Why Coyotes’ Vermette will be in demand

(Rick Scuteri/AP)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Antoine Vermette is the kind of player that can appear in 405 straight NHL games without much fanfare.

He wins faceoffs at an impressive rate and takes care of things in his own zone and even chips in a bit offensively. He is a pro’s pro – happy to go quietly about his business – the perfect fit for a team that plays a game on ice in the desert.

Yet, despite all of that, Vermette’s quaint existence is in danger of being turned upside down in the months ahead.

He can sense it, too.

Vermette isn't just playing out the final year of his contract; he's doing it for an Arizona Coyotes team that is unable to open real negotiations until its ownership restructuring has been completed. He is in limbo and he's trying really hard not to think about it.

"One thing I told myself during the season is I'll focus on the game and that's it," Vermette said this week. "That's what I'll try to do."

One month into the season, that strategy is playing to mixed reviews.

Vermette would clearly prefer not to have to deal with the uncertainty surrounding his situation. He could also do without the prying questions that come with it.

"I'm not going to go too deep into this," he said sternly, but politely, when we spoke.

That task will only grow tougher the longer his future remains unresolved. Right now, Vermette is a strong candidate to not only become one of the top names available at the March trade deadline, but also in free agency on July 1.

Were it solely up to Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, that wouldn't be the case. He certainly doesn't need to be sold on the merits of his team's top centre.

Maloney told Sportsnet that he had some preliminary talks with agent Allan Walsh about an extension prior to the season, but isn't in position to continue the conversation now. He is managing the NHL's smallest payroll and is waiting to see how the sale of a majority stake in the team to Philadelphia hedge-fund manager Andrew Barroway might affect that.

"I don't anticipate a real dramatic change in direction here, but it does impact how we move going forward," said Maloney. "Whether we have more (money) available for the hockey team, or less available, or what is our (budget)? It's not only this year, but the next three to five years, what is our projection?"

The fact the Coyotes are off to a tepid 5-6-1 start threatens to complicate matters. If they don't climb into the playoff race by the time winter hits, big changes will have to be contemplated.

While Maloney and coach Dave Tippett both believe the team is better than it has shown so far, they acknowledge that a turnaround has to arrive sooner than later.

Rival teams are already monitoring their progress with keen interest.

The Coyotes are believed to have weighed the merits of dealing Vermette prior to last year's trade deadline and could end up doing the same again this season.

There would be no shortage of suitors for a 32-year-old that has shown himself to be as durable as any player in the league. Vermette is particularly strong in the faceoff dot and on the defensive side of the game -- elements that every contender can use -- and carries a manageable $3.75-million cap hit.

The Coyotes have generated 51.4 per cent of even-strength shot attempts with him on the ice this season and he currently sits second on the team with nine points in 12 games. Whether or not Vermette remains in Arizona all year will depend largely on the performance of the team.

Maloney elected to keep pending free agent Radim Vrbata during a playoff chase last season, only to watch him leave for Vancouver in the summer.

"We just didn't have enough to pay him," said Maloney.

He's willing to take a similar risk with Vermette if it looks like a risk worth taking.

"The last thing you want is to start gutting your team of your good players," Maloney explained. "We're trying to get to the playoffs. We need to be a playoff team to continue to grow our (fanbase). If you're
close (to making it), if you're real tight up against it, then we're not going to trade any of our good players.

"And then you hope to be able to resign them in the off-season."

That may be a problem for another day, but it looms as a significant challenge in itself.

As much as Vermette likes playing for the Coyotes, one pro scout predicted that he would be in line for a "big big deal if he hits the market" this summer.

During a conversation at the Coyotes practice facility in Scottsdale this week, the veteran forward made it abundantly clear that he's happy with his current home. However, in a nod to his uncertain future, he
added an important caveat.

"I've moved before," said Vermette.