Unless your team is one of the four teams still in the running for Lord Stanley’s Cup, then your team is looking forward to the next circuit. The Phoenix Coyotes are one of those teams. (Well, they’ll be the Arizona Coyotes next season. But that’s not important.)
What is important is doing your due diligence in the offseason. With such a strict salary cap, the NHL is a fascinating league, and it often breeds excellent competition. For the Coyotes, general manager Don Maloney has made a name for himself in the business. Until this past season, the Coyotes were a team with an especially harsh budget, being owned by the NHL.
And while Maloney’s first offseason with more money resulted in missing the playoffs, the acquisition of Martin Erat at the deadline is something that doesn’t necessarily show up in the cap numbers. It’s also something that Maloney is particularly adept at: keeping the cap in good shape come trade deadline time. So while fans always want to see a huge free agency splash, that may not be what to expect if you’re a Coyotes fan.
With that in mind, let’s look at the cap for the upcoming season.
Per CapGeek.com, the Coyotes already have about $55 million of the league cap $71 million pledged for the 2014-15 season, with no looming dead money to worry about. With very limited turnover, the small amount of spending money is no surprise.
It also worth mention that just because theoretically the Coyotes have $16 million of space does not mean the Coyotes are willing to spend all of it. Last season, the Coyotes spent a total of $61 million towards the cap, with about $3 million in dead money. So a budget of $60 million is a reasonable expectation, leaving about $5 million to improve the club in the upcoming free agency period, with some wiggle room to account for depth signings and trades.
So the question that we’re left asking is this: just what can we get with $5 million dollars?
If nothing is done at all, the Coyotes depth chart looks something like this:
Lessio, Rieder, Samuelsson as depth/emergency
Murphy, Schlemko as depth/emergency
Domingue (emergency backup)
In my eyes, two things stand out in this depth chart that need changing. At 21 years old, goaltender Mark Visentin might be better suited to play another season or two in Portland, and continue to develop rather than make spot starts for Mike Smith. So a backup goaltender would be worth about a million dollar investment. Last season that was Thomas Greiss, and ideally it would Thomas Greiss again this season, but $1 million may not be enough to sway Greiss.
Another thing that sticks out is Max Domi on the second line, occupying the spot previously held by Radim Vrbata. Asking Domi to replace Vrbata’s production is a lofty task for anyone, especially a rookie. $4 million dollars can buy a second-winger if the coaching staff is hesitant to throw Domi into the fire.
As far as defense is concerned, the two year signing of Chris Summers puts the unit in good shape, especially considering the play of call-ups Michael Stone, Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy. Their play made Derek Morris expendable, and the Coyotes are in a position to let the unit stand pat at least in terms of the NHL roster.
Lastly, an NHL club can never have enough forward depth. Much like the Brandon Yip, Jeff Halpern and Tim Kennedy signings from a year ago, not a lot of money needs to be set aside for these. Whether it is through two or three league minimum contracts or some two-way deals, it’s just something the Coyotes shouldn’t ignore. It is in this category that enforcer Paul Bissonnette falls. Given his impact in the community and his status as a fan favorite, hopefully the Coyotes bring him and his Twitter account back to the desert. But being a fourth-line forward, it isn’t what I’d consider a must-do move.
But let’s break down those two aforementioned “big needs”: Backup goaltender and second-line winger.
Signing Thomas Greiss (or a comparable backup)
Goaltenders in the NHL are such a strange, strange commodity. Look at this past trade deadline. Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak, Tim Thomas, Roberto Luongo and Ilya Bryzgalov were all moved during the season. For being arguably the most important position in the game, teams often have an abnormal value when it comes to evaluating netminders.
With that in mind, Thomas Greiss was very valuable as Mike Smith’s backup last season. Even beyond posting a record of 10-8-5 with a 2.29 goals-against-average and proving capable when Smith went down late in the season, Greiss was by all accounts a great locker room presence and well worth million-dollar-salary he was paid.
GMDM and company recognize this, as reportedly Greiss’s agent is the only one that has been contacted in the offseason so far.
But as I stated previously, Greiss was quite capable when asked to start, which may lead him to pursue a starter gig with another team. If that is the case, there is nothing the Coyotes can do, unable to offer that with Mike Smith entrenched between the pipes. A backup is important over the course of an 82-game season, so the Coyotes may find another option if Greiss cannot be retained. Whether that is another option on the market or with the inhouse Mark Visentin may depend on the asking price.
Resigning Radim Vrbata (or another second-line winger)
Czech forward Radim Vrbata has been a fixture in Phoenix since the ‘09-’10 season, notching 45 points in every season except the lockout-shortened ’12-’13 season. His best season as a pro came in ’11-’12, where his 35 goals was second among all skaters in the Western Conference. Last season wasn’t bad for Vrbata, and despite the team’s lack of success, DMGM would do right by the organization if he brought back the veteran to keep the Coyotes’ core intact.
Using 30-year-old Ales Hemsky’s contract at 5 million a year and 30-year-old Jiri Hudler’s contract at 4 million a year as models, I think the Coyotes would be fair to offer a contract in the range of 4.5 million for three years for the 32-year-old Vrbata, or give him an extra year of security for a half-a-million-per-year-hometown discount. But much like Greiss’s situation, he could likely find a bigger offer elsewhere, which the Coyotes would not fault him for.
Although, his career numbers suggest Vrbata should stay in the desert. In 428 games played in a Coyotes jersey, Vrbata averages 0.67 points per game with a plus-29 rating, while only averaging 0.48 points per game with a minus-11 rating in 364 games with other teams.
If not Vrbata, there are several other options available, such as Milan Michalek, Matt Moulson, Mikhail Grabovski or Jussi Jokinen. Unless the Coyotes brass is totally smitten with one of those guys, I would like to think Vrbata is priority number one.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment below. Also feel free to read my other articles.