Coyotes may be one of the Western Conference’s best defense groups
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When you think of the top defense groups in the NHL’s Western Conference, a few teams come to mind.
Nashville is the league’s benchmark. The Predators rode a top-four of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm to the Stanley Cup Final.
Calgary solidified its top four by adding Travis Hamonic this summer to a group that features Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. Anaheim’s strength is its depth, with Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour helping ease the loss of Shea Theodore to Vegas.
Minnesota’s top four is strong, but the Wild’s depth took a hit with the cap-induced trade of Marco Scandella this summer. San Jose has Brent Burns and Marc Edouard-Vlasic at the top, and St. Louis boasts Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, but with the additions of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers this summer, the Coyotes just may have climbed into the West’s top five.
“I don’t think they’re far behind,” TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said. “Nashville has such a high end, nobody matches that. Anaheim’s strength is so young, that’s impressive. I would say Arizona is just a tiny step behind Calgary, but what was a weakness should be a real strength for them.”
Coyotes assistant coach Scott Allen said it is “way too early” to project defensive pairs, but if Hjalmarsson plays on the top pair with Oliver-Ekman-Larsson, and Alex Goligoski plays with Demers, the Coyotes would trot out an experienced, mobile and versatile unit.
Demers’ addition should also allow 19-year-old Jakob Chychrun to play on the third pairing with Luke Schenn or Adam Clendening when Chychrun returns to the lineup from his knee injury. That would allow coach Rick Tocchet and Coyotes assistant coach Scott Allen to put Chychrun in situations where he can succeed as he continues to develop.
“I like this group,” said Allen, who coaches the defense. “Our management has a done a good job of putting together a group of guys that complement each other and gives us a chance to play the way Rick Tocchet wants to play.”
The Coyotes identified Hjalmarsson as the perfect partner for Ekman-Larsson. His established defensive prowess should allow Ekman-Larsson to play more with the puck, and push the envelope on offense.
“You have to remember Nik’s played in the shadows of a couple of stars in Chicago in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook so for a lot of people he’s quietly flown under the radar, but for people in business, guys who paid attention, he’s been a huge component for their three Stanley Cups,” said Allen who thinks Hjalmarsson can be more than simply a defensive stalwart. “I think it maybe hasn’t been explored because of who he played with. I think that element could be there, but we don’t want him just thinking that way.”
Allen believes his top pairing could flourish in the system he termed “aggressive,” but he sees the same possibilities for the second and third pairings.
“To play the way this team wants to play, everybody has got to be on board with it,” he said. “It’s a three-zone system, but the only way we can get truly aggressive is knowing that they’ve got the support of their teammates. If there’s not a complete buy-in, it could make for some long nights.”
Allen said he purposely did not watch much film of the Coyotes’ existing defensemen because he knew they’d be playing an entirely different system so he wanted to evaluate them with fresh eyes.
“We don’t know — nobody knows what the future holds, but a lot of this is still such a young group and a group you can still make an impression on,” he said. “We’ve got to give players the ability to showcase themselves through the preseason and practice every day. Until we get some real action, it’s tough to assess just what we’re capable of.”