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Kevin Connauton’s contract a conundrum for Coyotes

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton (44) celebrates after scoring against the Vegas Golden Knights during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton has been traded, he has been waived and he has been scratched for periods as long as three weeks.

One thing he has never experienced is unrestricted free agency. In two months, he could get that chance.

“I really don’t know what to expect this summer,” he said. “It’s kind of a new situation for me, going into free agency.

“I’m obviously happy with the way things turned out this season, happy with the way I was playing. I felt like I got back to playing my game and who I am on the ice. It’s all positive right now and I’m looking forward to going through it, talking about it and feeling it out.”

Connauton doesn’t have a large body of work on which to sell teams, but he scored a career-best 11 goals last season, all at even strength, with three of them game-winners.

Among NHL defenseman, he finished tied for 21st in goals with San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and in a six-way tie for 89th in points with 21, despite finishing 227th in average time on ice at 15:08 with 53.5 percent of his zone starts coming in the defensive zone.

“Opportunity is everything; getting a chance to play is huge,” said Connauton, who will stay in Arizona most of the summer to train with Coyotes strength and conditioning coach J.P. Major. “I’ve had my back against the wall before in this league so it’s something I’m used to and I know how to get out of it and keep pushing forward.”

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet credited Connauton with being one of the most improved players on the roster this season, but it’s still unclear if re-signing Connauton makes sense.

“My job is to build a team and you’ve got to be disciplined,” general manager John Chayka said of his tight budget. “It’s got to make sense and it’s got to fit.”

Assuming Jakob Chychrun (knee surgery) will be ready for training camp as Chayka has said, it’s hard to envision Connauton taking minutes from the five players ahead of him on the depth chart: Oliver-Ekman-Larsson (23:41), Alex Goligoski (23:17), Jason Demers (21:08), Niklas Hjalmarsson (20:42) and Chychrun (20:15).

The Coyotes could always trade one of those players if a chance to improve their forward group arose, but that group, along with the play of goalie Antti Raanta, drove the team’s success over the second half of the season. With those 11 goals as bait, Connauton may command too high a price on the open market for the Coyotes to re-sign him for a third-pair role.

Connauton’s agent, Matt Oates, admitted that Connauton — like most players — wants a larger role.

“He’s always been, in my mind, a little bit underrated from an offensive standpoint,” Oates said. “I think he can contribute and do even more. He wants to be given more opportunity. That’s going to be for Arizona to determine. I know what they have there. I know who’s signed and who’s not.”

Oates said he has not had any discussions with Chayka yet but would “leave it in John’s corner” to reach out sometime this summer or talk at the NHL Draft in Dallas from June 22-23.

“He loves Arizona,” Oates said of Connauton. “Hopefully, there is something to be worked out there and hopefully other people around the league took notice as well. He was rewarded with more ice time and more responsibility and with that, I think he took advantage of it.”

However the summer plays out, Connauton said his game feels reborn after limited opportunity last season.

“I was having a bit of an identity crisis as a player, trying to figure out what I needed to do to win the coaches over and then the staff changed again and I was trying to feel them out,” he said. “Once you get the confidence going, it’s one of those things where you start playing off instincts and you’re not playing in that survival mode, trying not to screw up. You’re going out there to be a difference maker.

“I’m happy with the way I’m skating, getting up the ice, defending hard and defending well. That’s how I want to be is just a solid, two-way player; play both ends of the ice.”

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