A sea of COVID-19-related NHL game postponements in December gave way to an extended holiday break, which gave way to NHL players pulling out of the 2022 Olympics, which gave way to the 2021-22 season resuming in January amidst continuous daily postponements. The pandemic sure can suck the joy and intrigue out of sports, eh? Sheesh.
But maybe teams finally feel comfortable looking ahead to the season’s stretch run. They’re starting to take stock of their places in the standings, and the trade rumor mill has started to churn again. Last week gave us our first trade of the 2022 calendar year, with the Chicago Blackhawks selling low on fallen prospect left winger Alex Nylander, punting him to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a one-for-one swap for center Sam Lafferty. Speculation on potentially available big-name assets has also begun.
Really, when it comes to defenseman Jakob Chychrun, the buzz began a couple months back when the Arizona Coyotes tanked in the standings along with Chychrun’s play. The idea of him being available would’ve seemed ludicrous even in September 2021. Last season, he led all NHL defensemen with 18 goals in a shortened schedule and finished 10th in Norris Trophy voting. He’d vaulted himself into contention for Canada’s 2022 Olympic roster. He was 23 years old and signed at a criminally low AAV of $4.6 million for four more seasons. He was practically the last asset anyone would expect to see on the trading block.
But GM Bill Armstrong has been unabashed in his ruthlessness tearing down the mess left before him in Arizona in his quest for a true square-one rebuild. He traded defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, right winger Conor Garland and goaltender Darcy Kuemper last summer, then moved center Christian Dvorak for futures right before the season started, erasing any doubt that Arizona had no intention of competing in 2021-22. The “everything must go” approach has secured the Coyotes up to eight picks in the first two rounds of the 2022 draft, depending on which conditions activate. Now, it appears even Chychrun could be moved as part of the rebuild. He’s too young to have any movement restrictions on his contract yet. They don’t kick in until 2023-24.
The return for Chychrun, despite his struggles this season, would have to be astronomical given his enviable blend of size, strength, skating and scoring. The TSN insider panel recently described the required package as “Jack Eichel like.” So we’re looking at a combination including first-round picks, top prospects and impactful NHL players.
Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek recently named the Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings as suitors to watch and has confirmed at least 10 teams are in on Chychrun already. Which ones are the most logical fits to make pitches for him? I’ve singled out five, listed alphabetically, and added five more as a bonus.
We knew the Pacific Division would be wide open in 2021-22. Few of us projected Anaheim as one of the teams jockeying for the crown, however. The Ducks have surprised in 2021-22 largely thanks to the incredible breakout season from right winger Troy Terry, not to mention center Trevor Zegras’ as-expected ascension. If this team makes the playoffs, goaltender John Gibson is as capable of stealing a series as any netminder. Adding another marquee piece could suddenly make this team dangerous.
Throw out a nightmare start to 2021-22 and Chychrun was a difference maker at both ends of the ice less than a year ago, generating offense, limiting opposing attacks and excelling on the penalty kill. He’d obviously be a boon for the Ducks, but his long-term value makes him particularly appealing for them since top-four defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are UFAs in summer 2022.
The price would be steep to get Chychrun, of course. If you’re Armstrong, your ask probably starts with cornerstone prospect defenseman Jamie Drysdale and/or 2022 first-round center Mason McTavish. The Ducks, who haven’t named their long-term GM replacement for Bob Murray, aren’t “trade away top prospects” deep into their rebuild yet and would thus have to tread carefully if they go Chychrun hunting.
Tuukka Rask signed a PTO with AHL Providence last week. When a Bruins team already deploying Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark, who both sit at .918 save percentages, still wants to bring its longtime veteran starter back into the fray, it sends the message that this franchise still believes it can make a run at the Stanley Cup. The Bruins sit fourth in the Atlantic Division but have played fewer games than their competition and still hold a .613 points percentage.
They’ve lost too many assets from the left side of their D-corps in recent seasons, from Torey Krug to Zdeno Chara. Adding Chychrun to a top four that already includes Charlie McAvoy would massively transform Boston’s identity and, in a sense, “rewind” the team’s contention window by bringing in a 23-year-old who was selected two picks after McAvoy in the 2016 draft’s first round. Hockey-wise, Chychrun would be a dream fit for Boston, but would GM Don Sweeney have sufficient assets to tempt Armstrong? The Bruins’ prospect harvest, which includes right winger Fabian Lysell and center Johnny Beecher, lacks a projected can’t-miss superstar, and most of their young NHLers have fallen short of expectations thus far. To make a serious offer for Chychrun, might the Bruins have to sacrifice Swayman or defensive defenseman Brandon Carlo?
DETROIT RED WINGS
Yzerman said after the 2020-21 season he was willing to make major trades at this stage of Detroit’s rebuild – only if he was netting young, controllable assets. He was referring to his Jakub Vrana acquisition at the time and, later that off-season, stole goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic from the Carolina Hurricanes. Given his age and the four years left on his deal, Chychrun theoretically meets Yzerman’s criteria. Adding him to a D-corps already on the upswing thanks to Moritz Seider would accelerate a rebuild that has made significant strides so far this season, keeping the Wings on the playoff periphery. Chychrun would also be a Detroit-friendly face, having cut his teeth as a teenager playing AAA for Little Caesars and major junior with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting.
When one rebuilder trades with another, of course, the return can be tough to figure out. Arizona wants prospects and/or future assets, but there’s no way Detroit parts with the first couple first-rounders of the Yzerman era, Seider and Lucas Raymond, not to mention Detroit’s promising 2021 first-rounders, defenseman Simon Edvinsson and goaltender Sebastian Cossa. Would the Coyotes bite on one of next year’s first-round picks plus a sell-low on some prospects from the previous Wings regime such as Filip Zadina or Joe Veleno?
From a business standpoint alone, Chychrun would be a thrilling addition for the Panthers. A Florida-born NHLer who played for the Florida Jr. Panthers as a kid? How cool would that be? From a hockey standpoint, he’s the kind of piece that would put the Panthers, already a high-end Stanley Cup contender, over the top. Their existing D-corps includes Aaron Ekblad and Mackenzie Weegar, two of the all-around best in the game, but they’re both righties and they play together. The Panthers need a sturdy lefty to toil in their top four. Imagine Chychrun playing with Ekblad and Weegar reuniting with Gustav Forsling. The Panthers are willing to be aggressive in their pursuit of a Cup, too. (For more on GM Bill Zito’s philosophy behind his trade-heavy approach so far with the Panthers, watch for my interview with him later this week).
The Panthers would have to send some money Arizona’s way to make the deal work from a cap perspective, but the Coyotes have shown already that they’re fine taking on salary to facilitate deals. The Panthers also have some exciting young assets that could appeal to Arizona, from right winger Owen Tippett to left winger Grigori Denisenko. The question is whether Armstrong would dig in and ask for center Anton Lundell.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Keep an eye out for the Armstrong connection, from Doug to Bill. Bill spent a decade and a half in the Blues organization, rising from scout to director of amateur scouting to assistant GM, and has a longstanding relationship with Blues GM Doug. That could give St. Louis an instant leg up in negotiations. Chychrun could help the Blues win in the present, which is important given right winger David Perron is a 2022 UFA and center Ryan O’Reilly and right winger Vladimir Tarasenko are UFAs in 2023.
Chychrun would also bring long-term stability to a D-corps that hasn’t successfully delivered a top-pair star NHLer in years. The Coyotes could speculate on Scott Perunovich blossoming into one. Would they also insist that St. Louis kick in one of Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou? The most fascinating element of a Blues-Coyotes trade is that Bill Armstrong would be acquiring assets he played a large part in scouting while he was with the Blues.
Other Chychrun suitors to watch:
Edmonton Oilers: The desperation to win now is there, and the Oil have some high-end ‘D’ prospects.
Los Angeles Kings: Perhaps no team besides the Ottawa Senators has a deeper group of promising prospects to use in trades.
New York Islanders: They’ve been linked to Chychrun, but he’d fit more as a long-term asset than a win-now piece for a team that might miss the playoffs in 2021-22.
Ottawa Senators: If they’re frustrated to not be further along in their rebuild, Chychrun would warp them forward, and they have an embarrassment of young assets to offer to Arizona.
Toronto Maple Leafs: They’re all-in and thus appear alongside many big-name trade targets, but their prospect pool isn’t as robust as it was a couple years ago.