Defensive wrinkles leave Arizona Coyotes with decisions to make
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Not everything is right with the Coyotes defense.
Nothing is wrong with it. But literally speaking, it’s mostly left-handed shots.
The Arizona Coyotes are returning all of the top six defensemen that finished last season to this year’s roster, and five of them are left-handed shots. Only Jason Demers is a right-handed shot, while Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, Jakob Chychrun and Kevin Connauton shoot left.
Because of that and other factors, there are some questions to be answered on the blue line in training camp.
“I care [about the imbalance],” general manager John Chayka said. “I think it’s an advantage to have lefts and rights. It certainly helps the coaching staff, but there’s also an element of reality where it’s hard to find good defensemen and it’s hard to find good right-shot defensemen, so if you find a defenseman at an asset cost that makes sense then you make the move.
“My goal is just to put out the best six defensemen every single night. Now some of them are going to be lefts, some of them are going to be rights. If I can have a good balance, I think that’s beneficial. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out yet that way but we’re going to keep working towards that.”
Several members of the Coyotes organization described the left-right imbalance more-or-less the same way: Less than ideal, but not a problem, per se.
“Listen, would I like, perfect world, three righties and three lefties? Absolutely,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “But we got some guys that can play the off-D position. But we’ll work around that. We’ve got a couple guys that can play the off side.”
Hjalmarsson, a left-hander, plays the right side, and Demers, a right-hander, has played the left side in the past with Brent Burns, Ian White and Dan Boyle. He said he enjoyed it.
“I think most guys can play either side nowadays,” Demers said. “Obviously you want a righty-lefty set, it just makes it easier in certain areas of the game. But Hjalmarsson has done it for years and he’s successful at playing on the right side. So I just think it’s really whatever’s the preference of the coaching staff and the organization.”
The handedness of a defenseman can make a difference in which side of the stick he receives the puck on the boards and which side of his body he carries the puck up the ice. But playing the opposite side can actually create a better angle for the shooter in the offensive zone.
“I don’t think guys really care,” Connauton said. “There’s a few guys who have preference, obviously, but for me personally I don’t mind playing on the right side. I’ve played quite a bit in this league on the right side, so I feel comfortable on both and I know as a group of six, everyone’s capable of jumping on either side there.”
The mildness with which the Coyotes seem to express any concern over the left-right imbalance begs another question: Does it matter enough to affect who gets the No. 7 defenseman assignment, or even who comes up into the top six if Chyrchun (knee) isn’t ready to start the regular season?
When asked what the criteria may be for selecting the seventh defenseman for the roster, Tocchet said, “The perfect guy’s a guy that can skate and defend and score goals, but I’ll take two out of three. That guy, I don’t know who it’s going to be, but he’s going to be an important part of the team.”
The Coyotes made some additions to their organizational depth on defense in the offseason. Luke Schenn left via free agency after two seasons with the team, but Arizona added Jordan Gross (free agency), Ilya Lyubushkin (free agency), Robbie Russo (trade), Jordan Oesterle (trade) and Jacob Graves (trade). The team also returns Kyle Capobianco and Trevor Murphy to its AHL squad.
Those aforementioned seven names would seem to be the candidates to take the 1-2 open roster spots on defense, though Oesterle may be the frontrunner, given that he has the most NHL experience of that group (80 games) and was one of two main return pieces (the other being Vinnie Hinostroza) in a deal with the Blackhawks this summer.
“You saw last year, at the start of the year, we hit a rash of injuries and defensively it kind of hurt us,” Tocchet said. “You can’t have enough defensive depth.”
INJURY UPDATES FOR JAKOB CHYCHRUN, OTHERS
On the subject of Chychrun, who had knee surgery because of an injury he suffered late last season: A clear timeline for his return is not clear. He has not been skating with the rest of the group in practices at the start of training camp.
“[Chychrun’s] ahead of schedule again, but we’re going to stay on schedule,” Tocchet said. “Even though he always pushes the rehab pace more than most people, we’re going to say on-page with him.”
Forward Nick Merkley (lower-body) is not skating with the team yet, either, nor is center Christian Dvorak (lower-body).
“Hopefully it’s soon. I’m not exactly sure when,” Tocchet said of Dvorak. “But we had some encouraging stuff but it’s still a process we have to go through with Dvo. We’re not going to rush him. He’s too young. And some guys are going to have to step up when he’s out.”