It appears the Arizona Coyotes will start the 2020-2021 season without a captain, but this season will be a test for all the candidates.
This offseason featured an extreme roster overhaul that included the reconstruction of the defense, offense, and goaltending. Among all these changes, it can be easy to overlook the overhaul of a different group — the leadership group.
All the official captains or alternate captains from last season are no longer with the team. The Coyotes’ ownership group’s clear dissatisfaction with Oliver-Ekman Larsson likely would have resulted in losing his captaincy had he not been traded. In addition, Niklas Hjalmarsson retired, and Derick Brassard signed another one-year deal, this time with the Philadelphia Flyers.
After the team elected not to re-sign Shane Doan in 2017, they waited a year before naming Oliver Ekman-Larsson captain. Since then, the new leadership group has seemed weak in comparison to its predecessor.
Dvorak: “I’d say the main guy that helped me out the most was Shane Doan. He wasn’t a centreman, but I played with him for most of my rookie year in the league. He helped me out with everything, even faceoffs too.” #GoHabsGo #THW
— Ryan Szporer (@rszporer) October 6, 2021
As a necessary rebuild begins, the team should carefully consider who should be the face of the franchise for this new era. Luckily, they have several options and ample time to make that decision.
When the Coyotes’ previous General Manager John Chayka constructed the team, he signed a few key players to lengthy deals hoping they would outperform them as they secured a more prominent role on the team.
These deals could best be described as hit or miss. Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, and Jakob Chychrun are the three players signed in these deals who are still on the team. Although new Coyotes General Manager Bill Armstrong now has control over these assets, he will likely keep these core players together.
Keller is signed for seven more years at an AAV of $7.15 million. This contract seemed steep when it was signed, and Keller’s performance since then has only furthered that perception. He scored 35 points in 56 games last season (.63 PPG), which mirrors his career points per game, .66. If this production continues, it will be difficult for Armstrong to move Keller in a way that maximizes his value. This means he will be a part of the rebuild going forward but may not be who management would choose for a captain.
— Scott Bartlett (@SBartlettHockey) September 4, 2019
At this stage, Schmaltz’s contract could truly go either way. With six years remaining at an AAV of $5.85 million, Schmaltz has shown the potential to outperform his salary. In 52 games last season, he scored 32 points (.62 PPG). However, Schmaltz has room to improve in the faceoff circle as he only won 42.8 percent of his faceoffs last season. Despite this, he provides valuable speed to the Coyote’s center position and could be a viable option for a leadership role in the future.
Perhaps the most obvious choice for captain, Jakob Chychrun, is the best contract to come out of John Chayka’s tenure. Last season, he led all NHL defensemen with 18 goals and improved on his defensive side of the game, all while averaging over 23 minutes a night. Management has made it clear they are building a team around Chychrun, mainly because elite defensemen are often unattainable. However, the coaching staff and management understand how being named captain could put immense pressure on a young defenseman.
— Cameron Cox (@CamCox12) September 23, 2021
After what happened with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the team must be cautious about pushing young talent into leadership roles before they are ready.
Although it is unlikely that the Coyotes will name a veteran as their next captain, it does seem likely that they rely on veteran leadership this upcoming season rather than a designated captain.
Even though the team may not have its sights set on the Stanley Cup, the value of experienced leaders in a young locker room cannot be understated.
After reconstructing the roster, there is still a significant amount of veteran presence. Most of these players were acquired during the offseason and have short contracts with the Coyotes. Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson, Anton Strålman, Andrew Ladd, Johan Larsson, and Carter Hutton could all serve as alternate captains throughout the season. Phil Kessel will also be a solid leadership option if he is still committed to the team through the rebuild.
— Robby Baker (@RobbyBakerTV) July 17, 2021
If the Coyotes are correct in their expectation that this will be a rough season, having a well-seasoned leadership group will be crucial in developing a winning culture regardless of the team’s losing record.
Although it is not the most common option, if the Coyotes can draft a franchise player within the next year, they may intend to center the franchise around him. Since they have a high number of picks in the coming drafts, they will have a lot of research on the top prospects. This includes information about which players could come in and assume the role of captain immediately.
This could align with a timeline for a longer rebuild as the team would ideally start contending during the peak of their captain’s career. However, teams do not typically go several years without a captain. Therefore, the Coyotes would likely have a different captain until the player they drafted established himself in the league.
They also have key rookies coming in, perhaps as soon as this season. Barrett Hayton and Victor Söderström, the Coyotes’ 1st-round draft picks in 2018 and 2019, will both have chances to play with the team this season.
The Coyotes may even give their 1st-round pick in 2021, Dylan Guenther, a chance to show his skills in the NHL.
Arizona #Yotes opening roster:
— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) October 11, 2021
All that being said, these are only options if the Coyotes want to wait at least a year before naming another captain.
There is no clear timeline for when the Coyotes will name their next captain. However, as the team looks towards the future, there is little rush to name a captain in the team’s current position.
More importantly, these situations often develop naturally away from the public eye. Fans and media are unaware of what is said behind closed doors between the players, coaches, and management.
The team may have multiple leaders being considered to fill the vacant captaincy, or they may already know who it will be. Regardless, this season is key to the development of the team leadership dynamic going forward.