Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Pool Outlook for Arizona

The Arizona Coyotes were a very pleasant surprise in the 2019 season, as they were remarkably competitive and in the hunt for a playoff spot for the better portion of the regular season.  The team is finally starting to come around from just being the league's dumping ground for older contracts, they are now a hard-working bunch with a little bit of finish and some goaltending.

The Coyotes went from 29th in the 2018 season and moved themselves up to 18th overall in the entire league in the 2019 season, thanks in large part to a better team defense and a goalie that they could really lean on in the back half of the season, Darcy Kuemper.

2nd year coach, Rick Tocchet, should get a fair amount of credit as well, as he has done a pretty good job, tightening up the on-ice product of this team, which has been exceptionally leaky for a long time.  The only thing he really needs now is just that extra touch of offense in his lineup, which could tip the scales more in their favour, especially in those close games.  Nevertheless, you can't argue with their first season over the .500 mark since the 2014 season.  That's how you know, for sure, that things are going in the right direction.

It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Darcy Kuemper was the team's best player in the hockey pool this season, he had some exceptional hot streaks that had the whole team smelling that sweet playoff air, if only to come up just 4 points shy of that last wild card spot in the west.  The 28-year old made 55 appearances in the Coyotes' net this season, posting 27 wins and 66 points this year, good enough for 75th overall in pool scoring and he was 13th among all goalies.  A very fine year.

Nine players, in total, including Kuemper, made the cut for the hockey pool worthiness conversation, which does show the lack of offensive depth the team had in the year, highlighting the need for improvement next season.  Clayton Keller, Alex Galchenyuk, Vinnie Hinostroza, Derek Stepan and Richard Panik were all among the top 200 forwards this season, Keller leading the way ranking 116th among all forwards.  On the blueline, Oliver Ekman-Larsson was 21st among all defenders, leading the way for Alex Goligoski and Jordan Oesterle, who were also in the top 100 at the position.  Thanks to injuries, no other goalie finished in the top 50, but it was Kuemper's net down the stretch and no one else was going to get in during the meaningful part of the schedule.

What I Said Last Year, At This Time...

Having a good number of kids with entry-level deals on the list as pool worthy players is very promising for the Coyotes, but they still miss that X-factor that brings a team up to the ranks of being relevant in the standings. Management seems to be confident in their goaltending tandem at the end of the year, but I could see them shop for an upgrade. Their defense is very mobile, but needs to tighten up, while the offense is a collection of young talent that is a spark away from really setting the league alight. Can the Coyotes find that X-factor to bring it all together? That's the big question and the difference between being competitive, fighting for a playoff spot, and being an early post in these Pool Outlook overviews.

Just because the Coyotes didn't make the playoffs, doesn't mean they didn't find their X-factor and we go back to the goalie, Kuemper, for that.  He was the right guy for the job, even if he needed a little bit of time to find his feet and an unfortunate injury to his platoon partner, to eat up all of those minutes for him.

How did my intriguing or breakout player fare?

The new surroundings didn't exactly make Alex Galchenyuk break out in the desert, but that's not to say he wasn't a decent contributor to this team.  He was still worthy of a pool selection, 19 goals and 41 points in 72 games in his first season with Arizona, but he wasn't the game-breaker that he was initially drafted as by Montreal either.  It would have been something, if he was that kind of player, the Coyotes may have been that much closer to the promised land.

2020 Pool Outlook

Forwards Cap Defense Cap Goalies Cap
Derek Stepan 6.500 Oliver Ekman-Larsson 8.500 Antti Raanta 4.250
Nick Schmaltz 5.850 Alex Goligoski 5.475 Darcy Kuemper 1.850
Marian Hossa 5.275 Niklas Hjalmarsson 5.000
Alex Galchenyuk 4.900 Jakob Chychrun 4.600
Christian Dvorak 4.450 Jason Demers 3.938
Michael Grabner 3.350 Kevin Connauton 1.375
Vinnie Hinostroza 1.500
Brad Richardson 1.250
Barrett Hayton 0.925
Clayton Keller 0.886
Christian Fischer 0.822
Conor Garland 0.775
Michael Chaput 0.675

The Coyotes don't have all nine of their pool worthy players signed on for next season just yet, but they aren't missing too many.  There are a few names on this list, which were hampered by injury last season, like Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak, who could still make an impact next season and are on the list, so that's a big plus.  I think the outlook here is still pretty positive.  I would imagine that the team will remain fairly active this summer, trying to tinker and making those necessary improvements.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Forward Richard Panik and defenseman Jordan Oesterle are both headed to unrestricted free agency this summer, unless they can be extended by the club before July 1st.  They are the only two worthy players heading to market and they did play a solid role with the club, so I would imagine that they get a long look at extensions.

The RFA situation isn't overly dire for the team, but they do have a few kids on the list that are in need of a new deal, who likely have a strong future with the club, like a Lawson Crouse or Nick Cousins.

The Coyotes still have a bit of flexibility left in their cap situation, thanks to hanging on to Marian Hossa's deal, as he awaits its expiry before officially retiring.  Hossa still has one more season left on his deal, but if the Coyotes get to the cap ceiling, Long Term Injury Reserve relief will kick in.  Right now, even with his deal on the books, I am showing that 21-man roster in at $74.1 million, which also includes a buyout, which leaves them some space to make some moves still.

Could this finally be the year that Nick Merkley finally cracks the big club?  The 2015 1st round pick has had nothing but bad luck in his pro career, injury after injury, but now it looks like he's turned the corner a bit and he finally could be ready for a spot on the big club.  The Coyotes certainly have some bubble spots open for him and if his skill set, which was good enough to make him a 1st round pick way back when, is any indication, he could be one to watch this season as a sleeper rookie.

Needs at the 2019 Entry Draft

The Coyotes hold the 14th overall selection in this year's draft and it's a very low pick by their recent standards, which isn't a bad thing, if the team truly wants to be progressing.  The team is starting to see some of their previous picks bear some fruit at the top level and I think there will be a push on patience on another pick, there's no real need to push a kid through too early, they just want to make sure that they have some good talent developing through the system.  One kid that fell through the picks a bit in this mock entry draft has been centre Peyton Krebs of the Kootenay (soon to be Winnipeg) Ice in the WHL, as he has been branded as an exciting centre, who plays a decent two-way game.  He could be a good fit for the club in a couple years or so.

As much as the Coyotes are trending in a positive direction, I am not completely sold on this team being a playoff team just yet.  Expectations are certainly going to ramp up on this club, which means that there will be teams keeping a closer eye on them and there isn't enough leadership-type character players on this team to help guide these kids through to the next level, especially when the times get tough.  If the Coyotes are going to get to the next level, they should be shopping for that kind of player that can not only put the puck in the net, he should be experienced in the ways of getting to the playoffs and playing in the playoffs.  If that's something they can provide for themselves, I think we really have something here.

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