The Arizona Coyotes have an incredibly healthy stable of young, NHL-ready defenseman. Not just franchise centerpieces Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but established veteran Zbynek Michalek, up-and-comers Connor Murphy and Brandon Gormley and guys who feel somewhere in between in David Schlemko and Michael Stone.
With all those names, it often feels like the odd man out is Chris Summers, despite having a similar draft background. It is unclear where exactly he will fall in the pecking order come opening day, but Summers saw a good amount of playing time near the end of the 2013-14 season. Which begs the question: where in the Game of Thrones that is the Coyotes' blueline does a guy like Summers fit in?
What is his background?
Taken with the Coyotes' first round pick in 2006, Summers made a name for himself at the University of Michigan, a relatively prestigious college hockey program. He scored 60 points in 163 games as a Wolverine, primarily as a defenseman. He also played a good share of games at left wing alongside Andrew Cogliano, who is now with the Anaheim Ducks. He ended his college career as the team captain and sixth on the all-time Wolverine list for games played.
What kind of NHL player is he?
Summers' upside is that of an NHL regular - which basically means he has the size (six-foot-two, 200-plus pounds) and defensive responsibility in his own zone necessary for the position. But there are several assets beyond those that work in his favor. Most notably, Summers is an incredibly gifted skater--a five-out-of-five on the grading scale. Plays like his first career goal display why this is an incredible asset to have, even as a defenseman. After a turnover in the neutral zone, he was the first one to reach the opposition's net and got a good deflection for a score as a result.
Because of this god-given skating, he saw significant time at left wing in college and is the most likely candidate on the Coyotes roster to pull a Dustin Byfuglien. More realistically, though, Keith Ballard is a comparable pro ceiling.
Another thing to like about him is his mean streak. It is hard to quantify this, but Summers is the kind of player who could fall under the "grit" category. Simply put, Summers is big and strong enough to not answer to anyone--and even more importantly, he knows it. Whether it is using his body to win a board battle, line up a big hit or throw down (this fight from 2013 stands out in particular), Summers brings some much-needed energy to any hockey club. But...
As often is the case with players like that, Summers heavy-hitting style often comes with penalties. In 47 career games played, Summers has amassed 39 penalty minutes, which is just a hair too high for a guy who does not see the lion's share of minutes.
What you see may be what you get in Summers as there is concern that the offensive game may never develop. As it stands right now, he is very conservative - part of the reason the "defensive defenseman" label is tacked onto him. With Yandle being demonstrative of "too aggressive" and Ekman-Larsson the healthy middle ground, Summers is the other end of the spectrum more often than not. It is not a bad thing per se, but for a guy who was a two-way force in college, fans and coaches would like to see the same thing translate to the NHL.
How does he fit in with the Coyotes?
Every team has a guy like this: too good to be in the AHL, but not quite developed enough for consistent rotation time on the big squad. Guys like David Rundblad have had similar career trajectories and have been stuck in roster limbo for seasons at a time. But last year saw great growth out of the former first-round pick. His smooth skating and smart positional play was on full display and resulted in a pair of goals in his 18 games played. One hopes the offense that was present in college may become a more regular part of his game. If that is the case, Tippett can justify a little extra ice time for him. However, he seems slated as the seventh or eight defenseman on the roster, so increased ice time would come at the expense of another Coyotes defenseman, most likely Schlemko or possibly Gormley.
Prior to the offseason, Summers re-signed with the Coyotes on a two-year deal. Reading into that, it appears as if he is in the Coyotes' plans for the immediate future. It is a wise investment; because, in a very best case scenario, Summers can be the replacement to Derek Morris in the defenseman group. Even with all the young talent the Coyotes have due up, there is a lack of "sandpaper" on the blue line (and really the team as a whole, unless one feels BJ Crombeen and Joe Vitale is enough to protect everyone). Summers could be that guy. Given how crowded the blueline for the Coyotes is, he may have to be that gritty player in order to get meaningful minutes.
That is ultimately the allure of Chris Summers. Let a guy who has been nothing but a good hockey player at every stage in his career do what he does best: skate around, play defense and hit people. Offense sold separately.
Is there anything else worth mentioning?
Here is an interview with Summers as a member of the San Antonio Rampage (then the Coyotes' AHL affiliate). Highlights include bashing Canada, facial hair and a Justin Bieber sing-along. So yeah, there's that.