,” instead looking for value players on short-term deals.

Given the Coyotes’ perennially tight budget, most analysts figured that meant more players in the Sean Durzi or Jusso Välimäki ilk; up-and-comers or players that could fill in around the team’s core of Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Lawson Crouse, Barrett Hayton, JJ Moser and Co., but do so on low-dollar deals.

When the team announced Stecher, the assumption seemed sound, but Stecher’s analysis of why he was willing to return to a franchise riddled with drama supplied part of the explanation for what was to follow.

“I felt the same way before I got to Arizona,” he said. “It’s one thing to look on the outside and say, ‘no rink and they haven’t been that successful as an organization.’ And then once you get there as a player, it’s completely different than the perception. You’re surrounded with such good people that have a passion for the game, and that want to make an organization something special. I truly believe they’re going in the right direction.”

There were other factors at play in Zucker’s and Kerfoot’s decisions to sign. Zucker grew up in the Las Vegas area so the idea of playing in the desert felt familiar. He also took a bet-on-me, one-year deal for $5.3 million. 

Zucker was a top-six forward in Pittsburgh last season, playing primarily on the left side of Evgeni Malkin’s line, and on the team’s second power-play unit. He had 27 goals and 48 points, but it’s not unreasonable to think he might get an even greater opportunity in Arizona and be able to cash in next summer when the salary cap is due to climb significantly for the first time since the pre-Covid years.

“It’s an unbelievable organization with a lot of great young talent,” Zucker said. “Everyone from Clayton Keller to [Nick] Schmaltz to [Matias] Maccelli, [Barrett] Hayton, [Logan] Cooley — all the way down the lineup they’ve got some amazing talent so I’m really looking forward to getting there, getting to know the guys. Now being the old guy on the team, I’m looking forward to hopefully helping bring a little bit of leadership to that side.”

Kerfoot took a little more security to come to Arizona on the same average salary that he made on his last contract, but it was also a bet-on-me approach for the 28-year-old.

“He’s glue for us,” said Armstrong, who expects Kerfoot to be a middle-six forward. “He’s somebody that can come in and play left wing, right wing, center, take draws, play the PK, PP. He provides something different. Sometimes when you have young centermen that come into the game, he can protect them. As a coach, you love this guy because he can kind of do anything that you need that night to help you win.”

With Bjugstad’s return also cemented, the Coyotes forward group went from one with lots of holes and questions to one that was undoubtedly better than the previous two seasons. The first-day additions also brought a heavy dose of character and good-guy vibes, given the dressing room reputations of Zucker, Bjugstad, Kerfoot and Stecher.

A forward lineup with Keller, Hayton, Schmaltz, Zucker, Kerfoot, Bjugstad, Crouse, Maccelli, Jack McBain and Dylan Guenther gives coach André Tourigny some interesting options, if still not enough depth.

“He’s a great coach and I enjoyed playing for him so that was a huge reason for me,” Bjugstad said of his decision to return. “I definitely want to keep expanding my game and keep growing it. Obviously, I’m a little older now, but I still feel like under Bear’s coaching and his style, I can continue to get better, and get better with the team. That was probably my biggest reason.”

New Coyotes forward Alex Kerfoot.
Alexander Kerfoot waits for a faceoff during Game 5 of the Maple Leafs’ second-round series against the Florida Panthers in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. (Getty Images)

In addition to those signings, the team also re-signed Tucson forward Travis Barron and Roadrunners defenseman Cam Crotty, while adding goaltender Matt Villalta to the AHL mix to provide competition for Ivan Prosvetov. 

The signings on Saturday pushed the Coyotes total cap hit a shade over $67 million and their total salary expenditures past $61 million, meaning they are now over the cap floor in both areas. 

When restricted free agents McBain, Maccelli, Prosvetov, Jan Jeník and Nathan Smith sign (all received qualifying offers), the Coyotes will have 45 of their maximum 50 contract slots filled (although Maveric Lamoureux and Conor Geekie won’t count when they go back to juniors). That doesn’t mean that they are finished. Per sources, the Coyotes were in pursuit of one more significant name on the free-agent market, with discussions ongoing.

“You can try to aim for targets, but they’re moving targets to be honest with you because sometimes you’re just not a good fit for the particular player and then other times you do get great fits,” Armstrong said. “You think you’re in on somebody, but it doesn’t work out and then you have to kind of pivot and move to a different direction.

“I like what we were able to get on the first day, and it gives us a lot of flexibility. We have young kids that are going to come in. What it does is it provides us shelter for them and time for this group to grow. At the same time, it provides us with a competitive lineup that has a chance to push to play meaningful games. We showed signs of it last year and now we’ve got to build off that and take it to the next level.”

Top photo of Jason Zucker via Getty Images

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