Arizona Coyotes' focus was improving AHL team at trade deadline

Author: Richard Morin, azcentral sports
Date: Mar 1, 2018

Instead of making hasty transactions with their NHL roster, the Arizona Coyotes instead shifted their focus to improving their young core and AHL affiliate in Tucson for a potential playoff run this season.

For Coyotes President of Hockey Operations and General Manager John Chayka, the organization’s philosophy is that a winning culture in the NHL generally starts with success at the AHL level.

And that was the team’s focus leading up to Monday’s deadline, as the Coyotes complete two minor-league trades to add four skaters to their AHL roster in Tucson.

“You try to be proactive and try to come up with some creative solutions to try and facilitate a deal that can work for everyone and get something done,” Chayka said of how the day unfolded. “But our goals were two-fold. One was to strengthen our American League team, which we were able to do. The other one was to improve our group now and into the future at the NHL level. We were able to accomplish the first goal and have some discussions. We got close on a few things and it certainly laid the groundwork for future discussions to try and do that.

“It was a day that allows a lot of opportunity to have discussions but it’s mainly built around teams looking to make a playoff push and I think you saw some of those teams do those things. A lot of our discussions will be picked back up in the offseason.”

In their first trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Coyotes parted ways with 22-year-old center Ryan Kujawinski and acquired Jordan Maletta and Carter Camper from the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate in Cleveland.

Maletta, 22, has four assists in 28 games with the Monsters, while the 29-year-old Camper has scored 13 goals and 29 assists for Cleveland. Kujawinski, who was acquired from the New Jersey Devils in December, posted two assists in 19 appearances with the Roadrunners.

“We had some interest in Jordan Maletta, and obviously Camper is a high-end American League player,” Chayka said. “He’s a guy that has put up points down the middle of the ice in the American League. We’re trying to build out a good American League team. Based off of our research, the precursor to having success at the NHL level is typically having success at the American Hockey League level.”

The second move made by the Coyotes trickled in almost an hour after the 1 p.m. Arizona time deadline had passed. The team announced they had acquired forward Pierre-Cedric Labrie and defenseman Trevor Murphy from the Nashville Predators in a three-team deal.

Parting ways with Tyler Gaudet and John Ramage, the Roadrunners also acquired Derek Army from the Milwaukee Admirals in the trade. Entering play Monday, the Roadrunners were occupying first place in the AHL's Pacific Division and held the second-best winning percentage (.633) in the Western Conference.

“We’ve got a great group down there and the coaches have done a nice job,” Chayka said of the Roadrunners. “We’re hoping they can make a push in the last part of the season here and next year as well. We expect that success down in Tucson. That’s an important part of what we’re trying to do here. We feel if we can do that, then our players are going to gain some valuable experience and are going to be able to come up and make an impact at the NHL level right away.”

Chayka said that teams that have enjoyed long-term NHL success had their beginnings in a winning culture at the minor league level.

“I think if you go back and look at teams who have had success at the NHL level,” Chayka said. “They typically had significant success at the American Hockey League level and then that group grows and builds and create something special at the next level. We’ve got a lot of young players that have a chance to come in and make an impact at the NHL level as well.

“It’s important to get the experience of playing and winning at that level and hopefully they’ll play some meaningful playoff games. We feel that’s very important to build a sustainable winner year-after-year.”

Chayka also said the Coyotes have significant discussions with teams regarding some of their pending unrestricted free agents, but never felt compelled to pull the trigger on anything.

Two players in particular, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and goaltender Antti Raanta, were not names Chayka was seriously considering to move.

“You always get calls on good players,” Chayka said. “I think the interest on our behalf to discuss them was limited. I guess there’s always things that could pop up and blow you away. My role is always to listen on things but at the same time there was never anything I was contemplating because those two have significant value to our team. Both independently as individual players but mainly as they relate to our group and providing value to our young players. I really had no interest in moving them.”

Still, Chayka maintained that some discussions the Coyotes had on Monday could lay the groundwork for offseason transactions to improve upon their current roster. Because of the agenda held by some teams at the deadline, said Chayka, it can be difficult to facilitate such deals like those made by Arizona last offseason.

“The trade deadline is for teams loading up for the playoffs and then the playoffs occur and there’s one team that wins and 30 that aren’t happy and looking to make adjustments,” Chayka said. “Any move made (Monday) comes at the opportunity cost of making a move in the future. Basically, we decided we were better to hold our powder, keep it dry and allow us to line up some larger moves like we made last year with (Derek) Stepan and Hjalmarsson and Raanta and (Jason) Demers and those types of players.”

Chayka said he’s looking forward to see how an improved Roadrunners team fares down the stretch, and that after the season the team will turn its attention toward offseason additions.

“We’re looking to be aggressive here to continue and improve our group,” Chayka said. “We think we’ve got a good, young nucleus but we’ve got to add to it and do it the right way. We’ll have the opportunity in these last 20 games to get some looks at some young players down in Tucson as well and continue to see how far we can get with some of these young players.

“At that point, at the end of the season, we’ll take a hard look at what we need to add and improve upon but right now we have maximum flexibility and significant assets to go out and make some moves. That’s my goal and I’m going to be aggressive with it.”

Still, Chayka was quick to refute the notion that the Coyotes’ relative idle stance at the deadline is an indication of the team’s satisfaction with the current roster. More than they were 24 hours ago, the Coyotes feel confident about their ability to make significant transactions this offseason.

“We need better players,” Chayka said. “We’re still a young group and we’re still growing. Teams that have success have significant internal and organic growth and that’s kind of the main source. But you have to make key additions at key times. That’s why we weren’t going to force anything in-season where it’s difficult with the cap for some teams and some teams aren’t looking to move things around as much.

“For us, it’s one of those things where we can get to the offseason and make some key additions in key areas that we think can move our group forward. We weren’t just going to make a minor move just to make a minor move. We want to be able to impact the larger whole.”

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