Coyotes sign Zucker, bring back 3 players to kick off free agency

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils
NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes are stuck in a sort of limbo since a proposed new arena project was shot down by voters.

That three former players wanted to head back to the desert could be a sign the franchise is headed in the right direction - even if they still don't have a permanent home.

Arizona kicked off the free agency period by signing former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jason Zucker to a one-year deal, $5.3 million and brought back three popular former players on Saturday.

“There's a lot of noise in the desert and as I tell people on zoom calls when I'm recruiting them: I don't built rinks, I build teams,” Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said. “I can't help you with the rink part, but I can help you by putting a good team on that ice.”

The Coyotes thought their drawn-out bid to find a permanent home would end with a referendum for a $2.3 billion entertainment district that would include a new arena. Tempe voters had other ideas, resoundingly shooting down the referendum on May 16, leaving the franchise still searching for a new arena.

Armstrong hasn't let the uncertainty change his approach to rebuilding the franchise.

The Coyotes' big splash to kick off free agency was signing Zucker, a proven scorer when he's been healthy. Arizona followed that up by signing center Nick Bjugstad to a two-year deal, along with one-year deals with forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman Troy Stecher - three popular players during previous stints with the franchise.

The Coyotes closed out the day by signing former Toronto forward Alexander Kerfoot to a two-year deal.

“It’s one thing to look on the outside and say, ‘no rink and they haven’t been that successful as an organization,'" Stecher said. “And then once you get there as a player, it’s completely different than the perception. You’re surrounded with such good people that have a passion for the game, and that want to make an organization something special.”

Zucker should give the Coyotes an immediate scoring boost after a bounce-back 2022-23 season.

Plagued by injuries the previous two seasons, the 31-year-old had 27 goals and 21 assists in 78 games with the Penguins last season. Zucker had some of his best seasons during his seven-plus years in Minnesota, including 33 goals and 31 assists in 2017-18.

“We wanted to add some scoring and Zucker fit a lot of our profile,” Armstrong said. "He’s a guy that can score and play effective hockey.”

The Coyotes traded Bjugstad to Edmonton at the deadline last season, but wasted little time in bringing back the 30-year-old Minnesotan.

Bjugstad had 13 goals with Arizona before being traded, finishing with 17 combined goals and 12 assists. He has 127 goals and 139 assists in 13 NHL seasons with five teams.

The 6-foot-6 forward was popular in the locker room during his first stint with the Coyotes and will give them a veteran presence on a young team.

“Nick is a great guy, he's great for our culture,” Armstrong said. “I think he grew a lot. When we put him at center, his game took off. And I think there's more there. There's a higher end for Nick that he has to continue to dig down and reach for.”

Galchenyuk will be on his third stint with the Coyotes.

The 29-year-old had 19 goals and 22 assists with the Coyotes in 2018-19 and returned in 2021-22, finishing with six goals and 15 assists in 60 games. Galchenyuk played 11 games for the Colorado Avalanche last season, spending most of the year in the AHL.

Stecher had seven assists in 61 games with Arizona before being traded to Calgary at the deadline. The steady blueliner had a combined three goals and 11 assists in 81 games last season.

The 29-year-old has 18 goals and 85 games in nine seasons with five NHL teams.

Kerfoot had 10 goals and 22 assists in 82 games with the Maple Leafs last season. The 28-year-old has 74 goals and 145 assists in six NHL seasons with Colorado and Toronto.

“He's a glue guy for us,” Armstrong said. "He was really a big signing for us. As a coach, you love this guy because he can come in do anything you need that night to help you win."

Arizona also added organizational depth at goalie, signing Matt Villalta to a one-year, two-way contract.