Defenseman Kurt Sauer has been monitoring the unexpected success of the Phoenix Coyotes from an unenviable position this season - the injury list.
Sauer, 28, signed with Phoenix as a free agent prior to the 2008-2009 NHL season and quickly established himself as a fixture on the team's struggling blueline that season as a strong shutdown player.
But this year, after suffering an injury in the Coyotes' first game, Sauer has had to watch from the sidelines as his teammates rocketed to a surprising 9-5-0 record going into tonight's matchup against the Colorado Avalanche.
"It's been a little too long already," said Sauer, who hit the ice for his second consecutive day of skating yesterday.
Sauer posted 1-6-7 and 36 PIM and was a -1 last season in 68 games, his second-highest career NHL season game total. His strong defensive play in his own zone helped the Coyotes to reach 5th place in the Western Conference before the All-Star Break. A foot injury, however, sidelined Sauer for a stretch of games that saw the Coyotes plummet out of playoff contention and into the draft lottery.
This season, however, the Coyotes' defensive depth has been strengthened significantly by the addition of free agent Adrian Aucoin and trades for James Vandermeer and Sami Lepistö. Lepistö, a former Washington Capitals prospect, has stepped into Sauer's accustomed spot in the blueline rotation and his solid play - 0-3-3 and even in +/- - has been an integral part of what has become the NHL's stingiest defense, with only 30 goals allowed going into Wednesday.
Lepistö, 25, has taken to regular icetime well after having difficulty breaking into the Capitals' lineup over the past two seasons. The son of former Jokerit captain Jussi Lepistö and drafted 66th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Sami spent parts of seven seasons with Jokerit before joining the Caps organization in 2007. But the Capitals' defensive depth relegated Lepistö to a total of 14 NHL games, posting 0-5-5 and -4 in that span.
The bulk of Lepistö's icetime was spent with the Capitals' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, and the young Finn made the most of his opportunity in the minors by posting a whopping 8-79-87 and +53 in two seasons with the club. However, it was clear that even with his gaudy numbers that he had little chance of breaking into an established Washington blueline, and on June 27, 2009 Lepistö was traded to Phoenix for a 2010 fifth-round draft pick.
What began as a stint as Phoenix's seventh defenseman this season turned into a prime opportunity for the Finn, and Lepistö has capitalized on the chance by turning in strong performances on a nightly basis. Lepistö has drawn praise for his positioning and stickwork in his own zone and also for his puck-carrying skills. His high-watermark for time-on-ice came in the Coyotes' October 22 home victory versus the Detroit Red Wings, logging a respectable 20:23.
While Sauer has been injured, the Coyotes have rolled with six defensemen (although prospect defenseman Sean Sullivan was recalled for a game after Zbynek Michalek suffered a minor injury, he was a healthy scratch when Michalek was cleared to play). But when Sauer is activated, the battle will be on for ice time between the reliable defensive d-man and the rising Finnish blueliner.
Given the Coyotes' lack of blueline depth in seasons past, they can consider themselves fortunate to have this problem.