On December 16, 2019, the Arizona Coyotes acquired Taylor Hall and Blake Speers from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for prospects Nick Merkley, Nate Schnarr, Kevin Bahl, and two draft picks (1st round pick in 2020 and a conditional 3rd round pick in 2021). No doubt this was a move that was made to improve Arizona who is in a win-now mode as confirmed by their General Manager, John Chayka.
The Package Going the Other Way
Arizona sent to New Jersey a package that included:
- Nate Schnarr. Schnarr, age 20, is a forward who was the Coyotes 3rd round selection in 2017. He did not have much success representing Canada at World Juniors U18, notching 1 assist in 5 games. However, he did produce over 100 points as a 19 year old for the Guelph Storm in the OHL and he is slightly under .5 points per game with the Tucson Roadrunners in the AHL as a rookie;
- Nick Merkley, age 22, is a forward who was a late 1st round pick of the Coyotes in 2015. After a successful four-season career with the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL, Merkley has spent the last three seasons with the Roadrunners where he is under .5 points per game on average;
- Kevin Bahl, age 19, is a defenseman who was the 2nd round selection by the Coyotes in 2018. At 6’6, by some accounts 6’7, Bahl projects to be a shutdown defenseman and is clearly the highlight of the trade for the Devils. He has been a successful, physical defenseman in the OHL and all eyes are on him as he represents Team Canada in the World Junior Championship U20 later this month;
- This year’s first round pick conditionally (only protected if it becomes a top 3 selection); and
- A conditional pick next year that can become a 1st round pick based on if Taylor Hall re-signs in the desert and if the Coyotes win a playoff round.
As of now, Hall is a rental for the Coyotes since his contract expires at the end of this season and there is no guarantee that he re-signs with Arizona. Hall even stated during his press introduction that he was excited to play for the Coyotes for the “rest of the year.” But, John Chayka has shown that he wants the team to take that next step and start competing for a Stanley Cup.
While it is a gamble, the question is how big of a gamble is it? Considering that it is unlikely that the Coyotes fully regress and miss the playoffs, the first round pick this year will likely become a pick in the high teens or low 20’s depending on how far the Coyotes go in the playoffs and whether they win the Pacific Division over the Edmonton Oilers. Schnarr and Merkley have been decent in the AHL, but it is unknown if they will ever become reliable NHLers. The conditional pick will depend on what happens with Hall, but Arizona potentially only forfeit a third round pick in next year’s draft. That leaves Bahl as the wildcard from the Coyotes’ side.
The Present State of the Coyotes
Although the Coyotes gave up some valuable future assets, the Coyotes desperately needed to improve their offense if they are serious about making the playoffs. Arizona is currently 24th in the league in goals scored per game, 24th in the league in shooting percentage, and 22nd in the league in shots on goal per game. Despite that, the Coyotes are, as of writing this, number one in the Pacific Division, thanks in part to stellar goaltending and a deep blueline.
Hall, a speedy natural goal scorer, slots in nicely to this offense that desperately needed a boost. As of December 17, the Coyotes lineup like this:
Taylor Hall – Christian Dvorak – Phil Kessel
Clayton Keller – Carl Soderberg – Nick Schmaltz
Lawson Crouse – Derek Stepan – Vinnie Hinostroza
Michael Grabner – Brad Richardson – Conor Garland
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Ilya Lyubushkin
Jakob Chychrun – Alex Goligoski
Aaron Ness – Jordan Oesterle
(Niklas Hjalmarsson – IR) (Jason Demers – IR)
With the addition of Hall, the Coyotes’ offense becomes much more balanced. Tyson Nash, the color commentator of the Coyotes, noted that a top line consisting of Hall and Kessel will allow players like Keller, Hinostroza, and Schmaltz to play against middle-pairing and bottom-pairing defensemen each night. This should allow them to generate more opportunities and increase their scoring outputs. As of now, relying on these three players for support has not been enough, as shown by the Coyotes’ current offensive ranking. But adding Hall may jump-start the entire group, as currently, Keller, Kessel, and Hinostroza are all shooting 8.1% or lower. Those percentages should naturally be expected to rise as Hall takes tougher matchups.
This new ability to create offense with Hall was even on display during last night’s game against the San Jose Sharks, a 3-2 Arizona win. Although it was apparent that Hall was still trying to find chemistry with his new linemates, his skill and speed generated several scoring chances for the Coyotes in the first two periods and he even assisted on Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s game winning goal. Although the Coyotes failed to muster 20 shots on goal in the contest, the team looked much more dangerous on several rushes and should become better offensively as the season goes on. If this team can hit its stride offensively with Hall, Arizona will be a dangerous group.
But what is the ceiling of this team?
Are the Coyotes Contenders After this Trade?
Assuming the Coyotes can continue their defensive excellence that has given them the second fewest goals allowed per game, Arizona absolutely should continue trending towards a playoff berth. I have been a fan of the Coyotes rebuild thus far and have been a huge defender of their forward depth. Based on their statistics, it has been proven that their bottom 6 forwards can compete against those of the best teams in the league. The one thing the Coyotes lacked from last season was reliable star power on offense, and they have mostly remedied that by acquiring Phil Kessel during the offseason and Hall this week.
While I would love to see the Coyotes win the Cup, I believe it is a little early to anoint this team the status of a Cup contender. Sure, Cup contending teams (especially those who become champions) need depth, but they have also tended to follow a very set formula: two impact centerman, at least one star winger, two impact defensemen (usually two right handed defensemen) including at least one elite defenseman, a third center who acts like a second center, and two reliable goalies.
When we look back at three of the last four Stanley Cup Champions, we see exactly that formula:
Blues-2019: Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, Tyler Bozak, and Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen.
Capitals-2018: Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alexander Ovechkin, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen, Lars Eller, and Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.
Penguins-2016: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Justin Schultz, Nick Bonino, and Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Even the 2017 Penguins had most of that formula, aside from one defenseman, since Letang was hurt and missed the playoffs that year. Although their defense was done by committee, the 2017 team still had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Justin Schultz, Nick Bonino, and Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. That year, the Penguins beat the 2017 Predators who also had that formula, aside from the second center. As a result, when Ryan Johansen went down with injury, it was essentially the death knell to their playoff run, since they were essentially trying to win a Stanley Cup with four 3C’s.
When we look at the 2020 Coyotes, we do not see that winning formula. The Coyotes have goaltending (Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta), defense (Ekman-Larsson, Goligoski, and Chychrun), and wingers (Hall, Keller, and Kessel), but their centers–Dvorak, Stepan, and Soderberg–leave much to be desired.
Derek Stepan is a 2c in this league who is always a consistent 50 point scorer, aside from last season, which now seems like an anomaly. Similarly, Soderberg has become a 2c with the Coyotes and has 20 points in 36 games this year, which represents an increase after traditionally achieving around the 40-48 point plateau.
Unlike the aforementioned veteran centers, Dvorak is the wildcard. After producing 33 and 37 points respectively in his first two seasons, he missed the majority of last year due to injury, finishing with 7 points in 20 games. Dvorak currently has 21 points in 36 games and is on a line with Hall and Kessel, meaning his total points are likely to mightily increase. He also turns 24 later this year, so he still has time to grow into the impact center the Coyotes desperately need.
Still, it is apparent that Arizona lacks that top center. Dvorak, Stepan, and Soderberg are all talented players, but they are not in the Backstrom, Crosby, or O’Reilly tier of centers. Moreover, Arizona’s most noteworthy center prospect is Barrett Hayton, a nineteen year old who is the former 5th overall pick from 2018, who played 14 games this season before being sent back to the OHL for the remainder of the year, making it unlikely the Coyotes see him again until right before the playoffs. Hayton was considered a reach pick when selected by Arizona, so it is unknown how great he will be. With the Hall trade, Arizona likely has depleted some assets that could be used to acquire a center.
Arizona’s lack of an elite center is especially important considering it is very likely that the Coyotes would have to go through at least one of McDavid, Couture, Karlsson, Pettersson, and Monahan in the Pacific Division; at least one of Scheifele, Staal, O’Reilly, Seguin, and MacKinnon; and one of Kuznetsov, Bergeron, Crosby, Barzal, Point, Aho, or Tavares to win a Stanley Cup.
While I love the acquisition of Hall and believe he will properly fit the rest of the team, Hall’s inclusion should merely prevent the Coyotes from regressing for the rest of the year. His addition helps fix an ailing offense that has relied heavily on stellar goaltending to win games.
With Hall added to this core, Arizona should make the playoffs, they could win their division, and they could even win a round or two in the playoffs. However, without the addition of a prominent center, I don’t foresee the Coyotes raising the Cup just yet.
It will be interesting to see if the Coyotes convince Hall to stay after this season since they are a next-step-of Dvorak or Hayton away from being actual Cup contenders. But, that is unlikely to happen over the next 5 months. If they miss out on re-signing Hall, this trade may have been ill-timed compared to the development trajectory of their current roster.
*statistical information from theScore, Hockey-Reference, Elite Prospects, and Leftwing Lock