Behind the Mysterious Blackhawks-Coyotes Trade Pipeline
The finer details have already faded, such as when this exactly happened and who was exactly driving, but Vinnie Hinostroza remembers the gist. Early last month, he and three Arizona Coyotes teammates were carpooling to the rink for a road trip. At some point along the route, a striking reality dawned on the group: Eleven months earlier, all four were playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, fellow cogs in the proud Original Six franchise’s ongoing remodeling efforts.
And now ...
“It was just funny,” Hinostroza says. “Who would’ve thought that we’d all be here?”
It is one of NHL’s greater oddities, this steady drip-drip-drip of the pipeline between Arizona and Chicago. Or, more specifically, between John Chayka and Stan Bowman. Over the past 17 months, the general managers have consummated four trades together involving 16 players—including prospect Laurent Dauphin, who went from Arizona to Chicago and then back. “I don’t know,” says defenseman Jordan Oesterle, another piece in the same package as Hinostroza that moved July 12. “Maybe there’s something that the higher-ups like about each other.”
The truth is less exciting. “I don’t have him on speed dial,” Bowman says. “He’s not in my favorites. It’s not like we go hang out when I’m in Arizona. ” Chayka, meanwhile, estimates that he only burns up Bowman’s phone as much as any other colleague’s around the league. “And I propose as many things,” the Arizona GM says. “It’s not something we do consciously.” Relationships matter when making deals in any business, of course. “But it’s not like we worked together for five years, then he left,” Bowman says. “I don’t really have a history with him, other than situations lined up well.”
While Hinostroza, Oesterle, center Nick Schmaltz and winger Richard Panik were busy taking stock of their inadvertent reunion in the car, the only person not present was the pipeline’s Patient Zero. On June 23, 2017, Niklas Hjalmarsson was sitting at his house in Sweden when news broke that he had been traded to Arizona for Dauphin and defenseman Connor Murphy. In the moment, Hjalmarsson was “shocked in the beginning, a little disappointed at first,” he says. “I had no idea. You obviously hear rumors. Didn’t really think it was going to happen.”
Then again, Hjalmarsson had also won three Stanley Cups in Chicago, which meant witnessing the cap-induced offseason exodus that annually followed. “For a while there, it felt like we were a farm team for the whole NHL,” he says. “Every summer we had to get rid of some guys just to get under the salary cap. I felt like I’d played with half of the opponents I was playing against.” And then it was his turn.
By landing Hjalmarsson, the Coyotes addressed two important needs. First, there was the obvious attraction of his abilities as a blueliner, “the best defensive-defenseman, matchup guy in the league in our minds,” Chayka says. It also just so happened that Hjalmarsson was close friends with Arizona’s soon-to-be captain, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who had been praising his fellow Swedish defenseman in private conversation since Chayka assumed the GM job in May ’16. “He’s looking for hope and belief and something to buy into,” Chayka says of Ekman-Larsson. “Our ability to acquire Nick, for me, that was a bit of a lightbulb moment.”
In hindsight, it also opened the floodgates for future transactions between the two teams. Panik and Dauphin were shipped on Jan. 10 (for Anthony Duclair and Adam Clendening), followed by the six-player, three-pick, one-dead-Marian-Hossa-contract log flume that netted Osterle, Hinostroza and others last summer. The timing here was fortunate, at least for Hinostroza; when Bowman called, the 24-year-old had just left the inspection for a new home that he was about to buy in Chicago.
“It was under attorney review for two more days,” Hinostroza says. “Otherwise I would’ve been stuck.”
Instead, he was on the move. Summer deals offer decent buffers, far from the chaos of a midseason swap. Even so, it surely helped that Panik and Hjalmarsson—not to mention goalie Antti Raanta, whose career began with the Blackhawks—were available to provide tips on where to live and what to expect. And that Hinostroza and Oesterle spent a week together in Arizona after the trade, meeting staffers and working out at the team’s facilities.
“I was excited to have one of my good buddies with me,” Hinostroza says. “It was good that we went through the process together. Got acclimated pretty quick.”
Three days after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, the last ex-Chicagoan (for now) domino fell. During discussions for each of their previous trades, Chayka had consistently inquired about Schmaltz, only to be rebuffed by Bowman. “[Chayka] was looking for somebody to play on the right side,” Bowman says. “He’d asked about Schmaltz and Hinostroza and I told him I’d think about it for Panik. Fast forward to the next time, I didn’t want to trade Schmaltz in that deal, but he was consistent that he liked Hinostroza. We finally got to the point where we were going to change some things around.” And so off went Schmaltz for Perlini and Dylan Strome.
On the Windy City side of the pipeline, the weirdness hasn’t quite resonated in the same way. “I don’t think anyone really cares too much,” Perlini says. “For us, regardless of if they swapped the whole team for the whole team, either way, you’re moving to a new city.” Which is to say that players have greater concerns than big-picture trade patterns; Perlini learned his new destination around 8 p.m., hopped aboard a 6:45 a.m. flight the next morning and headed straight to practice at noon. “Basically,” he says, “I had to pick up all my s--- and get going.”
Scanning the visiting locker room at Nassau Coliseum after a recent morning skate, Perlini could point out Murphy, Strome and Marcus Kruger, who headed back to the team that drafted him in the Oesterle/Hinostroza deal after spending all of two months on Arizona’s payroll. (Absent were Duclair and Clendening, who coincidentally ended up in the Blue Jackets organization together this season.) “It’s nice to know at least one guy when you come in,” Perlini says. “That way I’m not stuck on my own.”
The same holds true in Arizona, where until Schmaltz recently suffered a season-ending lower-body injury, exactly one-quarter of the Coyotes’ everyday lineup was comprised of ex-Blackhawks brought aboard through trade. “Maybe we’ll have a Chicago dinner and we’ll let whoever makes the most pay for it,” Oesterle says. “Or whoever comes next. You never know.”