As the NHL Draft unfolded, John Chayka was determined to select Swedish defenseman Victor Soderstrom.
There was a problem: The Coyotes’ president of hockey operations and general manager had Soderstrom as one of his three best players. The team, however, had the 14th overall pick.
When the 18-year-old’s name wasn’t called during the first 10 picks, the team traded up to the 11th spot and landed its guy.
“For me it was the most stress we have had at the draft table so far,” Chayka said June 24. “We had a single goal going into it and didn’t want to miss. We tried to move up as high as we could and offered a lot to get up there and made sure we left no stone unturned to get our guy. To execute and get him here and get him involved in everything is what we are after.”
The move was symbolic of a team that remains confident in its vision — and Chayka — despite the Coyotes missing the playoffs in the young GM’s three years and the last seven overall. Optimism remains high in the organization, after a 2018-19 season, where elimination from the playoffs came just days before the regular season ended.
The team believes Soderstrom can be an important part of the future. As nervous as Chayka was June 21, the stress level for Soderstrom was just as high as he waited for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to call his name.
“Those long hours before the draft, on draft day when you wake up, you just want it to start,” Soderstrom said. “I was pretty nervous sitting in the stands, and when I heard my name I was really excited. It was so fun. I’m excited to be here.”
When the Coyotes traded with the Philadelphia Flyers to secure the 11th pick, Soderstrom’s agent told him he was going to join the Arizona Coyotes.
“Them trading up to get me means a lot,” he said. “I had a good feeling that they were going to pick me because they have been the team I have talked to the most…I wasn’t really too sure until I heard my name. I’m really excited to be here and proud to be a Coyote.”
He also was able to exhale.
“It was a relief because you have been thinking of this all season long,” Soderstrom said. “Now you belong to a team and it feels good.”
Chayka, who is entering his fourth year as the team’s general manager, believes the team had a successful weekend and looks forward to the upcoming free agency period.
“Some teams will get free agents and that will create a log jam and someone will shake loose,” Chayka said. “Some teams will miss on free agents and that will change their trade approach. It’s very dynamic right now, and things change by the hour basically. Teams are looking at all their options and alternatives as will we.”
Although an announcement about an ownership move is expected on July 19, the team’s aggressive approach to the offseason will not change, Chayka said. The Athletic has reported that billionaire entrepreneur Alex Meruelo is in the advanced stages of purchasing a majority share of the team.
“We are trying to build an organization here and our focus here is on growing the business and growing our team and really putting in place a foundation that we can be a strong organization for a long, long time,” Chayka said.
The Coyotes haven’t made the NHL Playoffs since the 2011-12 season, when they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals. Chayka knows the team was close to ending the drought last season but said it needs to score more and stay healthy.
“We didn’t score enough to make the playoffs, and we were a top five goals-against team and didn’t get the big goals and didn’t have the firepower to take that next step,” Chayka said. “We’ll evaluate and look at the role of injuries, and it’s tough when you are a lost team and it’s very rare that you make the playoffs.”
The addition of free agents can help the Coyotes get over the hump, but the overall development of their young players will help the growth of the franchise.
“Another year of experience and another year of growth, big summers should help us to continue to grow,” Chayka said. “We are hoping for some internal development and good health and the right additions to boost our offense. If we can get those things then we should be competitive and contending.”