As this NHL season winds down, there’s seemingly more interest in which teams finish near the bottom of the overall standings than in those jockeying at the top.
That’s because one of this season’s bottom feeders will win next month’s 2015 NHL Draft Lottery, giving them the first overall pick with which to select Erie Otters center Connor McDavid, who’s considered a once-in-a-generation franchise player.
Under the current lottery system, the worst overall team has a 20 percent chance of securing the first-overall pick and an 80 percent chance of landing the second-overall pick. Based on the current standings, the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers stand the best chances of securing the top pick. However, I’m hoping the lottery gods smile on the Arizona Coyotes.
I’m not a Coyotes fan so why should I care if they end up with McDavid or not? Why would I hope for a struggling, rebuilding Sun Belt team facing the seemingly-perennial specter of possible relocation to win the first overall pick and land the next potentially great NHL generational superstar?
Some critics will suggest McDavid’s talents will be better appreciated in Buffalo or Edmonton, but I believe the Arizona Coyotes need him far more than the Sabres or Oilers. Not because the Coyotes are more deserving, but because the Sabres and Oilers aren’t facing uncertain futures in their respective markets. Those teams will be fine if they end up with a consolation prize like promising center Jack Eichel or another top prospect.
The Coyotes still face the possibility of relocation because of the out clause in their arena lease agreement, which stipulates ownership can back out of the deal if combined losses reach or exceed $50 million by the end of the 2017-18 campaign. They need something to reverse their losses and convince new majority owner Andrew Barroway the Coyotes can make a go of it in Arizona. That something is Connor McDavid.
After years of shaky ownership turned the Coyotes into a punching bag for traditionalists who still scoff over the notion of NHL hockey in the American South, I believe they need a genuine opportunity to build around a true franchise player.
It’s in my nature to feel sympathy for an underdog. I feel sorry for the Coyotes and their fans, though they undoubtedly don’t want or need my pity. While the Coyotes’ previous ownership and management bear responsibility for much of the club’s current woes, and while the city of Glendale put itself into a bind with its white elephant of an arena, I believe the Coyotes and their fans should get a do-over.
Some of you will read this and chortle, “What fans?” Fair point, as their attendance usually ranks among the league’s worst. However, when the Coyotes made their run to the 2012 Western Conference Finals, their arena was filled with loudly supportive fans. Years of lousy teams doesn’t mean Arizona is a bad hockey market.
It’s been argued true hockey fans support their teams through bad times as well as good. Yeah, like Boston fans did with the Bruins in the middle of the last decade when their attendance was among the league’s worst. Or as Chicago fans did with the Blackhawks when they sucked on toast from the late-1990s until tightfisted former owner Bill Wirtz died in 2007. Or when Pittsburgh fans over a decade ago stopped turning out to support a gutted Penguins team. Or when Edmonton fans spurned the Oilers in the mid-1990s and Calgary and Vancouver fans turned their backs on the Flames and Canucks around the turn of this century. Even the Montreal Canadiens saw a dip in their attendance during their gory years beween 1998 and 2001. So spare me the tripe about fans in traditional hockey markets fully supporting their franchises win or lose.
Regardless of the market, winning usually brings out the fans and years of losing drives them away. Unless you’re in Toronto, where corporations seem to ensure full houses for the moribund Maple Leafs, though the prime seats are embarrassingly empty at the start of each period as those fans seem more interested in their concession purchases than the action on the ice.
But I digress. As noted earlier, the Coyotes brought much of their previous misfortune upon themselves. Even current GM Don Maloney made some roster mistakes, highlighted by the decision in 2013 to give now-struggling goaltender Mike Smith an expensive long-term deal with a no-movement clause.
To Maloney’s credit, however, he scored universal kudos among the hockey punditry for trade deadline moves which fetched several promising youngsters and some high draft picks. They join a group of good young veterans and promising talent around which to rebuild.
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 23, highlights a promising group of young rearguards which includes Michael Stone (24), Brandon Gormley (23), Connor Murphy (21) and recently-acquired Klas Dahlbeck (23) and John Moore (24).
Up front, veteran center Martin Hanzal (28) and wingers Mikkel Boedker (25) and Tobias Rieder (22) could be joined next season by promising youngsters like Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson and recently-acquired Anthony Duclair and Maxim Letunov. Maloney
Dave Tippett should return as head coach, ensuring stability and experience behind the bench. Tippett acknowledges he’s got a lot of work ahead of him but believes the Coyotes, by adding a few more “quality pieces”, could turn things around more quickly than critics expect.
Maloney still has some roster issues to address. The rebuilding Coyotes could benefit from additional veteran leadership, especially as current captain Shane Doan has a year left on his contract and faces an uncertain future. The goaltending remains a problem area and there’s a need for depth at center.
Winning the 2015 NHL Draft lottery and selecting Connor McDavid could truly jump start the Coyotes rebuilding process. He would be reunited with Domi and Duclair, his teammates from Canada’s gold medal-winning teams at this year’s World Junior Hockey Championships. More importantly, he’d become the automatic face of the Coyotes franchise and its biggest selling point.
If McDavid turns into half the player he’s projected to be, the Coyotes will have the foundation upon which to properly rebuild. He could significantly improve the Coyotes’ on-ice performance, exciting the existing fan base and increasing their local popularity. McDavid could ensure the long-term stability of the Coyotes in Glendale. He could become the biggest NHL star playing for a southern-based team, possibly overshadowing Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. Heck, McDavid could become the biggest superstar to play for an NHL Sun Belt team since Wayne Gretzky’s days with the Los Angeles Kings.
The NHL, led by commissioner Gary Bettman, fought hard for several years to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, even carrying the franchise for a couple of seasons while beating the bushes for prospective owners. Having perhaps the most exciting young player in a generation turning the Coyotes into a potential powerhouse would validate Bettman’s dream of a hockey hotbed in Arizona.
Of course, if the Coyotes win this year’s lottery the more conspiratorial-minded will immediately accuse the league of rigging the draft. They won’t be able to prove their baseless accusations but that won’t silence them.
If the Coyotes fail to succeed with McDavid the league will have little choice but to move the franchise. But the Coyotes should at least have one last chance to prove they can make hockey work in Arizona by building around something they’ve never had: a genuine franchise player.