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Coyotes’ rebuild should continue with Keller, Kessel trades


GLENDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 23: Phil Kessel #81 and Clayton Keller #9 of the Arizona Coyotes are congratulated by teammates after Kessel’s goal against the Colorado Avalanche during the third period of the NHL hockey game at Gila River Arena on March 23, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

It is not difficult to see what is happening with the Arizona Coyotes this offseason.

There is a rebuild underway, and it has already seen the team trade established veterans Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Adin Hill, and Darcy Kuemper.

Along with those moves, they have spent the past few weeks weaponizing their salary cap space by taking on bad contracts that other teams do not want (Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Andrew Ladd, Shayne Gostisbehere) in exchange for draft picks. A lot of draft picks. Those moves already netted them the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 draft, and has put them in a position where they have 11 draft picks for 2022, including seven in the first two rounds (two first round picks and five second round picks).

In the process they have purged themselves of most long-term commitments, pretty much wiping the slate clean. They only have six players under contract for the 2022-23 season, while only four players are under contract more than two years in advance: Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Christian Dvorak, and Jakob Chychrun.

The trades should not stop now.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

At this point it is difficult to see the Coyotes contending for a playoff spot this season, especially with the departures of Kuemper and Antti Raanta in goal (the one main strength of the team that gave them a chance every night). Their only playoff appearance in the past nine years was the result of the play-in round during the 2020 Stanley Cup bubble (then they lost in the First Round in five games against the Colorado Avalanche) and the focus now is clearly on the longer-term future.

It seems like a given that at some point Phil Kessel will be on the move. He is entering his age 33 season and is an unrestricted free agent after this season. A re-signing here seems completely unlikely. That will not be a surprise when it happens.

The real important decisions are going to be with other players on the roster that might be viewed as more “core” pieces for the future.

That brings us to the 23-year-old Keller who is still under contract for another seven years at a salary cap hit of $7.15 million per season. In theory he should one of the players you build around. He is the right age, signed long-term, and is a pretty good player. But here is the important question: If you are not going to keep a player like Conor Garland, then what is the point of holding on to Keller at this point? His no-trade clause does not kick in until 2024 so there is no restriction on where he could go, and he is probably one of the few players still on the roster that could really bring back a somewhat significant return.

There are some potential problems with that plan.

The first is what would be a losing PR battle. They have already traded significant players this offseason, and if you move a player like Keller who is signed, young, and one of the better players on the team you really would be telling your fans “we are not going to win for a while.” That is always a tough sell, especially for a fan base that has already seen more than its fair share of losing over the past decade.

The second is that you still have to pay somebody and put an NHL team on the ice. You still have to reach the salary floor, and you still have to have players. Keller has a significant contract and would help reach that salary floor level and he is still pretty good.

There are workarounds to that, though. The Coyotes still have that blank slate of salary cap space and could continue to take on other team’s bad contracts for draft picks. Keep accumulating draft picks and it gives you options. For one, the best way to find talent in the draft is to give yourself more lottery tickets. They can also be used as trade chips to acquire players you actually want. The reality of the NHL is that the salary cap is not going to increase much in the next couple of years. A lot of teams have salary cap crunches. Those teams will probably have to move somebody they do not want to move for less than they want to move them for. A team with a boat load of draft picks and salary cap space to burn could really take advantage of that.

It just seems that if the Coyotes are going to go for a rebuild, they might as well follow through with it and trade everything they can as soon as they can. Just rip off the band-aid. Going from Kuemper, Raanta, and Hill to Carter Hutton and (for now) Joseff Korenar is a significant downgrade that will have a major impact on the team’s success this season. Losing Ekman-Larsson and Garland makes the team’s short-term intent clear, especially when combined with the practice of essentially buying draft picks.

The rebuild is here. Nobody should be kept out of trade discussions.