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Arizona Coyotes defensemen struggled to adapt to NHL play in 2014-15

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A very young corps of Arizona Coyotes' defenders had a very steep learning curve last season, and it showed.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It is hard to point to any one facet of play as responsible for the Arizona Coyotes’ vulgar lack of success in 2014-15. It is easy to say, however, that defense at least had some part to do with it. Ending the season 28th in goals allowed per game and 29th in penalty kill, both stats point to lackluster defensive effort. Simply saying that does not succinctly capture all the phenomena at play, however.

Woe is D

If it was just one power at play, it is easy to point to the team’s youth. Of the roughly 9983 minutes of play Coyote defenseman put in this season, 88.7% of them were played by players under the age of 28. It is for this reason that many fans were clamoring for the Coyotes to bring a veteran defender via trade for most of the season.

But that likely would not have solved the other problem the Coyotes defenders faced all season long: not being very good at hockey. A team at the bottom of the barrel in practically every defensive metric isn’t one veteran defenseman short of being a good defensive corps.

Coyotes Defensemen in 2014-15
Games played Points 5v5 SAT For% Avg. TOI per game
Oliver Ekman-Larsson 82 43 51.68 25.12
Michael Stone 81 18 49.39 20.76
Connor Murphy 73 7 44.78 16.96
Keith Yandle * 63 42 49.26 23.89
Zbynek Michalek * 53 8 51.84 20.85
Andrew Campbell 33 1 46.52 17.91
Brandon Gormley 27 4 48.73 15.19
David Schlemko * 20 4 49.10 17.90
John Moore ** 19 5 43.12 18.34
Klas Dahlbeck ** 19 3 43.40 19.37
Chris Summers * 17 3 41.99 13.84
Philip Samuelsson ** 4 0 42.27 15.16
Dylan Reese 1 0 62.50 20.93

*Left mid-season
**Acquired mid-season
Stats via war-on-ice.com

The Good

It is perhaps all that mediocrity that makes Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s season shine that much brighter. He was Arizona’s best player regardless of what measuring stick is used to quantify it. He led the team in goals, points, and time on ice, which he was tenth in the league in.

Of his NHL-defenseman-leading 23 goals, seven were game-winners, which speaks to OEL playing up to the circumstances. With turnover bound to happen for the Coyotes after this season, Ekman-Larsson is as penciled in as it gets.

Also worth special mention is the play of the shipped-out Keith Yandle and Zbynek Michalek. Before being traded for Anthony Duclair and John Moore, Yandle was enjoying a solid season all things considered. His 42 points in 60 games was second on the team (although Gagner’s 41 was close).

On that same token, Michalek filled the role of defensive defenseman as well as one could have asked for before being traded to the St Louis Blues. Both will be missed as the Coyotes try to build a working ship for 2015-16 and beyond.

Everyone Else

Beyond those, Arizona defensemen were a mixed breed, varying from inconsistent to underused to flat out incompetent. Only Michael Stone and Connor Murphy ended the season with more than 70 games played and while both were consistent in their own right, both also saw prolonged stretches of bad hockey.

The success of this pair is paramount for Arizona’s plans in the immediate and forthcoming future. But as it relates to 2014-15, there were perhaps too many growing pains for the duo, and that directly correlated with the defensive struggles.

In some ways, the growing pains are understandable: Stone is 24 years old and Murphy is 21. The youth may have been especially apparent this season, but optimistic Coyotes fans can hope that these two take their next steps and continue to develop into the pros the Coyotes braintrust hopes they can become. The road ahead is a lot easier if that is indeed the case.

In terms of everyone else, the Arizona defensive corps was something of a revolving door, with no other defenseman playing in more than 35 games. It is these names that tell much of the story for the Coyotes’ season and it will be an intriguing process to track which names will stick around for the next regime in Coyotes hockey.

The Future is Now

First off, much like Yandle and Michalek, Chris Summers and David Schlemko ended the 2014-15 season as ex-Coyotes – Summers as part of Yandle’s trade package, and Schlemko via the waiver wire. Both were given every chance to succeed, but neither answered the call, and Arizona simply had to make some moves to make room for some of the younger bodies in the system.

One such body is former first round pick Brandon Gormley. Finally given his chance, Gormley played like one of Arizona’s best defensemen for stretches, but could not stay on the ice enough to make as big an impact as Coyotes’ fans might have hoped.

Some of that was due to injury, but also for some reason, Gormley was kept on a rather tight leash. He was often healthy scratched, and when he was not scratched, minutes were scarce for Gormley. Consider his grade incomplete for the 2014-15 season.

The other two defenders that Arizona hopes can grow into key contributors are the two trade deadline acquisitions: John Moore and Klas Dahlbeck. Obtained in the Yandle and Vermette deals, respectively, the two 23-year-olds were thrust into a strange situation, as both were filling the skates of the Coyotes that had departed – Dahlbeck was the de facto Michalek and Moore the de facto Yandle.

Dahlbeck was a better Michalek than Moore was a Yandle, but that is more a testament to the play of Yandle than it is an indictment of Moore. In terms of moving forward, Dahlbeck is a surefire keeper and Moore showed enough to warrant a longer look as the Coyotes think ahead to 2015-16.

In terms of what’s left, Andrew Campbell was brought on at the beginning of the season to be a depth defenseman, and his 33 games of replacement level hockey is what is to be expected from someone of his contract and caliber. And lastly, Philip Samuelsson’s four games is hardly an apt sample size to evaluate his play, but he figures to be in the same tax bracket as Dahlbeck and Moore entering training camp.

Final Thoughts

The defense position is arguably the hardest position in hockey for younger players to learn, and the Arizona Coyotes had youth in abundance. But as the numbers show, youth alone is not the reason the Coyotes struggled to keep the puck out of their net. Everybody is going to need to step up their game next season if the Coyotes are to rebound from a miserable 2014-15 campaign.