Utah's Pending Free Agents

With NHL free agency set to open on July 1, we look at the situation for each of Utah's restricted and unrestricted free agents.
Arizona Coyotes v Toronto Maple Leafs
Arizona Coyotes v Toronto Maple Leafs / Claus Andersen/GettyImages

The change in ownership and the move to Utah is complete. Now it's time for the former Arizona Coyotes to get to work on the team that will hit the ice next season at the Delta Center. We've examined some options for the club with the sixth selection in the NHL Entry Draft, but GM Bill Armstrong and the front office must also maintain firm focus on the July 1st opening of free agency.

Fans will surely be curious to see who joins Utah as new owner Ryan Smith looks to make a splash with his newly relocated franchise, but a more pressing concern may be the status of a significant group of current players whose contracts are coming to an end. Seven members of last year's roster are due new contracts, including the club's entire blue line.

Let's examine those seven players and look at who might continue on to Salt Lake City and who might head elsewhere:

Sean Durzi

Last season, Sean Durzi was tabbed as the man on the Coyotes' blue line during his first season with the organization. Nowhere was that made more clear than in ice time, where he averaged 22:43 per game, more than two minutes more than any of his teammates and almost three minutes more than he had averaged the previous season with the Los Angeles Kings.

Sean Durzi
Arizona Coyotes v Edmonton Oilers / Leila Devlin/GettyImages

You simply don't make a player that much of a focal point without a plan to keep him around long-term. Durz's restricted free agent status means he's less of a threat to be snatched up by an opposing team given Utah's ability to match any offer sheet. But given the 25-year-old's age and scoring potential (he had nine goals and 41 points last season), Utah may be looking to lock the Mississauga, Ontario native up for years to come.

J.J. Moser

In many ways, J.J. Moser is in the same boat as Durzi, his defensive partner. Both are up for new contracts as restricted free agents and both have the youth (Moser is 24) to suggest that Utah will want to keep them around for the long haul.

But while Moser is expected to be re-signed, his case for a long-term contract is less of a slam dunk than Durzi's. While Durzi showcased his offensive potential from the back end and generally looked the part of top-four NHL defenseman, Moser stagnated with Durzi in tow, taking a small step back in goals, points and ice time. Assuming he returns, Moser will get opportunities on Utah's built-from-scratch blue line, but he'll likely need to show growth for consideration on a larger role.

Barrett Hayton

It's been a long six years since Barrett Hayton was drafted fifth over-all in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. And while fellow top-five 2018 selections Brady Tkachuk, Andrei Svechnikov and Rasmus Dahlin have all arrived as NHL stars, Hayton seems to be sputtering at the moment.

Hayton had what appeared to be a breakout season in 2022-23, with 19 goals and 43 points while playing a full 82 games. That, however, gave way to this past injury-riddled campaign in which lengthy absences due to upper- and lower-body injuries kept the Swiss blue liner to 33 games and just three goals. A restricted free agent, Hayton's next contract will surely suffer based on his play and availability last season.

Jusso Valimaki & Michael Kesselring

I've grouped Jusso Valimaki and Michael Kesselring together for their shared status as young RFA depth defensemen. On a thin Coyotes' blue line last season, they were thrust into what was probably a more significant second pairing role than suited them. They produced similar stats (two goals and 17 points for Valimaki, five goals and 21 points for Kesselring), while surprisingly posting the best plus/minus stats on the team (plus-12 for Valimaki, plus-11 for Kesselring).

Juuso Valimaki and Michael Kesselring celebrate a Coyotes win with Connor Ingram.
Juuso Valimaki and Michael Kesselring celebrate a Coyotes win with Connor Ingram. / Christian Petersen/GettyImages

It's probably safe to assume that both men will be back, likely retained on short-term deals set around $1 million per season. However, some further development will need to be demonstrated to secure their long-term futures with the organization. 2019 first-round pick Victor Soderstrom has seen time at the NHL level and could get a longer look this season, while defensive prospects like Maveric Lamoureaux, Max Szuber and Vladislav Kolyachonok will soon be making their case for an NHL role.

Josh Brown & Travis Dermott

This time, I've paired two unrestricted free agent defensemen in Josh Brown and Travis Dermott, both of whom may well be seeking employment elsewhere. While Utah will surely need some veteran help on the blue line, it should probably come from more prominent players than the 30-year-old Brown or the 27-year-old Dermott, neither of whom averaged more than 17 minutes last season.

While decisions on pending free agents and the development of Utah's prospect pool will weigh heavily on the make-up of the club's defense next year, so will Smith's commitment to spending money. The upcoming defensive free agent market includes everything from stars like Brandon Montour to highly respected veterans like Chris Tanev, Brett Pesce, Tyler Myers and TJ Brodie. If Utah is to be taken seriously as a threat next season, they probably have to upgrade the blue line from outside the organization.

Liam O'Brien

On a non-contending Coyotes team, Liam O'Brien has been something of a rather harmless and likable sideshow. He gets fans going and sticks up for teammates with his willingness to drop the gloves and has been known to dish out punishing checks. Additionally, he doesn't cost much (he made $775,000 last year) while barely scratching 10 minutes of ice time per game.

Liam O'Brien, Liam O'brien
It might be time to move on from the popular Liam O'Brien. / Leila Devlin/GettyImages

If the franchise hopes to move towards serious contention, however, it's fair to ask if O'Brien does more harm than good. For the second year in a row, the 29-year-old led the league in penalty minutes. Sure, that goes hand in hand with sticking up for teammates, but there are ways to play tough without taking penalties, particularly with Arizona ranking among the league's worst penalty killers. A move away from the popular O'Brien may bring disappointment, but also could be the best course of action.

It's an exciting off-season in Utah - and not just because they are the new kids on the block. With $40 million in cap space to use and a new fanbase to engage, Smith, Armstrong and the Utah front office are sure to be active. It remains to be seen, however, which of their own free agents are back to be a part of this new restart.