Coyotes fans have grown so accustomed to disappointment at the NHL Draft Lottery that Monday’s events felt like a relief.
Ottawa remained at the No. 12 draft position instead of jumping into the top five and robbing Arizona of the Senators’ 2023 pick. On top of that, the Coyotes held at their own No. 6 position in a lottery that went according to script until the final three picks. In about half of their previous lottery forays, the Coyotes had dropped one or more spots so this was a small victory.
Had the least deserving recipient of lottery luck not won the generational prize, most fans would have walked away from the 2023 event with a little more than a shrug. When things go according to the odds, who can complain?
But then those odds took a grotesque turn.
Beach to Bedard = Bad look for league
If you had taken a poll of all the conspiracy theories most likely to win out on lottery night, the one that I dubbed The Kane Conspiracy would have won in overwhelming fashion.
As soon as the Blackhawks made it clear that they were in a rebuild mode and this would be the final season in Chicago for foundational pieces Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, almost everyone predicted that the Hawks would win the lottery. It happened in 2007 when the Hawks jumped four spots — the maximum allowed — to grab Kane, who ended a 49-year Stanley Cup drought with the game-winning goal in overtime against Philadelphia in Game 6 of the 2010 finals.
While Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Joel Quenneville and Co. were rolling to three cups from 2010-2015, they were one of the most popular and marketable teams in NHL history. The assumption was that the league would want to get that gravy train rolling again by pushing Connor Bedard onto the United Center ice, just as Kane and Toews were leaving.
When the Hawks won Kane it felt unjust, but hey, it was within the rules and Chicago had suffered long enough through the stingy years of former owner William Wirtz. When the Hawks won Bedard, it felt like a crime. That’s because it was. The organization that won over a city had committed a decade-long crime by overlooking and then covering up the team’s sexual abuse scandal — an offense that tarnished those three titles irreversibly.
Remember when the NHL dropped the hammer on New Jersey for salary cap circumvention with the Ilya Kovalchuk deal? The NHL originally stripped the Devils of a first-round pick in either 2011, 2012, 2013 or 2014, along with a 2011 third-rounder and $3 million for trying to award the Russian star a contract that ran until his mid-40s to level out the cap hit. That sentence was later reduced, but the Devils had to pick 30th in the first round (dead last at that time).
Remember when the NHL stripped the Coyotes of their 2020 second-round pick and 2021 first-round pick for violating the NHL’s combine testing policy? Some have suggested that over-the-top sentence was an expression of hatred for former GM John Chayka. Others believe it was a punishment of owner Alex Meruelo for crimes detailed in that infamous Athletic story, but OK, the league delivered a message. Everyone was on notice to mind their Ps and Qs.
So what did the Blackhawks get for the scandal that victimized Kyle Beach? A $2 million slap on the wrist. That’s it. And they more than made up that money the moment that they landed Bedard.
The lesson here? Attempting to get an edge on your competition is a far more egregious offense than covering up a sex scandal for a decade. That is a disgusting and grossly misguided judgment. It’s a terrible look for, and message from the league, and there is no justification for it; no way of talking around it. The NHL was dead wrong on this one.
But the league knows something. It knows that you will forget about what the Hawks did and move on. That’s what it’s counting on — that the excitement of watching Bedard will sweep this crime under the rug and help one of the NHL’s cash cows rebuild its tarnished image.
Let’s be clear: Bedard does not deserve to carry any of this baggage. He is a wondrous player who will likely help speed the Blackhawks rebuild and set records along the way. But his name will now be inextricably linked to Beach’s. That’s not his fault. It’s the league’s fault.
The Blackhawks should have been stripped of multiple draft picks. The league failed miserably in its role as steward for the game. It failed society by taking such a callous approach to a disgusting offense. And it failed Bedard by putting him in this situation. Those facts should never be forgotten. Why? Because Kyle Beach will never forget what he endured.
The Coyotes’ Michkov quandary
Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong was hoping for a Monday miracle — one that none of his predecessors had enjoyed. He was hoping to jump up into one of the top two draft slots and grab either Bedard or Adam Fantilli, the latter of whom will go to Anaheim instead.
There was no miracle, but in reality, the Coyotes blew this one all on their own. You can’t blame the players and coaches for playing hard and earning too many points at Mullett Arena this season, many of them via multi-goal rallies. But no matter what the players and coaches think, those points meant very little to the future of this team, and they meant nothing on Monday. They just hurt the greater cause, which was to land a generational talent and cement the foundation of this rebuild.
Armstrong should come under scrutiny as well. Had the Coyotes gone with a goaltending tandem of Karel Vejmelka and Jon Gillies as seemed to be the original plan, they probably would have lost more games and points. But Armstrong and coach André Tourigny didn’t want poor goaltending to impact the spirit and culture of the team the way it did in 2021-22 before Scott Wedgewood arrived, so they acquired Connor Ingram.
The fallout is that the Coyotes are still searching for that generational talent that they will need to compete for the Stanley Cup. Maybe Clayton Keller will take another step next season and join the short list of the game’s truly elite players. Maybe Logan Cooley will become that guy, whether he joins the club this fall or next fall. But neither of those players carried the hype of Bedard, or even Fantilli. So the Coyotes are still searching.
There may be a way out of this quandary, however. The Coyotes may still have the opportunity to land a franchise player.
Matvei Michkov is under contract with SKA Saint Petersburg through the 2025-26 season. He plays in a nation at war with Ukraine and at odds with the western world. He plays for a team that backs Russian President Vladimir Putin’s every move. That has a lot of GMs scared to draft him; even if many analysts rank him among the top five players in this draft; some as high as No. 2.
We don’t know what the Coyotes’ own scouting evaluations say about this draft so take this next idea with a grain of salt. Most analysts agree that this draft is five deep on elite, first-line players. Beyond Bedard and Fantilli, Leo Carlsson, Will Smith and Michkov look like franchise-altering players.
So if Michkov slips to No. 6 for all of the aforementioned reasons, how do the Coyotes pass on such a talent? His timeline syncs with their timeline for emerging from this rebuild. They can afford to wait, but it is highly doubtful that they can afford to wait until their next pick at No. 12 because the drop off from the top five to the next group is apparently significant. It’s hard to imagine five more teams (Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, St. Louis and Vancouver) passing on Michkov before the Coyotes are on the clock again.
Every GM will tell you that the NHL Draft is about selecting the best player available with each pick. If Michkov is sitting there at No. 6, there are a lot of educated and trained eyes who believe he will be the best player available.
The Coyotes, the No. 12 pick and defensemen
In each of the two years in which Armstrong and director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski have had a full complement of picks, the top two have been spent on forwards. Could this be the year that changes?
We don’t know yet what Maveric Lamoureux will become. We don’t know yet what Artyom Duda will become and we don’t know what the ceilings are for JJ Moser and Juuso Välimäki, but if you look at the Coyotes prospect system today, it’s hard to argue that there is a top-pair, or even top-three defenseman in the pipeline.
That void is all the more pronounced now that Jakob Chychrun is no longer a part of the program. So wouldn’t it be a tidy piece of business if the Coyotes used the first-round pick they got from Ottawa in the Chychrun trade in an attempt to remedy that problem?
The 2023 NHL Draft is forward-heavy. The top five picks will all be forwards and there is at least the possibility that this trend could extend as deep as the No. 10 or No. 11 pick. The first defenseman that The Athletic’s Corey Pronnman has on his board is David Reinbacher at No. 7. TSN’s Bob McKenzie and Craig Button list Reinbacher at No. 10, and Pronman lists Dmitriy Simashev at No. 10.
By now, almost everyone agrees that defensemen take longer to develop on average than forwards. Is it time for the Coyotes to address that all important position with a high pick?
Coyotes GM is one cool customer
Make no mistake. Bill Armstrong wanted one of those top three spots in the lottery. He wanted it badly and he did everything in his power this season, aside from the aforementioned goaltending decision, to make it happen. It didn’t happen, but Armstrong turned the page quickly in his post-lottery comments with reporters.
“It’s exciting and you get caught up in the moment and we’re all competitive people and want to pick at No. 1, but I’ve been doing the draft for 20-some odd years and wherever you pick, you’ve got to find players,” he said. “Yes, we won’t blow it out of the park and pick at one, but what we’re going to do is pick two great players in the first round and give ourselves a chance to win a championship with them.”
This is where Armstrong’s experience matters so much. He has been involved in the NHL draft for two decades, 13 of those years in a leadership role. Before arriving in Arizona and selecting Dylan Guenther (2021, No. 9) and Logan Cooley (2022, No. 3), the last time Armstrong had a top-10 pick to work with was 2008 when the Blues selected defenseman Alex Pietrangelo at No. 4; two years before Armstrong became the Blues’ director of amateur scouting. Like the Coyotes, he has never had a top-two pick with which to work while he was calling the shots.
The point is, he knows how to build through the draft without getting those top picks. The Blues are the only Cup champ of the past decade to win a Cup without the benefit of a top-two pick on the roster. They acquired Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn in a trade, they drafted Jaden Schwartz at No. 14 and Vladimir Tarasenko at No. 16 in 2010, they drafted David Perron at No. 26 in 2007 and the list goes on.
When Armstrong arrived in Arizona, his first order of business was to assemble the most complete scouting staff in Coyotes history and he has done just that. The Coyotes may not have the high picks that make a GM’s job easy, but they have a GM and scouts who know what to do with their picks — wherever those picks fall. None of this guarantees success, but it puts the Coyotes in a much better place than they have been at any point in their history.
Pity the Blue Jackets
Unconventional-market team. Minimal playoff success. Can’t win the lottery. The Columbus Blue Jackets have a lot in common with the Coyotes.
This is not to suggest that the Jackets’ curse is as strong as the Coyotes. Columbus has a No. 1 pick (Rick Nash, 2002) in its history. It also has a No. 2 pick (Ryan Murray, 2012). The Coyotes have neither, but you have to wonder if former Blues colleagues Jarmo Kekäläinen and Bill Armstrong shared a Zoom cocktail on Monday to drown their sorrows.
Columbus finished one point ahead of Anaheim in the NHL standings this season, and tied with Chicago. That was not the Jackets’ intention when they signed Johnny Gaudreau to a seven-year, $68.25 million contract this summer; a move that Kekäläinen hoped would signal an end to the narrative that top players didn’t want to come to Columbus.
In the end, the Jackets simply were not good enough, but that tiny margin in the standings cost them Bedard and Fantilli. The Blue Jackets will still get a very good player, but not the generational talent whom they had hoped would be joining Gaudreau.
The Athletic’s Blue Jackets beat writer Aaron Portzline, one of the best in the business, wrote a fun piece detailing the Jackets’ lack of lottery luck. On Tuesday morning I texted him.
“The Blue Jackets may be more cursed than the Coyotes,” I wrote.
“Be a great discussion,” he responded.
I’ll still take the Coyotes because they have never had a top-two pick, they have never moved up in the lottery and they have been so close in multiple years when there was a generational talent at the top of the draft board. But as Coyotes fans know, it’s tough to be a perceived NHL outpost. It’s tough when you feel like even the league is against you.
Today, Coyotes fans and Blue Jackets fans are brothers in arms.
Top photo of Kyle Beach via Getty Images