While the Coyotes were dealing with the departures of Shane Doan and coach Dave Tippett, GM John Chayka kept his head down and made two stunning deals on Friday.
CHICAGO – If the mark of a true leader is indeed the ability to keep one’s wits about him while everybody else is losing theirs, Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka just might be the NHL’s version of Winston Churchill. Just hours after the Coyotes were declared a dysfunctional and toxic hot mess, Chayka quickly and quietly silenced his critics with a couple of stunning draft-day deals.
And in doing so, he displayed a poise and maturity well beyond his 28 years. He also served notice to the hockey world that he is not simply some math geek who comes to his decisions by plugging numbers into formulas. That he did so under the circumstances under which he finds himself on Draft Day 2017 makes it all the more impressive.
In acquiring Derek Stepan, the Coyotes now have a dependable, veteran No. 1 center with a winning pedigree, one that suddenly potentially gives them a center ice corps of Stepan, Christian Dvorak, Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller. In Antti Raanta, they have a 28-year-old goalie who can be a No. 1 and do it for a million bucks this season. And in Niklas Hjalmarsson, they’ve found another proven winner who will play with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and allow the later to unleash himself offensively even more. (As an aside, OEL and Hjalmarsson are close friends who love playing with each other for Sweden and have talked for years of playing together in the NHL.)
So suddenly, the Coyotes don’t look so bad. It’s true they don’t have a coach, but don’t kid yourself by thinking nobody will be interested in taking this job. There are 31 head coaching jobs in the NHL and hundreds of qualified candidates. There are plenty of very good coaches who would jump at the opportunity of guiding the young talent the Coyotes have.
That’s all the good stuff. On the flipside, the Coyotes still have no money. And they have a new majority owner in Andrew Barroway who has displayed a red-flag proclivity for making it all about him. And the recent departures of franchise stalwart Shane Doan and coach Dave Tippett, while completely understandable, are areas of concern.
But they also require a little context to understand them fully. With Doan, the Coyotes had put a plan in place that included sitting Doan down and telling him that they were not planning to offer him a contract next season. The plan was to handle everything in the proper manner, including having an exit strategy in place if Doan decided he wanted to continue playing. But before they could do that, Doan’s agent, Terry Bross, went public with Doan’s desire to keep playing and Barroway did not handle that well. According to a source, Barroway lost it and saw the comments as a pressure tactic and he responded with a ham-handed handling of the entire thing.
With Tippett, there were a number of things at play and this had been brewing for months. The general sentiment was that Barroway no longer wanted Tippett to coach the team and Tippett – who was an ally of former co-owner and president of hockey operations Gary Drummond – no longer wanted to be there. This was in the works long before anything happened with Doan and was more due to money than anything else. Tippett was still owed between $12 million and $15 million on his deal with the Coyotes. Drummond couldn’t fire Tippett because he couldn’t afford to pay that kind of money to not coach his team. Tippett couldn’t resign because he’d lose out on all that money. But when it was clear the situation wouldn’t work, the two sides settled for about $3 million, meaning Tippett left an enormous amount of money on the table to get out of the Arizona situation. That leaves the Coyotes looking for a new coach, something Chayka will turn his attention toward after the draft. According to a source, he does not have a clear candidate in mind at the moment.
Look, the Coyotes future is far from clear and their situation is miles from ideal. They are still teetering on the brink financially, they need a new home and there are a number of cities that would be happy to be a landing place. But until this moment, the Coyotes always seemed to be a team that was going to be good someday if only their fans could live through even more years of having no hope for the present and watching their established players leave.
Suddenly they have a much better team, one that might even challenge for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They have the best group of prospects in hockey, which was why they were able to give up defense prospect Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh pick for Stepan and Raanta. (They also still have Nos. 23 and 35 this year.) The acquisitions Chayka made today will put some of those young players into roles lower in the lineup, where they can learn their craft without carrying the burden of too much responsibility.
But most of all, they have a GM who is steady at the wheel, one who simply kept his head down and kept working while almost everyone outside his bubble slagged his organization. And he came out of it all making his team better. That’s leadership. Not even John Chayka may be able to ultimately save the Arizona Coyotes, but he’s clearly an asset who is intent on doing everything he can to turn around a less-than-ideal situation.
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