Joe Camporeale - USA TODAY Sports

Take Town: Dark territory

It all happens so fast, but once you look back, you realize all this stuff was in motion quite a while before you realized it.

When Ryan Smith and Co. announced a few months ago that they wanted an NHL team in Utah, presumably with a go-ahead from the league itself, people wondered if it was going to be a relocation or an expansion team at some point several years down the road. But around the same time Gary Bettman was saying that the league wasn't looking to expand, and we gave that the kind of cursory reaction whenever Bettman says almost anything: "That's just lawyer speak, who knows what they're up to!" After all, it was really easy to parse the phrasing such that you could say they might not be looking to expand the league, but they might be entertaining offers. 

The fact that rumors about Houston and (once again) Atlanta ownership interest started cropping up around the same time lent credence to the "they're not not-interested in expansion."

But all this stuff over the weekend and into Monday about the land auction and Smith publicly asking for team name suggestions, and reports about those would-be Houston and Atlanta ownership groups meeting with the league? That started pinging longtime observers' radars. Then the report yesterday that the NHL was planning for two different schedules — one with the Coyotes in Arizona and another with the team in Salt Lake City — told just about everyone that this whole desert experiment was, at least for the time being, Arizover.

So let's dig into all that stuff because, damn, it's all really interesting all of a sudden, isn't it?

Let’s go:

Under siege

The first thing that made me feel like that whole land auction thing maybe wasn't going to go as smoothly as the Coyotes were painting it? The fact that they would have no way of knowing how many interested parties would be there, and that the auction would be one of those raise-a-paddle deals where you really have no idea who's gonna show up and what they're gonna be bidding. I have no doubt ownership is highly motivated to acquire the land, but the sheer volume of unknowns and, of course, the not-exactly-sterling track record of delivering on arena plans for the org didn't paint the rosiest picture, for me. And, to be clear, their rosy picture was "shovels in the ground sometime around the end of next season, and the rink opens in 2027." If you say so.

Add in the fact that the auction wasn't being held until the day before the first round of the NHL Draft, and you had to say that, at a minimum, this would all be cutting it close. And if it wound up that the Coyotes lost the auction, that would probably create a situation where the team couldn't be moved before the start of training camp, so in that case they'd be making a decently high draft selection and then returning to a rink knowing they would be picking up stakes as soon as that season ended. You thought attendance was bad now? Wait until they're trying to sell tickets to see a roster that would probably be even worse for a team all the locals know is leaving town within six months.

Then there was the op-ed from the mayor of Scottsdale, who wasn't exactly shy about saying he didn't want the Coyotes moving in next door (not that he has any say over that) and would do nothing to extend them a helping hand. Mostly, that's about letting the new arena/commercial district hook up to Scottsdale's water infrastructure. Which, as you might be aware, is probably a crucial consideration in a desert where water resources aren't exactly plentiful. Even accounting for the extra costs of building water infrastructure that draws from Phoenix's supply, that's maybe not a super-palatable solution.

So you had to just take this whole thing on its face with a healthy amount of skepticism.

Above the law

So let's talk about them moving to Salt Lake City, which feels like it's maybe not quite at "inevitable" status but inching closer in the last 48 hours, for sure.

Again, Smith really wants an NHL team and he wouldn't be putting out press releases to that effect, let alone soliciting nickname suggestions — the vast majority of which were assuredly the most epic jokes you could imagine, none of which were funny — if he thought it would in any way make the NHL brass or current group of 32 owners mad at him. So he is doing this knowing that such efforts are at a minimum going to be tolerated if not seen as part of a process that's definitely already in motion.

And the Daily Faceoff report yesterday included a lot more info than just the dual schedules. It had an estimated sales price ($1.2 billion, including relocation fee), the detail that the Smith ownership group would immediately start working toward building a new arena to house both its basketball and hockey teams (the current one opened in 1991 and would be the third-oldest building in the league), and other details that just felt a little too firm to be completely speculative.

If this sale goes through, it would probably have to happen in May, because that at least gives Smith the runway to have some stuff in place by the time of the draft, as well as more certainty for both the team's own pending free agents and those on other teams that Smith's organization would likely be targeting this summer. Not sure if you heard: the cap's going up, and you can bet that Smith would be looking to make significant improvements to the roster. The Coyotes of the last several years were built to be cost-effective first and foremost, and while it's fair to say they punched above their weight in the last two seasons, this isn't what you'd call a competitive team in their division. If Smith pays nine figures for the club, you can bet he'll want to be more like Vegas (aggressive and willing to spend) than Seattle (less aggressive, but still willing to spend).

The good news is they'd have money and assets to spend. The Coyotes cap commitments for next season include a grand total of nine players on one-way contracts north of $1 million. They would obviously keep up a few guys they are technically able to send down, like Logan Cooley, but just ballparking it a bit, it looks like they'd have about $48-50 million to spend before they re-sign any of their current players (which includes a handful of RFAs worth bringing back). So let's say they end up with $35 million to spend on a two or three forwards and just as many defensemen. They could really make something happen in terms of "being competitive" if they targeted the right people. And you gotta say that with a Smith-owned team could probably be a little more confident about those kinda deals than with the current ownership.

It's hard to remember how much optimism there was about the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg more than a decade ago, but it did take some time for that team to get up to speed. They didn't even make the playoffs in their first three seasons there, and didn't get out of the first round until seven years after the fact. Not sure that timeline would be acceptable for a highly motivated buyer in a bigger market who would be actively building a new arena.

So that's what I'd be keeping an eye on as the playoffs stretch into mid-May. That's when it's really do-or-die time for the Arizona Coyotes.

Hard to kill

The other detail in the Daily Faceoff report that really catches your eye is that the details of such a sale would potentially allow current Coyotes ownership to retain the rights to the team name and logos until such time as there's at least a concrete plan in place (and presumably construction underway) on that long-sought new rink. Sure, it's starting to feel like a Grail Quest, but the promise of the Grail is that untold glories await the one who finds it. So it is with a successful franchise in Arizona. The NHL would not have dumped this much money, and suffered so many embarrassments, to keep the Coyotes going in Arizona if they didn't see this as a vitally important and potentially lucrative market, to put it mildly. The Coyotes franchise's biggest problem, as currently constituted, is that they are a loser organization with enough loser stink that most people in the market have been conditioned over many years to think of them as losers. Losers on the ice, losers on the ballot, losers in efforts to improve their public perception. It's all basically a matter of record at this point. Very little to dispute there. And that's the problem.

If the NHL is going to work in Arizona, it probably just can't work with this organization anymore. The thing is, if they win the auction, which I'm personally still allowing as a very real possibility even if I get why anyone else would think that's an insane take — it's still three seasons of hockey at Mullett Arena, a puny rink relative to the palaces in that division alone where, as the Scottsdale mayor points out, they still struggle to sell 90 percent of the available tickets. Hard to see that working until 2027. The NHLPA would probably be in open revolt. It would be hard to blame them. So it feels like the only real solution is to let this team go then try again as an expansion franchise when the new rink is closer to being completed and you could bring in that Atlanta team again; expanding to twin failed markets getting another shot because of how many people live there would be Very NHL. I personally wouldn't want to name an Arizona expansion franchise "the Coyotes" any more than I'd want to call the Atlanta one "the Thrashers," but it worked all too well in Winnipeg, to the extent that a bunch of goober Canadians actively pretend Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selänne played for the current franchise.

Gotta say this, too: Taking a hard and fast timeline off the Coyotes' plate would only be a good thing. If they win this auction in June, I don't think anyone wants to get into exactly how much we can trust them to go from "totally undeveloped desert land" to "entire arena with everything guaranteed to be 100 percent working" in 30 months. Let alone developing the commercial and residential district that would surround the arena (not that you absolutely need a nearby Sephora or whatever to open a brand new arena, but it probably wouldn't hurt financially).

All in all, if I were the league, I wouldn't be too eager to get back into business with this organization, but if that's what you gotta do to move to move the team ASAP, I get it. Probably better if you can get Matt Ishbia, who owns the Suns, onboard for that expansion franchise, but beggars can't be choosers and you know from the past decade-plus, the NHL is very much a beggar in Phoenix.

We don't know much about what the future holds for the team or the market, but it looks like we're gonna learn a lot in the next few weeks, if not earlier. Better to get this stuff out of the way one way or the other in early May than find out some potentially really bad news in late June and find you have few or no options for October.

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