The NHL has handed down its punishment to the Arizona Coyotes for violating league rules on draft testing and it is significant: the Coyotes will forfeit their second-round selection in the 2020 draft and their first-round pick in the 2021 draft.
Arizona was accused of putting draft-eligible players through physical testing during the season, which is against explicit NHL rules: those draft prospects are not supposed to do any workouts with an individual franchise until after the NHL’s official draft combine in the spring (this year’s combine didn’t happen because of the pandemic, but Arizona was already under investigation).
There is certainly some reading between the lines to do in the aftermath here, particularly when it comes to the official statements from the league and the Coyotes. While the loss of picks is rough, there could have been severe financial penalties, too.
“While the Combine Testing Policy Memoranda reference a fine of ‘no less than $250,000 for each violation’ of the policy, I exercise my discretion to impose the aforementioned discipline,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “Which I consider to be more appropriate given the specific circumstances of this case.”
In Arizona’s statement, the Coyotes made the following remark:
“We were advised today of the NHL’s ruling regarding the allegations of physical fitness testing of draft prospects and respect the League’s ruling. Under new leadership, we have added thorough internal controls and compliance measures to prevent this type of occurrence from happening again in the future.”
The “new leadership” refers to the fact Arizona recently parted ways with GM John Chayka and while the impetus for that divorce did not seem to stem from the scouting scandal, it’s pretty clear from this statement that the Coyotes aren’t defending Chayka’s tenure as the boss, either. Bettman also noted that no individual member of the Coyotes staff will be disciplined, though “certain club personnel” acted in “grossly negligent behavior” at best.
Many scouts and execs from other NHL teams have been following this story very closely and in reaching out to them, I found a wide spectrum of reactions. One scout believed the punishment was fair, another believed the NHL had to be harsh, but felt some sympathy for the Coyotes, while a third didn’t think the league went far enough. He noted that teams are reminded of these rules multiple times during the year and that there is supposed to be a big financial penalty attached to any violations. Given that Arizona apparently tested multiple players on a number of different teams, the third scout believes they got off lightly.
Now it’s up to interim GM Steve Sullivan and his staff to deal with the fallout. Thanks to previous trades and now the sanctions, Arizona won’t pick until the fourth round in 2020 and will have only one pick in the first three rounds of 2021. For a team that was middling but not great this season, that’s tough.
In this year’s edition of The Hockey News’ Future Watch, Arizona’s prospect pipeline ranked 11th overall in the NHL, highlighted by defenseman Victor Soderstrom and center Jan Jenik. While those players will likely join the team in a year or two, the Coyotes will need more than that to become legit contenders in the Western Conference.
What is clear from this case however is that the Coyotes should expect some animosity from other teams for the next little while. Scouts weren’t happy about the violations and they likely won’t be in a forgiving mood anytime soon, even with the loss of two high draft selections.