Earlier this season, on the wings of dynamite offensive performances by forwards Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, the Arizona Coyotes looked like one of the most surprisingly strong teams in the NHL. Sure, there were concerns about their underlying numbers but they were outscoring their opposition (+5 even strength goal differential, tied for seventh in the league) through the first two months, and if you were picking a wild card to, ahem, grab a wild card spot in the Western Conference, the desert dogs looked to be as viable an option as any.
Fast forward to early February, and the grind of the long, 82-game regular schedule is starting to set in. The teams with sustainable approaches to winning are beginning to separate themselves from the pretenders. And after a 5–2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday, the Coyotes are now winless in their last four and have gotten a good, hard look at what it will take to be a dominant force in a difficult conference. They’ve scored more than two goals just once in their last five games and now have a –23 goal differential, tied for third worst in the NHL.
There’s no shortage of places to lay blame for the Coyotes’ decline. But as has seemingly always been the case in Glendale, the organization should look towards the future and not put the future at risk for the sake of short-term success, such as a run at the playoffs. Arizona sits four points behind Colorado for the final wild card spot but has three games in hand.
Coyotes GM Don Maloney said recently with regards to the February 29 trade deadline that he’s “…not going to do anything that will box out our younger people from getting meaningful minutes.”
Maloney continued by stating that he would re-assess the team in mid-February, but the writing appears to be on the wall: With Domi and Duclair combining for just five points through their last 10 games and the Coyotes goals-against average now third-worst in the league, Arizona would do well to sell the assets it has and not go anywhere near its impressive parcel of young prospects in the hopes of adding seasoned pieces for the postseason.
The Coyotes have an astounding nine impending unrestricted free agents on their roster right now. Unfortunately, building a cohesive team and culture may require more time in Glendale as there are a lot of reasonably-priced options to move. Whatever success the Coyotes have achieved this season will have to be built upon by fresh, young faces. The cast will likely look wildly different by the end of this season and the beginning of the next.
Impending UFA forward Mikkel Boedker, 26, has seen his stock rise with an impressive season (35 points in 52 games, good for second on the Coyotes). He’d look good on any contender and it’s not unreasonable to expect a draft pick and a defensive prospect in return for him. Even if he could keep his productivity at the same levels during the next few seasons, by the time the Coyotes are ready to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup he’ll be passing out of his prime.
Defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, 31 is also an impending UFA, but he has a no trade clause. You have to imagine that he’d waive it if the right landing spot was presented to him. Defensively the Coyotes have been a mess this season and they’d be wise to sell on him. According to General Fanager, Arizona has six RFAs in their D-corps entering next season and they will need to convince these young blueliners (all age 25 and under) that the ice time is theirs for the taking if they want to sign a bridge deal or two and keep costs down.
Which brings us to 39-year-old Shane Doan, whose contract also expires at the end of this season. It’s borderline impossible to imagine him playing for any other team, and with his No Movement Clause he will likely be staying up. But again, if an attractive landing spot on a bona fide playoff team is presented to him, why wouldn’t he take that opportunity and return to the desert next season, as Antoine Vermette did with the Coyotes last summer?
Doan’s voice is incredibly important not only in the locker room but likely throughout the organization as well. He seems to enjoy being in Arizona, but he’ll be 40 at the start of next season and won’t be able to sign for anywhere near the $5.3 million cap hit he has now. If he does return, expect his ice time to continue to decline as it has this season in order to give emerging forwards more opportunities to display their expected offensive prowess.
Domi and Duclair have certainly shown reasons for optimism this season in Arizona. But both are still too young and not yet proven high-end, elite forwards. As with most of the Coyotes’ roster (besides perhaps defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson) they are part of a larger vision. This season was a nice surprise, but during the next few weeks the Coyotes organization will have to tinker with that vision even more if its wants to contend in the future.