It doesn’t require deep analysis to understand that the Coyotes will not be major players when the NHL’s free agency period begins at 9 a.m. Arizona time on Wednesday. Despite more than $28 million in cap space, Arizona is in the midst of a rebuild. Adding big-ticket players who are entering the back end of their careers such as Johnny Gaudreau, Nazem Kadri or John Klingberg makes no sense.
The Coyotes are not in win mode. Just as they did last season, they want to lose again, acquire as many high draft picks as possible next summer, and hopefully get some long-denied lottery luck to land franchise center Connor Bedard. There is no good reason to spend a lot of money on a team that will not compete for a playoff spot so expect the Coyotes to be much closer to the cap floor than the cap ceiling when the dust has settled on 2022 offseason spending.
Beyond that obvious and transparent approach, the roster does not allow for much tinkering in the free-agency waters. After Monday’s signings of forward Christian Fischer (and defenseman Cam Dineen), Arizona does not have a lot of NHL roster spots available.
Here is the list of forwards who are under contract with plans to play on one-way or waivers-required deals: Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Zack Kassian, Nick Ritchie, Travis Boyd, Fischer and Liam O’Brien. Add to that restricted free agents (RFAs) Lawson Crouse and Barrett Hayton, who received their qualifying offers on Tuesday, and nine roster spots are taken, and that does not even account for Michael Carcone or late-season acquisitions Jack McBain and Nathan Smith.
The Coyotes still do not know whether veteran Andrew Ladd plans to play this season. Ladd has one more year remaining on his contract and his agent, JP Barry, said that Ladd will not make any decisions about his future until it is time to start ramping up his training later this summer. If Ladd returns, that will make 10 forward roster spots (again, with McBain’s and Smith’s fates uncertain), leaving the Coyotes no more than three or four forward roster spots. Arizona would also like to leave some of those spots available to afford their own minor-league players such as Jan Jeník or Matias Maccelli an opportunity to earn an NHL job.
On defense, the Coyotes have Jakob Chychrun and Shayne Gostisbehere on one-way deals, and neither Dysin Mayo nor Conor Timmins is waiver-exempt. Mayo played heavy, effective minutes last season and Timmins needs NHL experience after sustaining a season-ending knee injury early last season. It’s a fair bet that both will be on the NHL roster. It remains to be seen whether JJ Moser has earned a permanent NHL roster spot, or if Victor Söderström can earn one.
I don’t think that there is any substance to recent buzz linking Chychrun’s name to Ottawa in trade rumors. I still expect Chychrun to play for the Coyotes next season with the possibility still open of him moving at the trade deadline.
On the flip side, and despite earlier discussions, it does not appear that free-agent defenseman Anton Strålman will be returning so Arizona needs to fill out its blue line with players such as Dineen as possibilities.
General manager Bill Armstrong said previously that he remains open to the team’s other free agents returning, but I would be surprised to see any of the team’s UFAs — Phil Kessel, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Loui Eriksson, Alex Galchenyuk, Dmitrij Jaškin, Harri Säteri — return unless the Coyotes need to fill out the roster and those players are willing to accept low salaries.
Again, there is some room for tinkering in free agency, but Armstrong’s main goal will be to acquire the same sort of big contracts that he did last season when he brought Gostisbehere, Strålman, Ladd, Beagle, Roussel, Eriksson, Ritchie and Bryan Little aboard.
Armstrong has not hidden the fact that he is open to using the team’s cap space to do that again, so long as those teams with which he is negotiating are also willing to part with prospects or draft assets. If he is successful, those additions would further cut into the available roster spots for free agents.
“We’re always trying to stay in that mix where we can try and get somebody to come play for us, but they become an asset, whether that means getting them at a point where they’re not playing well and they prove through their play here that they still have value, or we can get a good value by bringing them in here,” Armstrong said Tuesday.
One area where the Coyotes could look to add in free agency is in goal. Karel Vejmelka will be back, and he is the team’s likely starter, but even though the Coyotes sent a qualifying offer to RFA Josef Kořenář on Monday to maintain his rights, he has signed a two-year contract with HC Sparta Praha of the Czech Extraliga and he will play abroad.
“We’ve got one real good goalie so that’s the good news,” Armstrong said. “The other guy will come through maybe somebody looking for an opportunity out of the American League who played real well, or through free agency, or even through waivers. We’ll consider all of those options.”
Armstrong has long believed that free agency is an area where financial mistakes are made, but it is also an area where there is no logic behind spending significant money until a team believes that it is one or two pieces away from legitimate contention. When the free-agent frenzy begins on Wednesday, the Coyotes will assume a careful and calculated approach. They are still years away from becoming major players.