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Screen Shots: Rutherford, Spezza and Arizona's Debt Debacle

Can Jim Rutherford turn things around in Vancouver? Is the Jason Spezza suspension too long, or just the right length? What about the future of the Arizona Coyotes? Adam Proteau explores these topics in this week's Screen Shots column.
Jim Rutherford

Welcome back to Screen Shots, a regular feature in which we take a brief look at a handful of hockey topics. Let’s get right to it.

– Former Hurricanes and Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is taking the team president and interim GM roles for the Vancouver Canucks. This follows the hiring of new Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau earlier this week, and it gives Vancouver arguably the NHL’s most media-friendly GM and coach.

In his time running two teams – both of which won Stanley Cups under his guidance – Rutherford was renowned for pulling the trigger on big trades, and he tends to do his deals well before the trade deadline. If you look at Rutherford’s trade history, you’ll see he makes moves in October, December and February. He does not hesitate to alter his roster.

Rutherford should be expected to start throwing Canucks players overboard sooner than later. That said, he’s going to need a thick skin when he starts tearing things apart in Vancouver. Every move will be hyper-analyzed by media and fans, and Rutherford will be under the biggest microscope of his career. But Rutherford and Boudreau know what they’re getting into here. There has to be some positivity for the organization in this season gone awry for the Canucks. They won’t make the playoffs, but they can build their core talent into a force that makes a difference.

Canucks fans are sick and tired of excuses. They want to see evidence there’s a new blueprint in place, and even if they’re only taking baby steps forward, at least they’re moving in the right direction. The point is that institutional inertia in Vancouver must end. The wrecking ball has to swing, and swing hard. The status quo is out of the question.

The Canucks are a work in progress, to say the least. Now it’s on Rutherford and Boudreau to prove they’ve still got what it takes to build a championship-worthy squad.

– Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza is appealing his six-game suspension for kneeing Winnipeg Jets defenseman Neal Pionk in the head. At present, his appeal will take place in a meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman; if Spezza and Bettman don’t agree to cut back the number of games, Spezza can take his case to an independent arbitrator.

Anyone who has interacted with Spezza knows how likable and good-natured he is. There’s no question he made a mistake when he let emotions get in the way and attacked Pionk (who had just kneed and injured Leafs defenseman Rasmus Sandin), but given his character and track record, Spezza should have one or two games of the suspension shaved off of his sentence.

I’m all for the NHL’s Department of Player Safety taking a more punitive approach to player discipline. But six games feels excessive. That’s nearly 10 percent of a regular season. Taking that number down to three or four games is a fair solution to this conundrum.

– The Arizona Coyotes made a public spectacle of their tax situation Thursday, sending out a notice they had paid $1.3 million in back taxes. They had no choice in the matter, as the City of Glendale had given them an ultimatum – pay up, or we’ll lock you out.

The saga ended with the Coyotes clearing their debts, But in future, if Glendale really wants to punish the Coyotes in any dispute, they’d lock players in the rink. The team is abysmal – only winning five games out of their first 25 games this season – and they’re now the worst team in the league, with a .240 points percentage. They’re going to be trading veterans by the trade deadline, and that includes winger Phil Kessel and defenseman Anton Stralman. ‘Yotes GM Bill Armstrong has cap space (currently, more than $10 million) and he is motivated to clean house as much as possible and lay down a foundation of young talent.

The tax fiasco is just another pothole Coyotes ownership has dealt with as part and parcel with this franchise’s agonizing rebuild. One day, if Arizona grows into a leviathan, we won’t be talking about the business side. We should be talking about the team and not the team’s business. But it’s still going to be a good while before this franchise evolves into a Cup contender. And that means there likely will be more scrutiny about ownership’s moves.

As long as the Coyotes have been in Arizona, there has been consistent drama about their fate and future. That’s an indictment of the carousel of ownership and management as much as anything else. The players on the ice know they have to be better, but that goes for everyone in the organization. Bettman has fought hard to ensure the Coyotes do not relocate, but he can’t do that forever. Besides, if Arizona can’t get its ducks in a row, why would their fans support them? You don’t reward relentless ineptitude.

No news should be good news for the Coyotes. The more they’re making headlines, the more you see their warts. And until they start putting up victories, Arizona will face questions about its direction and commitment to winning. The Coyotes are already looking ahead to next season, when they have only four players under contract. Much more change is coming. And Armstrong is going to be under intense pressure to draft and develop a new, young core. If he fails to turn Arizona’s ship in the right direction, he will be fired, and there will be more chaos, and another aborted rebuild.

As per CapFriendly.com, the Coyotes have approximately $52 million in cap space for the NHL’s 2022-23 campaign. They could be a huge player in off-season moves, but ownership likely won’t spend to the cap ceiling. Armstrong’s challenge is clear: use the NHL entry draft to stockpile a slew of young, skilled, cheap players.

Only time will tell if he rises to the occasion, or if he’s just another performer in this cavalcade of missteps.

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