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BUFFALO, N.Y. — It’s common knowledge that GM Bill Armstrong has asked owner Alex Meruelo to pump heavy resources into the scouting staff, but most analysis of that scouting staff has focused on the Coyotes’ future.
Armstrong stripped the roster to the studs this summer. Arizona has eight picks in the first two rounds of the 2022 NHL Draft and a budding star in Dylan Guenther back in the WHL. The goal is to find more elite players who can elevate the team to playoff contention (and beyond) in the next few years.
However, Karel Vejmelka’s NHL debut in Buffalo on Saturday was a reminder that Armstrong and his staff aren’t solely focused on windows three to four years down the road. They are peering through every window, trying to find good players by any means available.
The discovery of Vejmelka was an example of Armstrong’s process working well.
“Bill always told us, ‘You don’t have to be conventional,’” former Coyotes director of goaltending operations Brian Daccord said. “He wanted us to look outside the box; turn over every stone to find players and so we found a guy, not in Sweden, not in Finland, but somewhat outside the box in the Czech Republic.”
Vejmelka wasn’t a complete unknown. The Nashville Predators selected him late in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft, but they never convinced him to come to North America. The Predators wanted Vejmelka to leave the Czech Extraliga, the top league in the Czech Republic, to play in the ECHL. Vejmelka and his agent didn’t think that made much sense. Vejmelka thought his development would be better served in the Extraliga and he wanted to complete his studies, so the Predators lost his rights and he became a free agent.
Teal Fowler, a Coyotes scout whose territory included the Czech Republic, was scouting a Kometa Brno game last season to look at two other draft-eligible prospects when he noticed Vejmelka.
“He called me and said, ‘I really like this guy so I wanted to let the goalie department know,’” Daccord said. “So I watched some games and I was impressed right away so I talked to our goalie scout, Clay Adams, I talked to Schwabby (goalie coach Corey Schwab), I talked to (former goaltending development coach) Zac Bierk, and I talked to our European goalie scout, Magnus Olsson, and we all started watching videos. Everybody liked him so we did a deep dive and watched every game he played.”
The process wasn’t complete yet. Director of European pro scouting and development Brett Stewart talked to coaches and people in Vejmelka’s life to get a sense of his character. Stewart and Daccord arranged an hour-long Zoom call with Vejmelka and his agent, Ryan Barnes. Director of hockey operations and salary cap compliance David Ludwig analyzed all of the financial details of a potential signing, and manager of hockey operations Joey Poljanowski researched all of the comparables.
By the time the staff was ready to present something to Armstrong, they had a video package, all of Vejmelka’s background information, and a financial analysis.
“So many people in the hockey operations department had hands in it,” Daccord said. “It’s a great process and that’s the value of having a department like this. This is what it can do.”
Nobody expected it to pay off quickly, and then Vejmelka turned away 32 of 33 shots in his NHL debut in Buffalo on Saturday to help the Coyotes salvage a point from their two-game, season-opening road trip, with a 2-1 shootout loss to the Sabres.
“It’s a good story because he earned it,” coach André Tourigny said. “He earned his way in and you always want to have those kinds of stories and players who came in a little on the outside and made it inside.”
Here’s more on Vejmelka in our five takeaways.
Karel’s coming-out party
When the Coyotes signed Vejmelka to a one-year, two-way deal on May 5, the news barely made waves. Nobody expected Vejmelka to make the NHL club this season and after the Coyotes acquired Josef Kořenář, there was speculation that they would add another goalie to back up Carter Hutton, leaving Ivan Prosvetov and Kořenář in Tucson (AHL), and Vejmelka in limbo.
But Vejmelka surprised most analysts with a strong Rookie Faceoff and a strong preseason, including the finale against Vegas in which he made 25 saves in a 3-1 win. That earned him the backup spot, while Kořenář was assigned to Tucson.
When the Coyotes hit the road, Tourigny already knew that he wanted Hutton to start the opener in Columbus and the home opener on Monday against St. Louis, so it made sense to give Vejmelka the nod in Buffalo. It also may have helped that the game was a matinee so when Vejmelka awoke, he had far less time to worry about what lay ahead.
“I tried to not be nervous but it’s the first NHL game for me so I was a little bit nervous, sure,” he said. “After a couple shots, I felt better, and I felt better and better every minute in the game.
“It’s a special day for me; my first NHL game. I just enjoyed it and played my best.”
Vejmelka made 14 saves in the first period, seven in the second, 10 in the third and one in overtime on a one-timer off the stick of Victor Olofsson. He also stayed with Vinnie Hinostroza and Arttu Ruotsalainen on breakaways that forced the shooters into misfires.
He was composed, he was efficient in his movements and he gave his team confidence.
“At the start of the third, it got a little scrambly and he was able to make some big saves and settle us down,” forward Andrew Ladd said. “I think everyone’s been impressed with him throughout camp. He kind of came out of nowhere. Nobody really knew who he was but the Vegas game right before the end of preseason, he was stellar in that game. He’s just very calm in net. He’s a big man. He seems to make all the saves look really easy and like I said, he tracks the puck really well.”
With Hutton scheduled to play Monday’s game, it’s tough to say when the man Tourigny calls “Veg” will play again, but Vejmelka left a lasting impression in his NHL debut.
“We’re comfy with him,” Tourigny said.
When the Coyotes acquired Ladd, 35, and three draft picks from the Islanders in a trade this summer that literally sent nothing back to New York except cap space, I wanted to do a deep dive on a guy who was part of the Blackhawks’ drought-breaking Stanley Cup team in 2010, who was captain of the Winnipeg Jets, and who wore an A with the Islanders.
I wanted to detail his fall from grace and what this possible last chance meant to a guy who had played four NHL games over the past two seasons, while spending most of his time in the AHL. Then my former colleague at The Athletic, Eric Duhatschek, wrote this spectacular piece (you should read it) and I thought: “What more can I add to Ladd?”
Turns out, Ladd wasn’t finished writing that story. In his second game with the Coyotes, Ladd scored the lone goal in Saturday’s 2-1 loss, marking his first NHL goal since March 10, 2020 at Vancouver while a member of the Islanders.
“It’s been a long road for me mentally, the last couple of years, just trying to stay positive and having a goal in mind of getting back to playing NHL hockey again,” Ladd said after the game. “So to have the good feeling of scoring a goal, which for me encomapsses what playing hockey is all about; that feeling of putting the puck in the net for me is something that I thrive on. To be able to get back to this point and feel that again was a proud moment for myself, and not even just me, but my wife and kids. When things aren’t going well on the hockey front, a lot of times, they feel that on the home front. That was definitely for them tonight.”
Ladd admitted that there were times the past two seasons when he thought his NHL career might be over.
“There were a lot of resets throughout the last couple of years and I tried to just control what I could to stay ready for when the opportunity arose,” he said. “That was probably the biggest thing I learned is to not let the situation control you; you try to control the situation on how you show up and how you work every day. I tried to do just that and (experienced) a lot of growth myself with the last couple years going through that.”
That’s exactly what Tourigny has seen.
“To see him approaching every day, every practice, every game the way he does, I think that is huge for our team,” Tourigny said. “He’s such a pro. He has such focus, determination and he still prepares like it was Game 7 every day. To see a guy play for that long in the league and bounce back from what he’s been through the last couple of years, I think it means a lot for everybody on our team.”
Most analysts viewed the Islanders-Coyotes trade as a salary dump and an acquisition of draft assets, nothing more. Ladd never viewed it that way.
“I was excited for a fresh start,” he said. “I think things had kind of run their course there on Long Island. Both sides knew that. To be able to come to a group and have some new eyes on you and just get a fresh start was just exciting for me.”
As for the goal, it was the 250th of Ladd’s career, but this one had meaning beyond the milestone number.
“Just that feeling of excitement from scoring a goal and getting on the board right away, that’s a feeling that as a hockey player you miss when you don’t have the opportunity to do it,” he said. “It was nice to get that opportunity tonight and get the first one out of the way. I’ve always been a streaky guy where if one goes in the net it starts to build from there.”
Ladd is hoping his Arizona opportunity will follow that same course.
With so little familiarity with his players, and so few expectations for this season, it is fair to expect a lot of Tourigny lineup tinkering this season. Even with that in mind, it was eye-opening to see veterans Dmitrij Jaškin and Antoine Roussel sit out game No. 2 as healthy scratches, while Tourigny inserted Travis Boyd and Liam O’Brien.
The Coyotes paid good money (one year for $3.2 million) to bring Jaškin back from the KHL where he led the league in goals last season, and Roussel is due $1.9 million ($3 million cap hit) this season. Both are veterans who were expected to lead by example, yet both were relatively quiet through the preseason and one regular-season game.
Tourigny didn’t say it, but this felt like an early message to two experienced players who should not expect any favors because of their veteran status. I doubt that their banishment will last long.
In researching Vejmelka, I came across that crazy photo that I used with my tweet of this story on Twitter. It almost looks as if he is taking flight.
In that same research, I came across two fun YouTube videos. One is of Vejmelka submarining a player to make sure that his errant clearing pass does not cost him.
The other is of him playing to the crowd. There is apparently plenty of personality that Vejmelka has yet to reveal in Arizona.
The Coyotes didn’t get a win on this two-game trip, but after the 8-2 debacle in Columbus, Tourigny saw a lot of progress from his team in Buffalo.
“I thought we were much better,” he said. “Off the rush, we were much better. Off our neutral zone forecheck, we were much better. We were better on our breakouts so there’s a lot of positives. (We have) a few things to sort in our D-zone coverage, in our situations where we get tired we get exposed, so we’ll address that, but it’s a positive.
“I’m happy about our progress — happy about a lot of stuff — happy about our progression in the game as well. I think there were moments where we were a little bit too careful in our game. Our style is more to be the aggressor and to be on pucks, but I think that’s because the guys care so much and they did not want to make a mistake but we got better, and we had great leadership on the bench. I think the boys did a really good job to keep everybody together and to stay in the game.”
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