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NHL Hot Seat Radar: Arizona Coyotes

The Arizona Coyotes are expected to finish near the bottom of the NHL standings once again. If this season is going to have any positives, it'll require proving that there's a bright future for the franchise moving forward.
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This is the second file in the THN Hot Seat, a new NHL off-season series of THN.com columns in which we identify one person in every NHL market facing massive pressure in the 2022-23 regular season. The person on the Hot Seat could be an NHL player, coach, or team owner. Today, we are examining the Arizona Coyotes.

COYOTES HOT SEAT: ALEX MERUELO, FRANCHISE MAJORITY OWNER

WHY: On and off the ice, the Coyotes have been the NHL’s worst franchise in the past decade. It’s true, the Buffalo Sabres have missed the playoffs more times than Arizona, the reality is the Coyotes have made just one playoff appearance in the last 10 seasons, and in that span, they’ve never won 40 or more games in a single season, and have won fewer than 30 games five times.

If Arizona had been on sound financial footing in that stretch, Meruelo might not be our pick for the Coyotes’ Hot Seat this year. Alas, there has been a constant stream of embarrassing events (and even more embarrassing rosters) in Arizona, including Coyotes ownership missing tax payments and being evicted from their home arena in Glendale by politicians. Consequently, the organization has had no choice but to partner up with Arizona State University and playing their home games at the 5,000-seat hockey rink beginning in 2022-23 and lasting for three seasons.

The NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman have tried their hardest to spin this latest business development as a positive for the team, but it strains credulity in the extreme to suggest playing in front of an arena far smaller than many Canadian major junior hockey teams – for instance, the Ontario League’s London Knights play before capacity crowds of more than 9,000 fans – is somehow more beneficial than playing in a standard NHL-size building. Spinmeisters can call the new arrangement “more intimate” all they want. Still, the truth is any top professional league would be lambasted if one of its teams had to humble itself the way Arizona is about to this coming season. All this has happened under the ownership umbrella of Meruelo, who took over the majority ownership of the team in July of 2019.

Meanwhile, Meruelo’s management team with the Coyotes, led by GM Bill Armstrong, is going to ice another brutal on-ice roster in 2022-23. Arizona is widely seen as the Elephant Graveyard of the NHL, where bad contracts go to die. They’ve attempted numerous youth movements, and none have panned out. They currently have more than $23 million in salary cap space, and that’s with contractual millstones including the contracts of forwards Andrew Ladd ($5.5 million per season) and Zack Kassian ($3.2 million per year). If the NHL did not have a mandatory payroll floor, it’s widely believed the Coyotes would’ve pared down their salary cap situation even more.

Meruelo is a billionaire who also owns casinos, banks and media outlets. But it is wholly apparent he cannot turn the Coytoes’ lemons into lemonade. Others before him have tried and failed, and this can’t be blamed solely on a lack of fan interest. If Arizona had been even remotely competitive in the past decade, fans may well have turned out in larger numbers.

But that’s not what happened. The Coyotes have been mismanaged time and again, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. They’re going to be abysmal again this season, Meruelo is going to lose a considerable amount of money, and when they fail to sell out even a 5,000-seat rink, they’re going to be a huge embarrassment for the league. Meruelo may be a savvy businessman, but as a sports team owner, he’s under the gun in a major way this year.

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