At the time the Arizona Coyotes acquired Taylor Hall from the New Jersey Devils, GM John Chayka’s club found itself ahead of or tied with all but five teams in the league standings, only six points off top spot in the Western Conference and the lead dogs in the Pacific Division. And Chayka’s message was clear. He believed in his group, wanted to give them the chance to contend for a Stanley Cup and then he asked the question: “Why not us?”
It was worth asking. Though not considered a pre-season favorite and only a fringe contender in the minds of many, it was true Arizona had been blessed with brilliant backstopping from Darcy Kuemper, were among the league’s stingiest defensive teams, owned a healthy plus-13 goal differential and had decent enough underlying numbers to believe there was potential for some post-season magic. But the fact of the matter is that in the time since the Coyotes made the swap for Hall, a few unpleasant answers to Chayka’s query have bubbled to the surface.
Though it must be kept in mind Kuemper has missed all but two games since Hall’s arrival, the Coyotes have won only nine of their past 24 contests, have a minus-eight goal differential, middling goaltending numbers and have accumulated a mere 22 points since Hall’s first night in the desert. That’s the 24th-fewest points in the NHL and gives Arizona the 24th-lowest points percentage across that span, and this is to say nothing of the mediocre-at-best underlying numbers the Coyotes possess. The result is that Arizona, a post-season favorite in a weak division following the Hall trade, has slipped to the perimeter of the playoff race. Waking up Wednesday, the Coyotes are grasping the final wild-card spot by their fingertips, one point up on the Winnipeg Jets, four points ahead of the Minnesota Wild and five points clear of the Nashville Predators. That trio of clubs have one game, three games and four games in hand, respectively, on the Coyotes.
However, despite Arizona’s steady decline – they’re entering the final two-odd weeks before the trade deadline with a 2-5-3 record – all indications are that the Coyotes remain all-in on retaining Hall. According to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, Arizona has no intention of flipping the 28-year-old at the deadline for what would surely be a considerable haul even though there looms the very-real risk the pending unrestricted free agent could simply walk in July. Instead, the plan remains to keep Hall and attempt to sign him to a long-term pact ahead of the off-season.
To be sure, that’s an admirable stance. In effect, Arizona is saying that after seven seasons spent cleaning out the locker room after Game 82, they want to do whatever necessary to ensure this season culminates with post-season play. Beyond that, Coyotes ownership is making it known they’re willing to spend to keep a player of Hall’s caliber in the organization. Hats off to them for that. But is it really what’s best for Arizona?
Undeniable, of course, is that Hall has been the Coyotes’ best player since his Dec. 16 acquisition. Across the 24 games he’s played in Arizona, Hall is one off the team lead with eight goals, his 20 points are four more than any other Coyote and he’s generating more offensive looks than anyone else in Arizona. His 83 shots are 26 more than any other player across the Coyotes’ past two-dozen outings. To put that into perspective, he’s average a full shot-plus more than any other Coyote since his arrival, which is due in part to coach Rick Tocchet leaning hard on Hall. At 19:09 per game, Hall’s average ice time is nearly two minutes more than the next-highest average among Arizona’s forwards since mid-December. And if Hall remains with the Coyotes, he will without question be their best player for the next few seasons.
But there are clear and obvious drawbacks to keeping Hall, the biggest of which is the aforementioned possibility that this season ends with the Coyotes on the outside looking in and Hall bolting to the highest bidder or a more readymade contender in the summer. In such a scenario, Arizona will not only be out one of their better blueline prospects and a first-round selection in a deep draft – Kevin Bahl and the top-three protected pick were part of the Hall swap with the Devils – but also have nothing, not even some additional post-season revenue, to show for what they surrendered.
Even in a scenario in which Hall and the Coyotes make the post-season, however, what do we really make of this team? It has struggled to stay afloat in the league’s worst division this season. Is there honest-to-goodness belief Arizona is capable of true Stanley Cup contention not just this season, but for the next few campaigns, even with Hall in the lineup? It’s difficult to see that, and despite the excitement a post-season berth and even a two-round run might bring, if it ends with Hall jetting in the summer, it’s still difficult to see that as much more than a moral victory.
Let’s assume the Coyotes do make that kind of run, though, and then suppose Hall is persuaded to re-sign in Arizona, where he can be offered an eight-year deal instead of the seven-year pact he could ink elsewhere. Even that presents its own set of issues. Chances are that Hall is in line for a cap hit above the $10-million mark, potentially even $11-million per season. And that’s not a cap hit that can simply be tacked onto Arizona’s books without some restructuring.
As of Wednesday, the Coyotes are projected to enter the summer ahead of the 2020-21 campaign with less than $1 million in cap space, and that’s with Hall’s current $3-million salary (half of his cap hit was retained by the Devils), Carl Soderberg’s $4.75 million and Brad Richardson’s $1.25 million set to come off the books. Marian Hossa’s $5.275-million cap hit is also earmarked for long-term injured reserve, but that cap relief only provides the Coyotes with a hair north of $6 million in spending room. And while that number doesn’t include any potential cap inflation, it illustrates the point: at what will likely be an eight-figure average salary, someone will have to go if Arizona is to make room for Hall.
Perhaps that means a piece such as Antti Raanta. Or maybe it means a few bottom-six talents are packaged and sent on their way. But what seems a more likely scenario is that some combination of players will need to be moved along in order to create the cap space necessary to fit Hall’s high-priced pact. A cap crunch often creates a situation where such a move is necessary to get relief, and Chayka should be awfully familiar with that given he’s benefitted from such moves on more than one occasion. That could very well mean a top-six talent or key blueline cog is on the outs in order to accommodate Hall’s extension. That hardly seems ideal, especially when offensive and defensive depth are needs for the Coyotes.
Admittedly, this could be a far too risk-averse mode of thinking. Fortune favors the bold and all of that. But at a time when Arizona appears to be in the final stages of their gradual climb towards consistent playoff contention, the recent subpar results and short-term outlook make it difficult to be absolutely convinced that keeping Hall is the best course of action for the Coyotes. It’s a move more befitting a team that’s one major piece away, and it doesn’t feel as though Arizona is that team, at least not yet.
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