© 2023 BSN LIVE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
When the 2022 NHL trade deadline had passed, there were some surprises in Arizona.
It was surprising that the Coyotes didn’t trade forward Phil Kessel, who absolutely wanted to go to a playoff team. It was surprising that they traded goalie Scott Wedgewood, who absolutely wanted to stay. It was surprising that two of the top college players in the nation ended up in Arizona because they wanted to be here, and it was surprising that another goaltender was on his way to the Valley via the waiver wire.
Whatever you thought of those disparate events or the retention of defenseman Jakob Chychrun, one thing was as clear at noon on Monday as it was on the day that Bill Armstrong arrived as general manager.
“When you go through the rebuild you want to keep moving forward,” Armstrong said. “That’s what this was all about; all of these moves. They were about making sure we got better and we feel like we got bigger, faster, younger and yet we were able to keep our (draft) picks intact when you consider the picks we got earlier for Ilya Lybushkin and the picks we got at the deadline.”
Here is a breakdown of the Coyotes’ moves and non-moves before the deadline.
Jakob Chychrun stays
As the deadline drew nearer, it became more and more likely that Chychrun was going to remain a Coyote for the time being. Armstrong set his price high and no team was willing to match that price.
There was always the chance that a playoff team would feel the pressure to make a splash at the deadline, but Armstrong was perfectly content to hold onto a prized asset. When the NHL Draft commences in July, teams will have a clear picture of the league salary cap and their own financial situations. Theoretically, that could mean as many as 31 teams could show interest in Chychrun, and that competition could at least produce the return that the Coyotes are seeking, if not create a bidding war.
It has been stated 100 times already but Chychrun is 23, he is on a favorable contract for three more years with an average annual value of $4.6 million and his best years are still ahead of him. People can gripe all they want about the asking price. Armstrong doesn’t care. He’s not budging off his ask, even if his own asset would prefer to go to a team that has a chance of winning now.
“It just wasn’t there, the right pieces,” Armstrong said. “When you’re coming down the stretch, you’re dealing sometimes with six teams that might have the pieces and they don’t really want to break apart their team.
“There might be a greater opportunity this summer and we’re certainly open to listening.”
Phil Kessel stays
Let’s clear this up off the hop. Phil Kessel wanted to be traded to a playoff team on Monday. It didn’t matter that he had a newborn daughter at home. It didn’t matter that he had a great relationship with his teammates. Kessel wanted out, just as he has all season, and his camp was not happy that a trade did not materialize.
Kessel’s contract had already been cut when the Maple Leafs traded him to Pittsburgh in 2015. Toronto retained $1.2 million. That meant that the lowest the Coyotes could get with retained salary on the remaining $6.8-million hit was a $3.4-million hit (50 percent maximum).
Teams were not willing to acquire that hit and the Coyotes could not retain salary because they had already used their third and final retention to trade Johan Larsson to the Washington Capitals.
It’s easy to say that a team should have taken a flier on Kessel because of past playoff performances. He has 39 points in 62 games, but Kessel is trending toward the lowest goal total of his career and his game has clearly slipped since those prime years.
If he wants to play for a playoff team, he’ll have to wait until the summer when he becomes a free agent. The Coyotes won’t re-sign him and he doesn’t want to come back. Whether his discontent over the lack of a deal becomes an issue in the dressing room for the final month of the season is a storyline worth monitoring, but that has not been Kessel’s style with the Coyotes.
“If he wants to continue to play well and try and have a run to play next season, it’s up to him,” Armstrong said. “I’m sure where he’s at is probably a little bit disappointed, but it wasn’t due to lack of effort on our part. It’s just the way the cookie crumbled. It’s just one of those things where the majority of teams couldn’t squeeze him in. It just wasn’t a thought for them.”
Johan Larsson to Capitals
Trade talks began heating up on Larsson over the weekend with several teams in pursuit. In the end, the Coyotes needed to retain 50 percent of the prorated portion of his $1.8-million salary (about $439,000) to complete a deal that netted them Washington’s third-round pick in 2023.
There was some concern that Larsson’s sports hernia surgery would scare teams off, but Larsson was scheduled to return to full practice on Monday before the Coyotes canceled practice.
Larsson, 29, will be a UFA after this season. He showed some offensive life with six goals and 10 points in his final 12 games before the surgery. His main value, however, will come as a rugged and defensive-minded center who can sustain a forecheck. The projected return for him was always a mid-round pick so the Coyotes did about as well as they could have for him.
In a smaller move, the Coyotes sent recently waived center Riley Nash back to Tampa Bay for future considerations. He will report to Syracuse of the AHL, but given the war of attrition that is the NHL playoffs, Nash will likely have the opportunity to help the two-time defending Cup champions; a team that never wanted to lose him when it waived him to become cap compliant after bringing forward Nikita Kucherov off LTIR.
Jack McBain, Nathan Smith acquisitions
Armstrong has been fighting a national narrative that players don’t want to come play for the Coyotes. He did a credible job of dispelling that notion on Sunday and Monday when he acquired Boston College center Jack McBain from the Minnesota Wild for a 2022 second-round pick (Vancouver’s), and Minnesota State forward Nathan Smith from the Winnipeg Jets, along with the contract of injured forward Bryan Little, in exchange for a 2022 fourth-round pick.
The Coyotes signed McBain to a two-year entry-level deal on Monday and he is expected to report as soon as his injured ankle heals. The Coyotes would like to give him a taste of NHL hockey this season.
McBain had 19 goals and 33 points in 24 games to lead BC in scoring this season as a senior. He had no desire to play for the Wild because he felt they were set at center for the foreseeable future, with Ryan Hartman on the top line, Freddy Gaudreau on the second line, Joel Eriksson Ek in the first year of an eight-year contract and 2020 first-round pick Marco Rossi expected to make the team next season.
“I’ve watched him since he’s 16 years old so I’ve known him for a long time,” Armstrong said of McBain. “He can play center, he played wing for the Canadian Olympic team, but he is big and he plays a hard game. That’s something that we loved about him right from the get-go.”
Smith finished second in the nation in points this season with 49 (18 goals, 31 assists) in 34 games. He is a Hobey Baker finalist and he will lead his team in the NCAA Tournament first-round game on Thursday against Harvard and fellow Coyotes prospect John Farinacci.
Arizona State faced Minnesota State late in the season and Sun Devils coach Greg Powers came away impressed by Smith.
“That kid is a stud,” Powers said. “He’s been a skill guy for a long time and has developed into a 200-foot center who does it all: wins draws, very responsible and still has elite ability to make plays. Not many teams in college hockey had an answer for him all year.”
Armstrong likes his compete level.
“We always have a saying that it’s easier to tame the tiger than paint stripes on the kitty cat,” Armstrong said. “That’s him, he’s a hothead at times and gets a little carried away, but he’s a physical player, he comes to play every single shift, and he’s got skills, he can make plays, he can score. We just love the way he plays.”
Time will tell whether either center pans out in the NHL, but prospects guru Chris Peters that said of the college players that moved Monday, these were the two best, with Smith being the best.
“I think the Coyotes got two guys that are going to play for them,” Peters said. “McBain is kind of a middle-six power forward who has decent enough skill, but not amazing. His offense took off this year, but I’m not sure how much I buy it after three years of almost nothing, but experience helps.
“Nathan Smith is one of the best players in NCAA this year. He’s legit. I think Winnipeg was pretty bummed to learn he would not sign with them. I think literally every team that had a free contract would try to sign him if they could. He’s skilled, disciplined and a lot stronger off the puck than he has been at any point in his career.”
As for Little, Armstrong confirmed that the once terrific forward won’t be able to play again due to a serious head injury that has left a lasting impact. He was on LTIR with Winnipeg but the Coyotes will just place him on IR and use his $5.29-million cap hit to help their efforts to get to the floor.
Vejmelka extended, Säteri arrives
It’s remarkable how far Karel Vejmelka has come in less than one NHL season. When the Coyotes signed him to a one-year, two-way deal on May 5, nobody expected him to make the NHL roster, not even his agent, Ryan Barnes. The plan was for Vejmelka to be part of an AHL tandem in Tucson with Ivan Prosvetov.
On Monday, the Czech import signed a three-year extension with an average annual value of $2.725 million.
Vejmelka still has to find consistency in his game. He has a dozen or so elite starts and half of his 34 starts have been quality starts, per hockey-reference.com metrics, but he has also had some rough outings where he has struggled with positioning and tracking. His overall numbers are mediocre (3.35 GAA, .905 save percentage, minus-4.1 goals saved above average).
Armstrong has been candid about Vejmelka’s future. While he sees great potential from this first season, and he likes the fact that Vejmelka has adjusted to the grind of the NHL schedule, he knows that teams will develop a scouting book on Vejmelka and pinpoint his weaknesses.
“We won’t really know what we have in him for a full year,” Armstrong said recently.
With the extension, the Coyotes are at least banking on Vejmelka being a consistent NHL goalie.
On a related goaltending front, the Coyotes claimed Finnish goalie Harri Säteri off waivers from Toronto, one day after the Maple Leafs signed him to a one-year, one-way deal worth $750,000. Due to his signing from the KHL’s Novosibirsk Sibir, Sateri was required to clear waivers before joining the Leafs.
Säteri led Finland to the gold medal at the Olympics in Beijing, going 5-0 with a 1.00 GAA and a .962 save percentage. The 32-year-old also posted a 14-16-5 record with a 2.02 GAA and .926 save percentage in 38 games in the KHL this past season.
He was a fourth-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2008. Coyotes goalie coach Corey Schwab and AGM John Ferguson Jr. worked with him there. If Säteri plays well he could earn another contract. If not, he’s a stopgap replacement for Scott Wedgewood for the rest of there season.
Scott Wedgewood departs
Scott Wedgewood didn’t want it to come to this. His agent, Jordan Neumann, had started contract talks with Armstrong and there was hope that Wedgewood’s nomadic NHL existence had finally come to an end with a one-way contract in Arizona.
Unfortunately for Wedgewood, he played well in an extended trial with the Coyotes while the Dallas Stars’ once overstocked stable of goaltenders had dwindled to Jake Oettinger. The Stars needed a goalie for the playoff push and they were willing to part with a conditional fourth-round pick in 2023 that could become a third-round pick if they make the playoffs this season.
Suddenly, Armstrong had the chance to flip a goalie he had acquired off waivers for a potentially good pick. That’s simple asset management and Armstrong had to take the deal, even if it meant walking away from Wedgewood’s offer of a one-year contract for $925,000.
“It’s a business when it comes down to it,” Wedgewood said. “They got me for free and they got something out of me. If you look at that as a GM, they win. They got some games, they got some wins, they get a pick. You have to do it.”
Despite the shattered dream, Wedgewood, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, won’t rule out an Arizona return.
“If the situation comes back and I can’t go anywhere else, I wouldn’t be opposed to talking to them again,” he said. “I’m not upset with anybody. I love living here. I love the guys, the team has always been good to me. There’s no hard feelings. I just want a chance to play.”
Wedgewood should get that opportunity in Dallas. Braden Holtby is still hurt and the Stars don’t have any other goalies beyond Oettinger in the organization who have played an NHL game. Wedgewood was in the playoff bubble as a black ace with Tampa in 2020. He never played a game but he got a taste of how the other half lives after languishing in New Jersey and Arizona.
“Honestly, it lit a different fire under me,” he said. “I wasn’t very happy with hockey in Syracuse and my situation, but watching them win the Stanley Cup and then signing in Jersey and getting a chance to play when Corey Crawford retired sort of rekindled the flame and gave me a new lease on life. I definitely want to do it again and get my name engraved on it.”
Wedgewood will experience some familiar challenges as he changes teams again. His wife Brittany will stay behind in the Valley to hold her bachelorette party next month. The couple were married about two years ago but they never held a ceremony due to COVID so that will be held this summer in Ontario.
He also has a whole lot of cool Coyotes gear (pads, gloves, mask) that have suddenly become obsolete.
“I still had a black stick to match it all coming and I was going to finally be 100 percent loaded but I spent a few minutes this morning creating one in green and white and black so hopefully that will get started soon,” he said. “In Dallas, I’m sure they’ll try and pad wrap the Coyotes stuff so I don’t like a clown on the ice but this is the third team this year so I’ll add another jersey to the collection and another mask to my basement wall I guess.”
Wedgewood admitted that it’s hard to restart again. He desperately wanted to remain a Coyote. He got along well with the players and staff. He loves the Valley, his overall numbers are solid (3.16 GAA, .909 save percentage, 2.3 goals saved above average) and since the new year he has been elite.
At the very least, he has proven that he belongs in the NHL. He is not an AHL goalie any more.
“Coming in here on what I guess you’d call a lifeline with the waiver wire, Bill Armstrong told me I’d have an opportunity to play and put a stamp on things and I think I ran with it,” he said. “I think I got really good as time went on. I tried to play and not overthink my situation. I think for myself, it’s been a coming-out party. When you’re playing me you’re gonna have a hell of a time trying to beat me night in and night out.”
There are lots of Coyotes players and fans who hope that this season’s performance will lead to more stability in Wedgewood’s life.
“I have five to 10 really good hockey buddies but there’s guys that play on the same team for five or six years that have everyone in their wedding parties and long-term friends,” he said. “I get to meet people for four or five months so it’s different that way. You get to know everybody’s name then you restart again.
“For me personally, I can go live in a hotel and play hockey and go about my business. It’s more about the pieces that you leave behind. A wife, two dogs, friends and plans that we had in the next couple months. It’s just the way the hockey world works sometimes. It’s definitely a roll-with-the-punches type mentality and I have to embrace it because I was just few hours away from not getting another chance, going through the waiver wire. Who knows what the best situation is but I’ll keep playing. It’s not how you draw it up all the time but you fight, grind, stay alive and when you get between the pipes in the NHL you remember that it’s every kid’s dream.”