Story by Evan Oscherwitz
Another NHL regular season has come and gone, and for the eighth time in the last nine seasons, the Arizona Coyotes will not participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While the Coyotes were in the mix for a playoff spot for the first three months of the season, their 6-9 record in April all but sealed their fate. Lack of consistency, injuries to the team’s top two goaltenders and an inability to score first all contributed to Arizona’s late-season slide.
“We did good things here and there,” right winger Phil Kessel said. “This game’s so tight, so if you make mistakes and you don’t play your best for a period or five, 10-minute stretch, the game goes sideways on you. I think we had a decent amount of those this year.”
Now, as the organization enters a pivotal offseason, General Manager Bill Armstrong faces a number of challenges. Not only must Armstrong navigate the upcoming expansion draft and find a new head coach to replace Rick Tocchet, whose contract was not renewed, but he must also decide which of the Coyotes’ 14 pending free agents will return next season as the team moves to the Central Division.
Headlining the team’s extensive list of free agents is 25-year-old right winger Conor Garland, who led the team in assists and points per game average this past season.
Garland was a mainstay on the Coyotes’ top line alongside Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller, and played big minutes on Arizona’s 13th-ranked power play unit. The combination of Garland’s restricted free agent status and the Coyotes’ abundance of cap space means that he will likely return to the team, though no deal seems imminent.
“[Free agency] is part of the process,” Garland said. “Of course I’d love to be back here and hopefully the Coyotes want me back here.”
Keeping Garland might seem like an easy decision for management, but the same cannot be said for the four everyday defensemen whose contracts are set to expire.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, Jordan Oesterle and Jason Demers each appeared in over 40 games for the Coyotes this season, though all four experienced declines in production from the year prior.
Hjalmarsson, Demers and Goligoski are all over the age of 30, and the late-season emergence of 2019 first-round pick Victor Söderström likely means that at least one of them will find themselves in a different city next year.
None of the four should command a large raise, but Armstrong will have the opportunity to completely overhaul the Coyotes’ defense if he chooses.
The filth. pic.twitter.com/Bakq5VD9Or
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) May 9, 2021
“This is obviously a time for this organization where some changes are going to happen,” Goligoski said. “We’ll see how everything shakes out, but a lot of those decisions are out of my hands.”
Defense is not the only position where the Coyotes could see serious turnover heading into next season.
Starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper has one year remaining on his contract, but backup Antti Raanta is a pending free agent and promising third-stringer Adin Hill will be exposed in the expansion draft if the Coyotes decide to protect Kuemper, which they could likely do.
Goaltending has been a strong point for Arizona over the past three seasons and losing Hill and/or Raanta could be a disastrous blow to the team’s hopes of returning to the playoffs, especially given Kuemper’s struggles with injuries.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 25, 2021
With no first-round pick in the upcoming draft, a litany of free agents to deliberate on and the looming threat of having a player poached in the expansion draft, Armstrong will need to get creative in order to return the Coyotes to playoff contention.
The team possesses a strong group of young core players, but several holes in the lineup must be filled in order for Arizona to take the next step. Moving to the extremely competitive Central Division means that the Coyotes will also need to battle even harder than before to reach the postseason.
This offseason should bring changes to the team’s roster, but whether or not it will bring a change in fortunes for the franchise remains to be seen.
With the right additions, the Coyotes will have every chance to make the playoffs in 2021-22, but should they fail to qualify, hockey fans in the desert will once again find themselves howling in disappointment.