Entering the 2021 season the Arizona Coyotes unveiled their plans to “get it right” and officially entered a rebuild. Shipping out big names and letting others leave via free agency left vacancies up and down the roster and opened opportunities for players to show that they can play in the NHL. Goalie Karel Vejmelka and defenseman Dysin Mayo are two players who took advantage when opportunity came knocking.
Vejmelka and Mayo’s paths to the NHL were similar in that they are both former 5th-round draft picks. Vejmelka was drafted in the 5th-round by the Nashville Predators in 2015, and Mayo taken in the 5th-round by the Coyotes in 2016. They both spent the next five years playing hockey outside of the NHL.
Watching Karel Vejmelka this season, it is hard to believe that this was his first experience in the NHL. He was sensational at times and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lost season for the ‘Yotes. Incredibly athletic, great vision, and veteran composure make him a player you build around. For Vejmelka, it wasn’t that he couldn’t make an NHL roster, it was that he elected to play professional hockey in the Czech Extraliga. His numbers were respectable, though nothing spectacular. In 163 ELH games he went 77-84-0, with 13 shutouts, a 2.56 goals against average, and .913 save percentage.
Typically a goalie with a losing record isn’t a player you bring over to the NHL, but Vejmelka was signed to a one-year entry level contract on May 5, 2021. The expectation was that he would be the backup Carter Hutton. Hutton suffered injuries throughout the season and Vejmelka ended up sharing starting duties with Scott Wedgewood until the latter was traded. At that point there wasn’t anymore sharing crease duties. On October 27th, 2021 he made his NHL debut and shined from the start, stopping 32 of 33 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
Vejmelka reminds me of a tall (6’4″) Arturs Irbe. Both goalies played on bad teams (the early Sharks for Irbe), did not have great numbers on paper, but kept their teams in games and were exciting to watch. Irbe eventually left San Jose and was solid with other teams in his career, eventually taking the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Finals in the 2001-2002 season (losing to Detroit).
The Coyotes were smart and extended Vejmelka with a three-year $8.175 million contract. Not too shabby for a guy who wasn’t in the team’s plans or sights a year ago. His presence has brought stability to the crease.
Faced with low expectations and virtually zero pressure he established himself as the team’s franchise goalie.
Dysin Mayo is a solid right defenseman that has good hands and high hockey IQ. He spent the past five seasons playing for the Tucson Roadrunners. A tough defensive defenseman who leads by example on the ice, he was selected team captain his final season in the AHL. Given the opportunity to play with the Coyotes Mayo scored a goal in his NHL debut on October 21st, 2021. As the season went on Mayo paired nicely with Shayne Gostisbehere. He showed flashes of being a puck moving blueliner finishing his rookie year with 4 goals, 8 assists and 12 points.
His defensive numbers were more impressive.
Mayo has the ability to shut down the opposing team’s top players. On most nights he average over 20 minutes of ice time and finished the season with 133 blocked shots and 129 hits. This kid is only 25 years old and if he continues to develop he could replace players like Jakob Chychrun or Gostisbehere should the front office ship them out. The Coyotes were smart and locked him up with a three-year $2.85 million extension.
If the Coyotes are going to turn this around they need to not only hit on their early draft picks, but they need to find late round gems like these two. Now that these guys have established themselves as solid NHL players, they need to take the next steps forward and help the next wave of rookies. They both have the leadership abilities that will hold the locker room together when things get tough, and there will be some tough times this season, especially early on.