After being blown out and eliminated in the final two games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche, the Arizona Coyotes now enter an intriguing offseason with a plethora of question marks.
First off is the General Manager situation. John Chayka parted ways with the organization in late July after signing an extension with the team in November. The pieces of that puzzle are still being put together as to what went wrong between the GM and owner Alex Meruelo. Interim General Manager Steve Sullivan has since taken over the responsibilities and was overlooking the Coyotes in the Edmonton bubble.
Whether Sullivan remains, or the Coyotes look for a new GM is still to be determined, but what is known is that the Coyotes roster for years to come is going to have Chayka’s brush marks all over it, whether that’s for better or worse.
“As an organization, you have to have a game plan and a philosophy. You don’t change every couple years if things go bad,” said head coach Rick Tocchet in his end of the year media availability while discussing how far away the team is from being a legitimate contender. “I think we made traction and this organization needs positive stuff. There’s a lot of negativity. Listen, I am not going to trash the players. We went and we beat Nashville and we had a couple games with Colorado in those last two games that have left a sour taste in our mouth, mine especially. But that’s for the new GM to find out the expectations and the philosophy that we are going to go forward with.”
It’s no secret that one of the most highly-desired free agents come this fall will be forward Taylor Hall. A rental for the Coyotes when acquired by Chayka via a trade with the New Jersey Devils in December, Hall enters free agency during an unprecedented time amid the Coronavirus pandemic.
Hall had 27 points in 35 games played with the Coyotes, putting up 10 goals and 17 assists. There were many nights where the former Hart Trophy winner appeared to be the best player on the ice for the Coyotes, too. The question now is whether the Coyotes can afford to sign the star, or whether it’s worth it to take the risk and put efforts toward other areas.
“Honestly, I think it’s all winning,” said Hall of what he values the most entering free agency. “Any player at this stage in their career that has had the career that I’ve had, 10 seasons and only making the playoffs twice, that’s really what I am after. I think the Coyotes have a bright future and some great guys and good young players.”
That bright future that Hall alluded to includes young talents such as Keller, forward Christian Dvorak, and defenseman Jakob Chychrun. 2018 first-round pick Barrett Hayton is looking to become a full-time player too, after bouncing in and out of the lineup this past season.
Those players have still yet to reach their ceiling, but their individual growth over the coming years could be the difference between the Coyotes being contenders or not, regardless of if they sign Hall. Chychrun was having a career year during the regular season, Hayton showed flashes, and Keller is still looking for his offensive consistency after signing an eight-year deal with over a $7 million AAV.
As a result of the Hall trade with New Jersey, the Coyotes don’t have a first-round pick when the NHL Draft begins in October. Thus, the development of current talent becomes that much more important. Tocchet expects the growth of the young core to continue, and those players production will be needed on a nightly basis.
“They are great kids but they have to get stronger, they got to get consistent,” Tocchet said of the group. “This is a tough league. You have to make sure that you are very consistent and it starts in practice and the gyms. They are getting better at it, but there’s another level there, just like all young kids. To me, those guys are chipping away at the things I want. They got better at it, but they have to get going. This is a big offseason for them.”
The bottom line is the Coyotes have pieces in place. Keller, Dvorak, and Chychrun have shown promise, Ekman-Larsson is a top two-way defenseman when healthy, Conor Garland led the team in goals despite being the lowest paid player, and goaltender Darcy Kuemper has been arguably the best goalie in the league for the past two seasons.
However, many more steps need to be taken, and resulting offseason moves will be critical given the uncertainty of the coming months. The question is, what’s next?
“I think as a group, the consistency has to get better, but that’s just with maturity,” Tocchet said. “I think this group going through what they did, it’s just invaluable. I can’t express how lucky we are to get these guys in for three weeks of playoff-style hockey, but it also shows them how much work they have to do.”