A trade in the NHL is typically accompanied by a flood of texts from friends and family, former and future teammates. Everyone wants to send their congratulations or their condolences, or simply their best wishes. But when Dave Bolland was traded to the Coyotes in the summer of 2016, his phone was largely silent, save for a quick text from fellow former Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa.
“Hey! We’re teammates again!” Hossa wrote.
That’s Arizona for you. Oh, those Coyotes. They’re at it again.
Neither Hossa nor Bolland ever played for the Coyotes, of course. Neither ever even lived in Arizona, only visiting at the start of the season to fail their physicals and go on with their lives. They were just dead money, paper transactions. At least Bolland had a sense of humor about it, wryly using a Coyotes logo as his Twitter profile picture for three full years until his contract finally expired in the summer of 2019.
Heck, few franchises could compare with the all-Coyotes lineup of Pavel Datsyuk centering Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane (throw Jakub Voracek in there if you don’t think either of those guys could play on their off wing), with a top defensive pairing of Chris Pronger and Shea Weber. All of those players drew paychecks from the Coyotes. None of them ever suited up for the Coyotes. Maybe Carey Price will someday fill out the starting lineup.
I want to defend the Coyotes. I really do. There’s a real hockey fan base in the desert, a fervent-if-frustrated one, and the impact the team has had on the sport in the Valley is evident, embodied best by the very existence of Auston Matthews. The Phoenix metroplex is a top-10 market in the United States, and it’s easy to see why NHL commissioner Gary Bettman so badly wants the Coyotes to work, beyond his own stubbornness and ego.
But, boy, the Yotes really don’t make it easy, do they?
There are all the allegations of unpaid bills in Glendale. There’s the absurdity of playing in a 4,600-seat college arena at Arizona State, something that would have been cool and quirky and fun for a season but is destined to last four full seasons.
But mostly, there’s the way the Coyotes do business. The way they exist in a perpetual rebuild. The way they so nakedly serve as the cap-launderers for the NHL’s elite.
What used to be mildly amusing — har har, Arizona’s where everybody goes to die, including albatross NHL contracts — has become simply insulting. After acquiring Voracek from Columbus and taking 25 percent of Patrick Kane’s cap hit at the trade deadline, the Coyotes now have nearly $31 million of their salary cap devoted to players who don’t, and won’t, play for them.
Per CapFriendly, the cap hit of their active roster as of Tuesday night was a little more than $42 million. The actual salary being paid out to those players is barely $40 million, while the dead money (mostly back-diving contracts with low actual salaries, anyway) is likely covered by insurance claims.
This is all legal, as Arizona general manager Bill Armstrong is quick to point out. The Coyotes are breaking no rules. They’re legally above the league’s $60.2 million cap floor because Voracek (through next season), Weber (through 2025-26), Andrew Ladd (through this season) and Bryan Little (through next season) all are on injured reserve, not long-term injured reserve. They count. By the letter of the law, this is all kosher. And given the financial circumstances Armstrong is facing in that building and with the history of that market, you can’t blame him for getting creative.
But it is undeniably an egregious violation of the spirit of the salary-cap system. While other teams are creatively trying to circumvent the cap ceiling with LTIR and other cap gymnastics, the Coyotes are blatantly circumventing the cap floor, which is there to ensure some level of competitive balance, to avoid having the kind of wealth and talent disparity that exists between, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees in the cap-less world of baseball. What the Coyotes are doing is anti-competitive — helping their opponents weasel out of their own self-inflicted mistakes. It’s also anti-labor — lowering the actual salary pool for the league’s active players (the NHLPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment).
Yet in the days leading up to the trade deadline, the league brass was more concerned with teams spending too much than too little. According to multiple reports, in a memo sent to all 32 teams on Feb. 28, the league said it would “closely scrutinize” any trade involving injured players — think Anaheim’s Adam Henrique — with the intent of stashing them on LTIR until the postseason.
It’s a hell of a message: You can be sneaky to spend under the cap floor. But don’t you dare be sneaky to spend over the cap ceiling.
If you’re looking for someone to do something about the Coyotes’ cap clearinghouse, don’t hold your breath. Not even next year, when the Coyotes will inevitably have to find new and more creative ways to get to the cap floor, with a current projected cash expenditure of just $50.6 million and cap hit of $57.2 million, $3 million below the current cap floor, per CapFriendly.
That’s with only 14 players signed, but if the Coyotes trade Nick Schmaltz this offseason and don’t go big-game hunting in free agency, coming into the season just at the cap floor with an actual payroll well below, you think Bettman will step in? Please. Arizona has been Bettman’s passion project for decades now, and no matter how much wailing, teeth-gnashing and garment-rending happens in Quebec City, the Coyotes are all but untouchable.
Think the league’s front offices might step in at the upcoming general managers meetings next week? No chance. There might be some pushback on the memo about LTIR cap circumvention — can’t imagine Ducks GM Pat Verbeek was thrilled about the league basically telling every other team not to trade for Henrique — but the GMs love the Coyotes, who offer a seemingly endless supply of Get Out of Cap Jail Free cards.
If you’re looking for a bright side to all this, it’s that the Coyotes are a singular entity in the NHL. No other team would go to these lengths to pinch pennies, because no other team could afford the PR hit, the ticket-sales hit, the reputation hit that would come with icing a team so below the league’s standards. As bad as the Blackhawks roster is after trading away Kane, Jake McCabe, Max Domi and Sam Lafferty — and hoo, boy, it is bad — they’re at least taking on bloated contracts of playable, active players to accumulate all their draft capital, such as Petr Mrazek, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Zaitsev. And the plan this summer is to sign some quality forwards — to play with their top prospects, particularly if one of them is Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli; and to get above the cap floor after losing $21 million in contracts in Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Tanking is gross any way you do it, but what’s happening in Arizona is unique in its grossness.
With only 4,600 seats to fill for the next three seasons, and with the unrelenting backing of the league’s commissioner, only the Coyotes can do this. To their credit, they’ve amassed a huge stockpile of draft capital in the process. In the next three drafts, they have four first-rounders, nine second-rounders (four each in 2024 and 2025) and nine third-rounders. But this is a team that’s been rebuilding for a decade. It hasn’t finished a season in a playoff spot since a run to the Western Conference final in 2012. It’s hard to give it the benefit of the doubt at this point, to think it won’t be right back here again in a few years.
Now, there’s hope on the horizon. Assuming it passes a local referendum, that long-awaited new (NHL-sized) arena in Tempe should be opening in the fall of 2026. For you tin-foil-hat types, that’s the same season that dynamic Russian winger Matvei Michkov’s KHL contract expires (can any team other than Arizona afford to spend all season tanking and then draft a player who won’t play for it for three full seasons?). And hey, Matthews is a free agent in two years. It could all fall into place for the Coyotes, and Bettman’s vision of a thriving hockey team in the desert can come to fruition.
It had better. Because that’s when the excuses run out. That’s when the hockey world’s patience will end. That’s when the Coyotes have to become more than just a running gag and an albatross sanctuary. That’s when the Coyotes, armed with an actual NHL arena, have to start acting like an NHL team. Because this? This is just embarrassing.
(Top photo of Nick Schmaltz: Norm Hall / NHLI via Getty Images)