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Coyotes, Kevin Connauton agree on two-year, $2.75 million contract

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton, middle, celebrates his goal against the Dallas Stars with right wing Christian Fischer (36) and center Nick Cousins, right, during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Kevin Connauton didn’t know what to expect from his first foray into unrestricted free agency. After weighing some options, the Coyotes defenseman decided that familiarity, camaraderie and the place where he had progressed the most in his career tipped the scales toward staying put, rather becoming a free agent on July 1.

The Coyotes and Connauton agreed to a two-year, $2.75 million contract on Wednesday that will pay him $1.25 million the first season and $1.5 million the last. The signing means Arizona has all of its top six defenseman from last season under contract. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers and Jakob Chychrun are the others.

“I’m excited to come back to a spot that is familiar,” Connauton said on a conference call Wednesday. “I own a house here in Arizona. I really enjoy my teammates here. It’s a tight-knit group of guys, ones that I get along with really well, and a first-class staff behind it all. I’m super fortunate to be coming back.”

Coyotes general manager John Chayka had a list of potential replacements for Connauton in mind, but in conversations with Connauton’s agent, Matthew Oates, Connauton quickly became the priority.

“We like Kevin as a player,” Chayka said. “He had a good year, helped our group grow and we like him a lot as a person. He’s great in the room. He’s good with the young guys. The older guys respect him. Great work ethic. He lives it. He wants to get better. He wants to continue to grow and that’s type of attitude and culture we want here.”

Connauton scored a NHL career-best 11 goals last season, all at even strength, with three of them game-winners. He also had a career-high 21 points in his fifth NHL season. 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 15:11 with 53.5 percent of his zone starts coming in the defensive zone.

“He’s got a history of producing offense. I’d say that is one of his strengths,” Chayka said. “I’d say it’s very difficult, given the minutes that he’s played and his role currently with the group, for him to keep scoring at that rate. If he can do it, that’s a phenomenal accomplishment but I don’t necessarily think that would be the expectation unless he continues to grow and evolve his role.

With the other five defenseman ahead of him, it will be a challenge for Connauton, a left-handed shot who can play either side, to earn that greater role next season.

“Every hockey player is looking to get more,” he said. “We’re competitive guys and we’re always trying to take steps forward and climb the ladder and contribute more. That’s something that I definitely want to do.

“When you look at the six D we’ve got now, I know there is a pecking order and everything, but I just want to make sure that whenever opportunity arises I make sure I take advantage of it.”

With Connauton rounding out the three defense pairs, Chayka could still add a seventh defenseman in free agency, but he said he expects one of a group of young defensemen in the system to challenge for that spot, with Ilya Lyubushkin, Robbie Russo, Trevor Murphy and Kyle Capobianco all possibilities.

“Having too many good players is a good problem to have,” Chayka said. “This is the stage in an organization where you’re getting where you want to be, where you can start having the depth and having that internal competition.”

With Connauton re-signed, free-agent defenseman Luke Schenn will look to test the free-agent market and likely sign with another team, his agent, Ben Hankinson said Wednesday.

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