TORONTO — How’s that saying go again — cash is king?
For the Arizona Coyotes, cap space is king.
The small-market team, which ranked second last in attendance last season, might not generate an abundance of revenue. But because they also don’t spend much money, they have become the NHL leaders in exploiting a curious loophole in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement by acquiring other teams’ problem contracts in exchange for top prospects.
It all started in 2015, when Chris Pronger was traded to Arizona three years after the Hall of Fame defenceman played the final game of his career. Pronger still had two years left on his seven-year deal and the swap of contracts and players benefited both the Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers in different ways with respect to the salary cap and salary owed. The trend really ramped up this summer. First, the Coyotes acquired the final year of Pavel Datsyuk’s contract with Detroit after the Russian forward retired from the NHL to return home to be closer to family and to play in the KHL. On Thursday, they picked up Dave Bolland from Florida, who, according to his agent, might never play hockey again because of a chronic injury that kept him out of the lineup for much of last season.
Combined, Datsyuk and Bolland account for US$13-million in cap space.
That might seem like a lot for two players who won’t even dress for a single game, especially considering Bolland has three more years remaining on a contract that pays him US$5.5-million. But in return, the Coyotes have made out like bandits.
By taking on the final year of Datsyuk’s US$7.5-million cap hit, the team was able to swap first-round picks with the Red Wings, which they used to select highly regarded defenceman Jakob Chychrun. And while Bolland’s contract is more of a commitment, Arizona, which also had to give up a second- and third-round picks in the deal, was able to acquire forward prospect Lawson Crouse, who was the Panthers’ No. 11 pick in 2015.
“Cap space is an asset,” said first-year Coyotes GM John Chayka, who in his first few months on the job is already showing a shrewd ability to exploit the rules in order to stock the cupboards with young talent. Previous general manager Don Maloney made the Pronger deal.
“That’s what we’re after. At this stage of our organization, we’re still trying to collect and identify and develop core pieces. We feel that those guys are guys that have a real good shot of being core pieces for a long term.”
Indeed, the Coyotes have acquired so many top-end prospects that you could call them Team North American 2.0.
They already have Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, who last season combined for 100 points as rookies, as well as Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a 25-year-old defenceman who might be in the Norris Trophy conversation regularly if he weren’t playing in the desert. And waiting in the wings is Clayton Keller (No. 7 pick in 2016), Dylan Strome (No. 3 pick in 2015), Nick Merkley (30th overall, 2015), Brendan Perlini (12th, 2014) and Christian Dvorak (58th, 2014).
A playoff spot might have to wait another year or two. But with The Hockey News having ranked the Coyotes’ No. 1 overall in its latest Future Watch magazine — Strome was listed as the NHL’s top prospect, while Dvorak was ranked 10th and Crouse ranked 17th — a Stanley Cup might not be too far away.
“It’s a good young core for the future,” Strome, who is at BioSteel Camp with Domi and Crouse, said Thursday. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“It’s so exciting,” Domi said. “We have a lot of young guys in the system and now we have Lawson too. Everyone knows how talented (Crouse) is. He’s going to be a special player for us for a while.”
In Crouse, the Coyotes believe they have found a 6-foot-4, 212-pound power winger to complement the team’s skilled forwards. Crouse, a two-time member of Canada’s world junior team, can skate, hit and score, as he showed with 23 goals and 62 points in 49 games with the Kingston Frontenacs last season.
As Strome said, “He’s the total package.”
“He’s a unique guy,” Chayka said. “Usually when you add someone with the type of size that he has, you usually give up a little in skating or you give up a little in skill … in our opinion, he’s a guy that’s rare to find.”
Because of his age, Crouse either has to play in the NHL or be returned to junior. But the 19-year-old, who had been hoping to steal a spot with the Panthers, seems extra motivated now that he’s been traded.
“It’s the first time in my entire career to be traded,” said Crouse, who said he received high-fives and hugs from Domi and Strome when he arrived at the rink on Thursday. “Now that I’ve had a couple of hours to think about it, I’m in a really good spot and I’m looking forward to showing them what I’m made of.
“I’m going to make the most of this opportunity.”
Certainly, the Coyotes are making the most of theirs.