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Neutral Zone: Draft prep, free agents, injured players and Bettman's promise of an All-Star Game and NHL Draft in Tempe
Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo hosted weeklong meetings for the Coyotes scouting staff last week at his Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada. The meetings were necessary for the Coyotes to hammer out their final plans for the NHL Draft in Montréal from July 7-8, but they also provided the opportunity for many members of the scouting staff to forge face-to-face relationships with one another; something that is not always possible for scouts who spend so many days of the year on the road.
“I like where we’re at with the structure of the staff and the guys we have,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “For being in this organization only a couple of years, it’s nice to see how far we’ve been able to move and gain some really quality people.”
The Coyotes have nearly all of the information that they need on draft prospects, so Armstrong said the next three weeks will be about fine-tuning everything.
“We’re at the point where we have talked about all the players — the good, the bad, the ugly. We have all the information, all of the testing in mind; a good understanding of where we are with all those types of things.
“Now Darryl Plandowski and Ryan Jankowski will continue to work on the size of the list, do more research about prospects’ background and we’ll just massage that list. Everybody’s got assignments going back, whether it’s video or background assignments so they’ll just massage that list a little bit and put it in order, and then we’ll fine tune it when we get to Montréal.”
Dylan Guenther to miss Memorial Cup
Edmonton Oil Kings GM Kirt Hill delivered some tough news on Friday. Coyotes prospect Dylan Guenther will not be available to play in the Memorial Cup from June 20-29, due to what the team is calling a lower-body injury sustained in Game 3 of the WHL championship series against Seattle when he took a hit in the corner.
Multiple sources said the injury is to his knee, but it will not require surgery. Guenther is expected to be ready for Coyotes training camp this fall.
Guenther had 45 goals and 91 points in 59 regular-season games for the Oil Kings this season. He added 13 goals and 21 points in 16 playoff games. Saint John (New Brunswick) will host the Memorial Cup, which also features OHL champion Hamilton and QMJHL champion Shawinigan, Edmonton’s opponent in its first game.
The Coyotes were hoping that Guenther would have the opportunity to play in such a memorable event, and Armstrong called the injury “disappointing,” but it is not expected to have any long-term impact. It is still unclear if Guenther will be available to play in the IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta from Aug. 9–20.
Gary Bettman optimistic about Coyotes’ future
When I spoke to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman by phone for a story that I wrote on the so-called Sunbelt experiment, I also asked him about the Tempe City Council’s decision to move forward on negotiations with the Coyotes about their proposed arena and entertainment district.
“What the Coyotes and Tempe have embarked upon is a major undertaking that bodes well for the future, the community and the Coyotes in Arizona,” Bettman said. “We are extraordinarily excited and we’re grateful to the Tempe Council for their support. We have a firm belief that this is a vibrant hockey market and that it can be a successful one with the right arena location.”
Bettman reiterated a promise that he made during the meeting when he said the Coyotes will host both an NHL All-Star Game and an NHL Draft, should the two sides reach a deal.
“I said that they will get a draft and an All-Star Game and I mean it,” Bettman said.
It’s a promise that piqued the interest of the Tempe City Council.
“I expect the Coyotes and the NHL to honor all of their commitments and fulfill all of their promises to the city of Tempe,” Vice Mayor Randy Keating said.
If the arena gets built, Tempe won’t have to worry about that. The NHL has made a habit of awarding All-Star Games to cities with new teams or new arenas, as it did most recently with T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in 2022. The NHL has also promised Seattle an All-Star Game within seven years of the expansion team’s inaugural season of 2021-22.
The Coyotes were originally slated to host an All-Star Game in Glendale during the 2005-06 season. Due to requirements of the new collective bargaining agreement that had been signed one year before, however, the NHL agreed with the NHLPA not to hold an All-Star Game during Winter Olympic years. The players wanted to participate in the Olympics in Turin, Italy in February, which led to the cancellation of the All-Star Weekend in Glendale in late January.
Bettman fully intended to fulfill his promise of an All-Star Game after the City of Glendale signed a 15-year arena lease agreement with the Coyotes’ new IceArizona ownership group in 2013, one that seemingly ensured their long-term future in Glendale. But the city broke that agreement in 2015, irreversibly souring the relationship between the team, the league and the Glendale City Council, and ending the city’s chances of hosting the game.
Bettman’s promise of a draft in Arizona was more of a surprise, given the extreme heat that Arizona endures in late June and early July, but Bettman dismissed such concerns.
“You’re too pessimistic about the resolve of your residents,” he said, laughing.
Armstrong provided injury updates on the laundry list of Coyotes players.
Forward Clayton Keller (broken leg) has not resumed skating despite his hope to have done so by now. He is still in rehab mode but the prognosis for recovery continues to be good. The Coyotes don’t want to put a timetable on his return because it is too early in the process.
Defenseman Conor Timmins was lost for the season with a knee injury on Oct. 14. Armstrong said that he is progressing well.
“He’s going to have a little bit more work done on the knee and get it cleaned out but it’s just a maintenance type of surgery,” Armstrong said. “It’s good and he’s going in the right direction.”
Forward Liam Kirk returned to Tucson earlier in the spring to do rehab work and skating after ACL surgery in November. He is back in the UK now, but he is on track to be ready for camp.
Armstrong said that all of the other injured players have healed and are back to normal. That list includes forwards Lawson Crouse, Christian Fischer, Nick Ritchie and defensemen Jakob Chychrun and Vladislav Kolyachonok.
Armstrong said that he continues to have talks with the team’s restricted free agents (RFAs) and unrestricted free agents (UFAs). Late in the season, he said that RFA forward Lawson Crouse was the next player that the team intended to zero in on to sign to a new contract.
“It’s one of those things where we’re slowly moving forward with it and we continue to talk,” Armstrong said Wednesday. “It’s a process that we have to go through between both sides, but you know, we like the player and we think there’s a deal there to be struck.”
Armstrong said the team is engaged in talks with several other RFAs as well.
Qualifying offers for RFAs are due by July 11. Free agency is set to begin on July 13.
Here is a list of the Coyotes/Roadrunners UFAs and RFAs.
Josef Kořenář (signed a two-year deal with Sparta Praha)
The Coyotes recently announced the signings of Slovakian forward Miloš Kelemen and minor-league defenseman Ronald Knot from Czechia. Kelemen (6-2, 212) played last season for Mladá Boleslav, where former Coyote Radim Vrbata is the sports director. Here is what Armstrong said about him.
“He’s just a beast. He’s exactly what we look for in the identity of our players or our guys that are gonna be third- or fourth-line guys and role players. He’s somebody that’s just got a tremendous heart and he comes to play. Obviously, he’s gonna have to make that adjustment to North American hockey, but he’s somebody that just has a tremendous work ethic. He has size, and he’s got a lot of determination so we’re excited. He had an unbelievable year in the playoffs there in Czechia.”
Kelemen had nine goals and 12 points in 14 playoff games.
Oh, and if you are interested in the pronunciation of Ronald Knot, our Czech expert, Vrbata, provided the goods. You’ll have to watch or listen to Friday’s PHNX_Coyotes show to hear the proper pronunciation.