Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Draft, 3 Trades and Where Next?

Draft weekend is a fun time in the NHL. It’s the official start of off-season player movement and one of the key events in building a team for the coming season.

When it comes to the amateur draft, I always take the position of trusting the scouts. Keith Gretzky and his team has done a good job identifying players to draft in the last few years. The Coyotes have lots of good talent already in the NHL, more players on the way and a few unsigned draft choices who could end up being impact players. I get a kick out of the message board experts who really want this player or think that guy can turn around a franchise after watching a few YouTube highlights and reading what so-called draft experts say.

I always appreciate how TSN hockey analyst Bob McKenzie positions himself. McKenzie, who seems to have an direct pipeline to many teams, predicts the draft based on what he hears and what he is told, not what he thinks of the players. A few years ago he predicted the Coyotes were going to go “off the grid” with the 5th pick and they proceeded to pick the much lower rated Blake Wheeler. Think he has sources?

That said, the selection of Ekman-Larsson over Cowen was a bit of a surprise to me. Cowen is a physical, shutdown defensive type unlike anyone the Coyotes have in their organization. Ekman-Larsson shot up draft boards in the last few months and those type of players always scare me a little. Nevertheless, I’ll trust the scouts here and hope they have pegged a very good young player.

General Manager Don Maloney took an innovative route to improving the team by trading a couple of late round draft choices for players who finished last season in the American Hockey League. I did suspect that Maloney would consider trading draft picks for restricted free agents, but frankly I expected the action to be at the top of the Coyotes draft board and not at the bottom.

The Coyotes traded their 5th round pick to the Washington Capitals for the rights to RFA defenseman Sami Lepisto. The Finnish defenseman was stuck behind a number of young defensemen in the Caps system. Lepisto was a 3rd round draft choice in 2004 and has scored 45 and 42 points in his two full AHL seasons. Lepisto has also played 14 NHL games with the Caps. He missed Hershey’s AHL championship run after injuring his spleen in the last week of the regular season.

Maloney then shipped the Yotes’ 7th round pick to the Vancouver Canucks for defenseman Shaun Heshka. A junior teammate of Peter Mueller, Heshka has spent the last three years with the AHL Manitoba Moose, scoring 14 goals and 62 total points in 211 games. The Moose lost to the Bears in the AHL championship series this year.

Both Lepisto and Heshka have completed his entry level contracts. They will need to be qualified by 5 PM Monday or else they will become an unrestricted free agents. Much like Enver Lisin, Maloney is likely to want a fair two-way contract in place for both players. They may or may not agree leaving the possibility that they will have to be qualified (with a one way contract) or become free agents. One can assume the latter option is unlikely either by prior agreement or qualification.

While trading for restricted free agents is a solid strategy, Maloney is clearly shopping in the bargain aisle. He decided not get in on the action for high profile RFAs like Phil Kessel. One assumes the Coyotes have scouted these players extensively and had enough confidence to swap low draft choices for a shot at these players.

More curious was the trade of Brandon Prust to the Calgary Flames for veteran defenseman Jim Vandermeer.

Prust projected as little more than a 4th line energy player for the Yotes but he was cheap -- $500K. Vandermeer has a bigger price tag. Much bigger. He has two years left on his contract at an annual hit of $2.3MM.

The trade is curious in two ways. Vandemeer is a defensive minded player who lacks mobility. He is a 5th or 6th defenseman on a good team. He is not the offensive minded defenseman that the Coyotes desperately need. And at $2.3MM he takes a big bite out of the $5-6MM that we know Maloney has to spend to get to the salary cap floor. Maloney wants to add veteran leadership and Vandermeer will help in that area but he is at best a modest talent.

One wonders if this trade might have been a second act to the Jokinen trade. It just seems to be very out of character for GMDM.

What is missing right now is the element of excitement to the Coyotes off-season. So far, the biggest fireworks have come in the courtroom. . Taken alone, each of these moves can be explained as reasonable hockey judgement. Collectively, they will not excite the fan base. This franchise badly needs some juice. The Coyotes need to sell tickets, They need to win now. As flawed as the Olli Jokinen trade turned out last year, it did give the franchise a shot of energy. Unfortunately that energy didn’t pay off in a productive season or a playoff berth.

There will be more changes in the next few days and hopefully there will be some exciting hockey news for Coyote fans. As we approach the Monday 5PM deadline for qualifying restricted free agents, more players may become available. And on Wednesday over 100 unrestricted free agents hit the market. The Coyotes will not be players for the available big names but I expect GMDM to be shopping the bargain aisle for useful players. The frenzy of free agent activity will also put shake some players loose in trades and that’s where I expect the Coyotes to have their best chance and giving the franchise a real energy boost.

And a shot of excitement, along with investment by the new owners and lots of hard work are all parts of pumping new life into the franchise. I’m getting sick of the Coyotes being the butt of hockey jokes. (Did you hear Montreal fans chanting “Hamilton” when the Coyotes drafted?) It’s time for this franchise to show up, make a few bold moves and show the community that getting to the playoffs is not only a good talking point, but a real possibility. Bold moves can come in business at any time but if you are building a hockey roster, this is the week to be bold.

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