How the Arizona Coyotes Can Get Back on Track

Sorry Quebec. The Arizona Coyotes are staying put. Andrew Barroway was introduced as the team’s new majority owner today, and he promised to not rest until the Stanley Cup arrived in the desert.

While the sleep deprivation approach has never done anyone any good, Barroway will have to hit the ground running as there are a number of decisions to be made.

It’s clear that the Coyotes are going to have to take the long-term approach if they want to get back to the postseason. We’ve seen some aggressive rebuilds take hold over the last few years though, and if Barroway plays his cards right, the Coyotes could be contending for a playoff spot within the next two or three seasons.

First on the agenda is figuring out what to do with Antoine Vermette. The 32-year-old could command upwards of $6 million a year as a free agent, and it’s believed that the Coyotes aren’t willing to pay him that much. If Vermette is indeed available, he’ll be one of the most highly coveted rentals available as the trade deadline approaches.

He’s outstanding in the faceoff circle, and has scored 10 goals in 37 games this season despite playing for the NHL’s 25th-ranked offense. Moving Vermette for futures almost seems like a given, but it’s important that the Coyotes acquire the right futures. Any first-round pick in 2015 should be snagged, as they are highly valued at this point.

Consider that it cost the Pittsburgh Penguins a first-round pick and a roster player to acquire the underperforming David Perron from the Edmonton Oilers.

It could be argued that Vermette is even more valuable than Perron, given his versatility and consistency over the years. It’s important for Arizona to get this trade right. Moving assets like Vermette and getting nothing (eventually) in return hurts. Just ask the Atlanta Thrashers, who traded Marian Hossa in his prime for three no-impact prospects and a pick in 2008. And then traded Ilya Kovalchuk in his prime for three no-impact prospects and two draft picks in 2010.

That’s not to say that Vermette is nearly as good as Hossa or Kovalchuk, but botching trades of top-six forwards sets a team back.

Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney has been pretty open about his desire to move a number of players as the deadline draws near. The Coyotes are 13 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference and would need to pass teams like the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets to make the dance.

That’s not going to happen, and Maloney knows it.

Even if the 2014-15 season is more or less lost, he should, under no circumstances, trade Keith Yandle or Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Not for Ryan O’Reilly. Not for Jordan Eberle. Under no circumstances. The former has had his name circulated in trade rumors for at least a year now, while it’s easy to conclude that the latter would fetch quite the return if made available.

If you as a fan took a shot every time you heard a general manager say that “offensive defensemen don’t grow on trees,” you’d never be able to legally operate a vehicle. It’s trite, but true. Players that can move the puck from the blue line aren’t easy to come by, and Yandle should be part of the solution in Arizona. He shouldn’t be dangled as trade bait despite his defensive lapses.

Is he going to command a high salary when he becomes a free agent in 2016-17? You bet. Want to know why? Because he averages a point in every other game and is durable as can be. Since debuting in 2008, Yandle ranks 16th in terms of average points per game scored among defensemen. Cut out the retired/inactive players, and he’d jump up to 12th.

That means the Coyotes have a guy that could easily nose into the NHL’s top-10 most offensively prolific defensemen. That’s not the kind of guy you trade away. Not if the goal is to win a Stanley Cup. That’s the kind of guy you pay and keep. These players are rare, and that’s why they cost a lot. If the Coyotes aren’t willing to open the wallet for Yandle, then all the talk about wanting to win a championship is untrue.

By the time Yandle is ready for a new deal, Shane Doan’s $5.3 million cap hit falls off the books. Give three million of that to Yandle and be done with it. Draft forwards until you’re blue in the face, but don’t trade away blue chip defensemen. That’s not something contending teams do. Ever.

The organization also needs to figure out which Mike Smith is real. The Smith that was solid through two years leading up to his six-year, $34 million extension, or the Smith that currently has the 40th best save percentage in the NHL and is second in losses. If it’s the second Smith, then that’s a $5.6 million problem for the Coyotes.

Luckily for Arizona, the team employs one of the game’s best goaltending coaches in Sean Burke. If anyone can help Smith find his game, it’s him. He’s already worked wonders for Devan Dubnyk, and he didn’t look like a minor-league caliber netminder last year, let alone a guy ready to push for an NHL job.

The last thing the Coyotes need to do: lean on their youth and prospects. They don’t have the NHL’s best batch of young players, but it isn’t half-bad either. Max Domi is going to be a rock star, Brendan Perlini was a great add and acquiring Philip Samuelsson for Rob Klinkhammer was pretty slick.

There are some pieces to like in Arizona, but there’s little room for mismanagement. The team has a committed owner (finally), and now it’s time to start building towards relevancy.

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