After an active offseason in which rookie GM John Chayka aggressively added pieces to supplement a talented young core, it was expected the Arizona Coyotes would be an improved team; maybe not quite a playoff team, but better than the group that finished the 2015-16 campaign with 78 points. Instead the club is on pace for a 65-point season, and much of the reason for the team’s struggles are related to the lack of quality NHL-ready centers.
Injuries to Brad Richardson and Martin Hanzal exacerbated the situation leading Chayka to seek help, both via the waiver wire and through trade. The Coyotes acquired centers Josh Jooris and Peter Holland from the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs respectively in a three day span in December. While those additions helped bridge the gap for the short term, it was a later acquisition that may prove out to be a steal for Arizona.
On January 2nd, the Coyotes were awarded their waiver claim on forward Alex Burmistrov, a talented but underachieving former first-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers. Visa issues delayed his debut with his new team but in six games since entering the lineup, Burmistrov has tallied six points and as Craig Morgan writes in a piece for Fan Rag Sports Network, the 25-year-old is fitting in well with his new club.
Head coach Dave Tippett feels that the addition of Burmistrov, along with the improved play of Christian Dvorak has helped stabilize the center ice position in Arizona:
“We’ve stabilized our center ice a little bit with adding Burmistrov and the growth of [Christian] Dvorak,” Tippett said. “[Burmistrov] has filled a hole at center ice, where he’s good with the puck, he can distribute the puck and [he’s got] good skill and good vision.”
Prior to joining the Coyotes, Burmistrov posted just two points, both assists, in 23 games. While he’s shown flashes of high-end skill at times during his career, Burmistrov’s career-best single-season performance came during the 2011-12 campaign when he netted 13 goals and 28 points.
Burmistrov feels that the opportunity to play in different situations in Arizona has played a part in his strong start:
“That’s the way I grew up playing: in the key situations all the way around. Penalty kill, power play,” he said. “The big thing is coaching trust so I have to keep doing well and don’t let him down. This is a big opportunity for me.”
It should be noted that six games is of course a small sample and his previous coach, Paul Maurice, simply was unwilling to trust Burmistrov to kill penalties or play in key situations:
“Alex has a real strong view of what he’s good at,” Maurice told reporters after Burmistrov was waived. “That’s the most important thing: that a coach and player agree on what they’re good at and then the coach will put them in the position to succeed. Alex and I never would really agree on that.
“Alex and I have had a number of conversations about what he was hoping to have here. I just had other players ahead of him and the role he was looking for wasn’t here.”
Whether or not Burmistrov continues to excel with his new opportunity remains to be seen. However, the low-risk nature of the acquisition is exactly the type of move teams like the Coyotes, clubs who usually don’t spend to the salary cap ceiling, should always be willing to make. The type of skill Burmistrov boasts is hard to find on the open market and despite his inability to earn a regular role with the Jets sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery to turn around a player’s career.
Burmistrov’s solid play may also give the team more confidence as they entertain offers for Hanzal. If they do find a suitor willing to meet their asking price for Hanzal, instead of exposing prospects to too much too soon they have Burmistrov on the roster to take up some of the responsibilities.