Releasing Antoine Vermette is Coyotes GM’s First Major Risk


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By Chris Garagiola

Arizona Coyotes Writer

 

*Vermette has since signed with the Anaheim Ducks

 

When the Coyotes waived Antoine Vermette and bought-out the remaining $3.75 million on his contract, the youngest GM in professional sports history took his first major gamble.

 

Vermette, a staple of the Coyotes for five of the previous six seasons has been cast out in favor of the youth movement taking place in the desert. He experienced a disappointing 2015-2016 season collecting 38 points in 76 games on the Coyotes second-line. And his removal on the roster, which will save the Coyotes 1.25M in cap space, now opens two spots at the center position which are expected to be filled by 2015 first-round pick Dylan Strome and 2014 second-rounder Christian Dvorak.

 

Should we be surprised that the youngest GM in pro sports is choosing youth over experience?

 

Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a major risk by Chayka.

 

Despite the dip in points, Vermette posted a 55.8 faceoff percentage (FO%) last season which was fourteenth-best in the NHL. In a time where puck-possession is paramount to team success, Vermette’s ability to win faceoffs ought to have been valuable given the departure of Boyd Gordon, another departure during the offseason who was third in the league last season with a 57.9 FO%.

 

Vermette has 988 games of professional experience underneath his veteran skates. He has scored 496 career points and is a Stanley Cup champion. He has been a consummate professional both in the locker room and off the ice for a franchise that has struggled financially and competitively, all during times when the club was rumored to be relocated again and again…and again.

 

Even if Vermette had another dip in numbers, you can probably bank on at least 30 points and a FO% above 52 percent.

 

Compare that to Dvorak and Strome who have never played a second in the NHL. For as talented as these prospects are, there is always the fear that they will never reach the potential hoisted on them by hockey pundits around North America.

 

There is no denying that Strome and Dvorak have proven their worth in junior hockey. Last season, Strome posted his second consecutive 130-plus point season for the Erie Otters of the OHL. He also represented Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in Helsinki, and was a rare bright spot for an otherwise woeful performance by the Canadians netting four goals and two assists and a staggering 71.58 FO%. Did I forget to mention that Strome also went viral with his dazzling 1-on-4 goal earlier this season (which can be seen here).

 

Not to be overshadowed, Dvorak tallied 156 points in 77 games last season for the London Knights. He served as the team’s captain and led the Knights to the OHL title. Dvorak is considered an NHL-ready prospect and instead of having to decide between Strome or Dvorak, Chayka appears to want both.

 

Should Strome and Dvorak survive the final round of cuts in early October, the two will join one of the youngest rosters in the NHL (keep in mind that roster will include 40-year-old Shane Doan).

 

Oliver Ekman-Larsson is 25. Louis Domingue and Jordan Martinhook are 24. Connor Murphy and Tobias Reider (who has yet to be resigned) are 23. Max Domi is 21. Anthony Duclair is 20.
Dvorak and Strome are 20 and 19 years old, respectively. Other top prospects hungry for an NHL roster spot include Brendan Perlini, Christan Fischer, Laurent Dauphin, and Henrik Samuelsson who are all under the age of 23.

 

But what can you expect from Strome and Dvorak? What happens when the team hits an extended losing streak? What happens when each player hits their own scoring drought? How many points can you bank on from these two prospects? How will they react when they are being defended by Duncan Keith or Drew Doughty?

 

Who knows? That’s what make prospects both frustrating and exciting. They are the products fans invest their hopes into and GMs invest their job security—and like many investments, some never work out. For Coyotes fans, there has never been a more hopeful time for this team. Yet Coyotes fans know the pain of seeing prospects failing to pan out. Look no further than Brandon Gormley and Viktor Tikhonov.

 

Gormley was selected thirteenth overall in the 2010 NHL draft and was considered a future first-line pairing for the Coyotes. Like Ekman-Larsson, he was scouted as a talented two-way defenseman with excellent puck-moving IQ with terrific size and great vision.

 

Gormley never became the defenseman the Coyotes envisioned back when they drafted him in 2010. In 32 career games with the Coyotes, Gormley tallied just two goals and two assists before the Coyotes cut their losses by trading the young defenseman to Colorado for Stefan Elliot.

 

Viktor Tihkonov was the 28th overall selection in 2008 by the Coyotes. In the 2008–09 season, Tikhonov made the Coyotes’ opening-night roster and wound up playing in 61 games scoring 8 goals and 16 points before he was assigned to American Hockey League. Over the next seven years, Tikhonov played in 39 games with the Coyotes.

 

But probably at the top of Mount Failmore is the third overall selection in the 2007 NHL Draft, Kyle Turris. Taken two spots behind Patrick Kane, Turris was a dynamic offensive player with a tremendously accurate shot and a legitimate point-producer. The Coyotes considered him to be the piece that the club could build around for the future. Instead Turris never scored more than 25 points in a single season with the club and frequently went back-and-forth to the AHL. After making the playoffs in 2010, he demanded a trade to Ottawa just six months later. In his two full seasons with Ottawa from 2013-2015, Turris twice scored at least 25 goals and had at least 58 points. Had he been on Arizona, he would have been the team’s leading scorer in both seasons by a wide margin.

 

Yet despite all of the failure, Chayka is fearlessly moving forward with his plan to integrate more youth and speed into an already young lineup. Clearly he wants to foster a young team and watch it grow for the next half decade using a model that the Chicago Blackhawks used in the late 2000s to revive their struggling franchise.

 

That plan began by saying goodbye to Vermette.

 

If Strome and Dvorak have an impact similar to Domi and Duclair then the Coyotes are going to be a force to reckon with for many years to come. Ekman-Larsson, Domi, Duclair, Strome and Dvorak will be the backbone that the rest of the team is built around. Keep in mind that Clayton Keller is being compared to Patrick Kane and Jacob Chychrun was once considered a top-five pick in the 2016 NHL Draft—and the Coyotes own both. Because of this, there has never been a more exciting (dare I say hopeful) time for this franchise.

 

If Strome or Dvorak don’t pan out, then fans will be left wondering if Chayka’s inexperience is to blame for pushing away such a savvy veteran in Vermette.

 

However, should the Coyotes prove to be legitimate players in the Western Conference this season and next, this move could be considered the genesis of a new age of hockey in the desert.

 

Only time will tell.

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