In August of 2013, the Phoenix Coyotes were purchased by IceArizona. Operating under an autonomous ownership group for the first time since 2009, rumors and speculation of the club’s demise or relocation were finally put to rest.
While under the stewardship of the NHL, General Manager Don Maloney’s hands were tied. The Coyotes rarely engaged in bold transactions or free agent signings. In spite of this, Maloney and Head Coach Dave Tippett worked their team to three straight playoff appearances, culminating in a run to the Western Conference Finals in 2012.
That run in 2012 was the high watermark. The Coyotes have failed to qualify for the postseason the last two seasons. In 2013-14, they were squeezed out in heartbreaking fashion. The team lost seven of their final eight games, relinquishing the final Western Conference playoff spot to the Dallas Stars. Still, the new ownership group has demonstrated a degree of approval of their hockey operations department and what they have accomplished in an ultra-competitive Western Conference. Both Maloney and Tippett have been retained for the upcoming campaign.
Top 10 Prospects:
Heading into the 2014 NHL Draft, the Coyotes most glaring issue is the unbalanced nature of their depth chart. The team is bursting at the seams with talented defensemen. On most clubs, Brandon Gormley would have been a full-time NHL defenseman in 2013-14. In Phoenix, he was stuck behind a logjam of left defensemen and spent the entire season playing AHL hockey with Portland.
Conversely, the Coyotes need to bolster their top six. The forward depth of their NHL club consists of too many ponies and not enough horses. It is possible this could be addressed with current prospects such as Lucas Lessio, Tobias Rieder, Max Domi, or possibly Henrik Samuelsson. But relying on any of these players to step into a scoring role and produce consistently in 2014-15 is overly optimistic. Mike Ribeiro was a big free agent signing in the 2013 offseason. Ribeiro, with his high-end skill, was the big ticket acquisition the Coyotes never seemed to chase while they were under the stewardship of the league. However, as a playmaker, Ribeiro requires complementary pieces. He needs finishers. Shane Doan is on the wrong side of 35, Martin Erat underachieved in 2013-14, and Radim Vrbata is an unrestricted free agent
Possibly, Maloney could use his stockpile of defensemen as well as draft capital to balance his roster via trade, bringing in some veteran scoring punch on the wing. Another option is to put off acquiring a veteran forward until the 2014-15 trade deadline. This approach would be budget-conscious while providing NHL opportunities for the Coyotes forward prospects. Promoting from within, Lessio, Rieder, Domi and Samuelsson would all have legitimate opportunities to earn their way onto the Coyotes roster in training camp, based on the current roster composition
As stated, the Coyotes possess quality defensemen throughout their organization. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of the best in the world. Keith Yandle receives ample criticism yet he is among the most efficient puck-moving blueliners in the league. Any defender who has the puck on his stick as often as Yandle will unavoidably expose themselves to compromising situations. Connor Murphy made tremendous strides in 2013-14 while Gormley looks to make his great leap forward in 2014-15.
Goaltending is another position of impressive institutional depth. Obviously, Mike Smith is one of the elite goalies in the world, one of the few who has demonstrated the ability to strap a team on his back and take them on a deep playoff run. Mark Visentin is poised to challenge for the Coyotes backup role in training camp. Mike Lee, Louis Domingue, Marek Langhamer, and Brendan Burke have all shown flashes of brilliance at times in their young careers. In 2014-15, they will all vie for the upper-hand in the ever-evolving depth chart battle.
Phoenix has loads of big forwards throughout their system. They may lack creativity and high-end skill but these are the type of players who can wear down the opposition with their strength and determination, rarely deviating from their positional assignment. In the Coyotes organization, grinders like Jordan Szwarz, rather than playmakers like Any Miele, are the player-types called up to the NHL club for extended stays. This is a clear signal from management, defining what they value in a hockey player.
The Coyotes desperately need natural goal scorers to slot in amongst the waves of muckers and grinders they deploy night after night. Samuelsson scored buckets of goals in the WHL but he projects as a two-way physical presence in the NHL. Rieder’s scoring touch translated successfully in the AHL but realistically, he will be relied upon for secondary scoring if he avoids injury and sticks in the NHL at some point. Domi is the only forward prospect who possesses world-class skating ability and puck skills. Domi is an excellent prospect to have in the system but they must hit on him because there is nobody else to fall back on.
In the past, Maloney has shown little to no tolerance for investing draft capital on finesse. To fill this void, he has been content to gamble on undrafted free agents like Andy Miele or Brendan Shinnimin. Miele produced consistently in the AHL but when it came time to call players up to Phoenix, he normally was passed over in favor of big bruisers. Shinnimin has never enjoyed the professional success attained by Miele.
Typically, Maloney invests his draft capital in the best defenseman available or a big forward. Many of these forwards, like Samuelsson, Lucas Lessio and Chris Brown (since traded to Washington), at one time project some semblance of a scoring touch. Quite simply, management in Phoenix has established that all their draft picks must have size and the ability to use it. This prerequisite even applies to the forwards they will lean on for scoring production.
Another interesting trend which threads its way through recent Coyotes drafts is their obsession with pedigree. Obvious examples are Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson whose fathers, Tie and Ulf, were prominent in the last generation of NHL hockey players. This also persists to later round picks like Brendan Burke whose father, Sean, tended goal for the New Jersey Devils and other NHL clubs. These selections could be coincidence. There is also the possibility that Don Maloney and his amateur scouting department believes there is value in a prospect’s bloodlines.
The Coyotes own picks 12, 43, 58, 73, 133, 163, 191 and 193.
The Coyotes acquired the 58th pick from the Chicago Blackhawks on March 4th 2014 in exchange for David Rundblad and Mathieu Brisebois. Since Rundblad was acquired in 2011-12 for the disgruntled Kyle Turris, this late second round pick essentially represents the compensation for Turris. Phoenix also acquired the 191st pick from the New Jersey Devils on April 3rd, 2013 in exchange for Steve Sullivan.
The Coyotes traded 103rd pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 13th 2013 for Matthew Lombardi.
Hockey’s Future Mock Draft Results:
12. Jake Virtanen, LW, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
If Jake Virtanen does indeed drop to the Phoenix Coyotes, he has the finesse skill the Coyotes so desperately need in their top six coupled with the size Maloney covets in all his forwards.
Virtanen is a natural goal scorer. Aside from being one of the best shooters in the draft, he possesses obvious goal-scoring instincts. Virtanen has that knack for finding the soft spots in the opponent’s defensive zone coverage. Despite his size, he is one of those players that can materialize out of nowhere to gobble up tap-ins and juicy rebounds.
Virtanen’s size and mean streak are evident on the forecheck and in the dirty areas. At 6’1” and 210 pounds, he is a devastating hitter who approaches the physical side of the game with a chip on his shoulder. This disposition will likely persist into the professional ranks when he begins to play against men. Virtanen was not the type of player who waited until he outweighed everyone as an 18-year-old to engage his CHL counterparts. He played with an edge in that league when he was 15 years old. As he adds muscle, he projects to be a player that can win puck battles in the dirty areas consistently.
In many mock drafts, Virtanen was projected to go anywhere between five and 10. However, late-breaking shoulder surgery has thrown his draft stock into question. If he does drop to Phoenix at 12, he would fill some glaring organizational needs while also fitting nicely into the culture Phoenix promotes. He would be an excellent fit.