The Phoenix Coyotes have an embarrassment of riches on the blueline this season. Today we will look at both the potential pairings on Opening Night and the likely battle that will emerge for the last two roster spots. In any case, the Coyotes are poised to have one of the deepest blue-lines in the Western Conference.
The Phoenix Coyotes live and die by the play of their defense. Because of the abridged training camp, there will not be much time to create new defensive pairings. Look for Dave Tippett to stick with what worked on the blueline last season. There will be a couple of new additions to the roster given the departures of Michal Rozsival and Adrian Aucoin.
Guess Who's Back, Back Again
Zbynek Michalek is the best example of why the GM of the Year Award should be named after Don Maloney. Z makes his return to the Coyotes after being acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for what essentially amounted to a bag of pucks. Michalek is a shutdown defenseman who eats up minutes and will block a ton of shots. The Coyotes will almost certainly put him on the top pairing and on the PK.
Michalek's likely partner in crime will be Swedish phenom Oliver Ekman-Larsson. After a stellar 2011-12 campaign, OEL is on the verge of establishing himself as a top-tier NHL defenseman. He had 32 points in the regular season, including 13 goals, and played significant minutes against the opponents' top forwards. OEL also demonstrated his defensive acumen during the 2012 playoffs. If OEL continues to develop his two-way game, he could find himself among serious discussions for the Norris Trophy at season's end.
Roll the Dice
Among the fanbase, Keith Yandle is certainly in the running for most polarizing player on the Coyotes. This summer, we asked you who you thought needed to improve his game the most in the upcoming season, and Yandle won in convincing fashion. Yandle's offensive talents have never been a concern; he logged 43 points last year (11G, 32A) and 9 points in the playoffs (1G, 8A). Yandle's biggest issue has always been a penchant for turnovers inside the defensive zone (in one memorable instance, he made a tape-to-tape pass directly to Kyle Brodziak's stick in a game against the Minnesota Wild, which promptly found its way to the back of the net). Yandle's role this season will either be his usual offensive presence on the blueline or as an asset for GMDM to trade for a productive forward.
Much like Yandle, Derek Morris suffers from occasional lapses in the defensive zone, particularly at inopportune times. Morris was also bothered last season by injuries which cost him valuable playing time. He did play in all 16 games of the postseason, during which he recorded a pair of goals and four assists. He will likely see reduced ice-time this season, and could even find his way to the press box if he has a prolonged stretch of poor play.
Rostislav Klesla may be the most underrated player in the Coyotes defense, primarily because his contributions don't tend to show up on the score sheet. He is an incredibly tough shutdown defenseman who plays a pivotal role on the PK. He can also take a lot of punishment, whether it's blocking shots or being physical with opponents. If he can stay healthy, he will be a very big part of the Coyotes' depth on the blueline.
There Can Only Be One...Or Two
There are two remaining spots on the roster that can be filled by defensemen, which means that some Coyotes who made guest appearances in the lineup last season, could make a more permanent return this time around.
Of the non-regulars, Coyotes fans have seen David Schlemko more than any other D-man. Schlemko appeared in 46 contests last year when injuries to players like Morris and Rozsival left gaps in the lineup. He is more proficient in his back-end, but has been known to pinch low on the forecheck and put pucks on net. Schlemko has been the 7th defenseman on the roster for the better part of the last three years. That expierence may give him an edge in what will likely be a fierce competition for the final two roster spots on defense.
Michael Stone quickly emerged as the defensive prospect of choice for Dave Tippett toward the end of last season. He appeared in 13 regular season games and twice during Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Kings. Stone has the capability of being a versatile two-way defenseman; he had 3 points in his relatively short stint up with the Coyotes. If he doesn't make his way onto the roster at the beginning of the season, look for him to be a quick call-up if someone under-performs this year.
Chris Summers is another young option for the Coyotes. He was a midseason call-up last year, and appeared in 21 games. He has yet to score an NHL goal, and has only scored three goals in three years of AHL play. Summers could have a hard time finding a roster spot, but could see time if one of the Coyotes stay-at-home defenseman is injured for an extended period of time.
There are quite a few Coyotes fans eagerly looking forward to Rundblad's appearance on the roster. Acquired from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for disgruntled forward Kyle Turris, Rundblad stuck around briefly with the Coyotes before being sent back down to the AHL to gain some more experience and to improve his game in the defensive zone. Not only does Rundblad have undeniable offensive skill, but he is also particularly adept at quarterbacking the power play, an area that the Coyotes have been woefully inadequate at. If he has made strides in his defensive game during his time in Portland, Rundblad will have a decent shot making the roster at the start the season.
The Coyotes should be very confident about the group of defensive players that will be suiting up for the team this season. There is a very potent mix of grit, strength, and playmaking ability. As usual, much of Phoenix's offense will have to come from the blueline in order to keep games close. This corps of defensemen should be able to do carry their weight and then some.