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One team is only just realizing that it should have started rebuilding three or four seasons ago. One team is in the deepest, darkest throes of a stripped-to-the-studs rebuild.
One team is reeling from a sexual assault scandal that has tarnished three Stanley Cup celebrations. The other is smarting from a spate of negative press about its inner workings, its financial dealings and its impending move to a 5,000-seat college arena.
Neither team is going to make the playoffs any time soon, and neither team boasts a prospect pool ranked among the NHL’s top half. So whose situation stinks more right now as the Blackhawks arrive to face the Coyotes at Gila River Arena on Wednesday night?
I joined forces with CHGO’s Jay Zawaski to try to answer the question by looking at a few of the aforementioned topics.
What’s the overall state of the franchise?
Jay: Well, this season has been a disaster in many ways, beginning with the horrific Kyle Beach story, which hung a dark cloud over literally everything the Blackhawks wanted to do. Then, on the ice, after adding Seth Jones, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jake McCabe in the summer, the team had expectations to compete for a playoff spot. Then Jeremy Colliton got the team off to a 1-9-2 start, he was fired and Derek King stepped into a situation he described as “fragile.” King was able to right the ship a bit, but the team never fully recovered and is playing out the string in less-than-impressive fashion.
Off the ice, the new leadership team of Danny Wirtz and Jaime Faulkner has done a really solid job. When Rocky Wirtz is given a microphone, things don’t go well, but Danny and Faulker are the two truly running the show. They hired Kyle Davidson as GM, and he’s done a solid job in his role so far, so while the team won’t be competitive for a few years, the arrow is pointed up in terms of organizational structure and vision.
Craig: Uh, not great. The ownership group’s reputation has been tarnished by reports of a dysfunctional workplace and unpaid bills, the Coyotes got kicked out of Gila River Arena and must play at least the next three years at Arizona State University’s 5,000-seat, multi-purpose arena, and the team is staggering to the finish line of what will be the worst season in franchise history.
All of this losing, of course, is by design, so at least the season has played out as expected — which is to say, “Avert your eyes.” Arizona enters Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks with the fewest points (49), the worst goal differential (minus-106), the most shots allowed per game (35.6), the worst penalty-killing unit (73.2 percent) and the third-worst power play (13.8 percent). Fans have largely stopped attending games in Glendale, with announced crowds of 8,000 or 9,000 outnumbering the actual butts in the seats. When the NHL holds the draft lottery early in May, we’ll know if it was worth it.
Is the rebuild starting at the appropriate time?
Jay: I’d say it is starting three years too late. Former GM Stan Bowman, who resigned in disgrace after the Kyle Beach report was released, had said, ahead of the 2020-21 season, that it was time to rebuild. Then he completely undid everything by trading for Jones and Fleury. Bowman was never one to look too far down the road. His philosophy was, “We’ll figure it out as we go.” Well… here we go. Finally, Davidson seems committed to a well overdue rebuild.
Craig: Yes. It should have happened at least three previous times, but GM Bill Armstrong is not culpable for the mistakes of past ownership and management groups. Armstrong spent the first year of his tenure evaluating every aspect of hockey operations and then he spent the summer tearing a large swath of it down to install new people and new philosophies.
Management made the correct assessment that the group of veterans it had at the end of the 2020-21 season was never going to be anything more than a playoff bubble team. Why waste time filling gaps to achieve mediocrity? This is an unabashed, full-fledged, down-to-the-foundation rebuild. The Coyotes have a glut of aging veterans on expiring contracts, an emerging middle core and a handful of young serviceable players who can fill depth roles, but likely not top-end roles (other than prospect Dylan Guenther). They need impact players in this year’s draft and beyond, which is why the summer plan is the same as last summer’s plan: Take on bad contracts in exchange for draft assets and slowly build the type of base to which this organization has never had the patience or financial wherewithal to truly commit.
A rebuild is stark and a rebuild is painful to watch. That’s how you know you are doing it correctly. What remains to be seen is if management can execute on Stage II: drafting and development. It requires excellent scouting — and Armstrong has assembled the most complete and experienced staff this franchise has ever seen — but it also requires patience and a lot of luck.
How are off-ice issues tangibly impacting the franchise?
Jay: A lot of fans flat-out left after the Beach scandal, and who can blame them? The team is not good. The beloved dynasty is forever tarnished, as are the reputations of many of the beloved players from those teams. It also has been a burden on the players who had to shoulder the weight of a scandal of which they were not a part. This team is mentally and physically exhausted, and I think if you got them to be honest, they’d admit that they’re thrilled this season is ending.
Craig: It’s hard to know how real a reputation is, but the Coyotes’ financial missteps in Glendale, with vendors and in the playoff bubble certainly haven’t inspired confidence.There are some who think this is just the way Alex Meruelo does business; by playing hardball. There are some who chalk up past missteps to mistakes. There are some who wonder if Meruelo actually has the money.
Clearly, ownership’s modus operandi played a role in ending the team’s relationship with the city of Glendale, but everybody knew that relationship had to end at some point. NHL hockey just doesn’t work financially in Glendale. The key question is whether all of this baggage will impact the Coyotes’ ability to strike a deal with the City of Tempe on a proposed arena and entertainment district. If that deal does go through, this entire narrative will be a footnote in franchise history. If the deal fails, in the ominous words of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: “If there’s no prospect of a new building then we’re going to have to focus with ownership on what makes sense.”
What’s the 5-year plan and how soon can fans expect another playoff berth?
Jay: That’s a good question that’s very difficult to answer right now for a few reasons. Kirby Dach, who was selected third overall in the 2019 draft, hasn’t developed into a top-six scorer, let alone the franchise center many had hoped he would be. Lukas Reichel is doing well in Rockford, but also isn’t projected to be a superstar. Aside from them, a lot of the prospects are mid- to low-tier.
The Hawks are also very low on first-round picks due to the Jones trade. Davidson is doing the best he can to recoup some of them, but that’s easier said than done. The Hawks really need the Wild to make it to the conference final. If they do, the second-round pick they got for Fleury becomes a first.
If the Hawks are a contender in five years, Davidson will have done his job. I don’t see a path back to a dynasty, but if things shake out right, I could see the Hawks being a team like Calgary, the Rangers, etc. Teams that might not be Cup favorites, but if you squint really hard, you could see them maybe upsetting a team or two.
Craig: The Coyotes’ five-year plan is a masterstroke of synergy between the business side and the hockey side. In a perfect world, the Coyotes will be in their proposed Tempe arena at the same time that the glut of prospects is ready to contend for playoff spots and Stanley Cups. They will have landed at least one top-end center in the 2022 or 2023 drafts (Shane Wright, Logan Cooley or Connor Bedard) and hey, as long as we’re dreaming, they will have lured Arizona product Auston Matthews home in the summer of 2024 when he becomes a free agent.
What needs to happen this summer and what do you think will happen?
Jay: First, he needs to find his head coach. Is Derek King the guy or not? We at CHGO Blackhawks all agree that retaining King makes sense. With the team in rebuild mode, they need someone with patience who can clearly communicate expectations. Let King lead the rebuild. Then, when it becomes time to win, you bring in the big name head coach. The Blackhawks did the same thing with Denis Savard and Joel Quenneville. The Cubs did it with Ricky Renteria and Joe Maddon. There’s no indication that King will do anything to stunt the rebuild. He’s here. The players know him and like him. Don’t overthink it.
Next, Davidson needs to figure out if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews want to be here anymore. Kane is still an elite player. In fact, he might be playing the best hockey of his career. He has said all the right things about his future. He’ll still command a big deal when he becomes a UFA next summer. Does he want to try to win another Cup, or does he want to take his shot at passing Stan Mikita as the Blackhawks all-time leading scorer? It’s attainable, but not if he leaves.
Toews has had a tough season behind the mic. It’s clear he’s frustrated. He has stated many times his impatience and dissatisfaction with the rebuild. The problem is, who wants Jonathan Toews at $10.5 million anymore? If the Hawks want to trade him, they’ll likely have to give up a pick and/or a prospect to make it happen. So, what’s more detrimental to the rebuild? An unhappy Toews or losing picks/prospects?
I think both players will stay this summer and get moved at the deadline.
I also expect Davidson to get creative in stockpiling draft picks. Yes, this team is rebuilding, but you can’t put a team of just kids on the ice. I’d expect him to add a couple of decent veterans this summer for the purpose of flipping them for picks at the deadline. This way, you have your valued prospects playing in competitive games. Getting crushed night after night is hugely detrimental to development.
Craig: The Coyotes need to stick to the plan. Keep acquiring bad contracts and draft assets. Keep the roster lean and hungry, which will ensure that the losses pile up again next season to maximize those draft assets. I do think that this is the plan and I do think that GMs will be calling Armstrong again to deal away their bloated contracts.
The other thing that has to happen this summer, if it hasn’t happened already, is this: The City of Tempe needs to make a decision on the proposed arena and entertainment district. They will have had enough time to examine all of the pertinent information and request clarification on whatever issues concern them. The city council needs to vote on this proposal publicly so that all stakeholders can see the proposal, the arguments for and against it, and who supports or does not support it on council.
What are the best reasons for hope?
Jay: Um. Uh. There’s the…um. There’s uh. HEY LOOK! IT’S MARIAN HOSSA! (runs away and hides in a bush)
If I MUST answer this honestly, I have faith in Davidson. He seems, so far, to understand what the Blackhawks need. He also has zero loyalty to the dynasty players. He’s shown a willingness to make the unpopular move (trading Brandon Hagel) if he thinks it helps the team. It’s just a small sample size.
I also feel like Danny Wirtz and Jaime Faulkner know what it will take to modernize this franchise off the ice. They’ve revamped the season-ticket program. They’ve promised to make the franchise a place that takes care of its employees. They’re willing to spend to the cap each and every year, while not cutting costs at the arena or elsewhere. It’s a short sample size, but so far so good.
Craig: The Coyotes will have seven selections in the top 45 or 46 picks at this year’s draft, and 11 overall. They already have six selections in the first three rounds of 2023 and they will likely acquire more when they take on bad contracts this summer or make trades (possibly Jakob Chychrun). As previously noted, Armstrong has assembled the most experienced and most complete scouting staff in franchise history. With that many picks, the Coyotes have increased their odds of hitting on some.
Couple that with the emergence of some middle core players (Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, Nick Schmaltz), prospect Dylan Guenther and the hope of a new arena in the right location and there are plenty of things about which to be hopeful. Before that sunny future can be realized, however, there are many rivers to cross.