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Challenge ahead: Coyotes have to ‘hold the fort’ with no Nik Hjalmarsson

Niklas Hjalmarsson #4 of the Arizona Coyotes during the third period of the NHL game against the Los Angeles Kings at Gila River Arena on March 09, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Kings 4-2. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Coyotes will have to move forward for a while without a key piece of their defense, Niklas Hjalmarsson, as he is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury.

A report from The Athletic’s Craig Morgan said Monday that Hjalmarsson suffered a cracked fibula and will be out about three months.

“Whether it’s two, three months, who knows,” head coach Rick Tocchet told reporters Tuesday in Winnipeg. “But it’s going to be a while. So we’re going to have to hold the fort for Nik. Of any guy on our team, it kills him the most because he came in in great shape and was having a really good year for us.”

Indeed, Hjalmarsson played all 82 games of the 2018-19 season and all four of the Coyotes’ games start the new season. He scored one goal already, which was unusual for the defensive defenseman, but more importantly, he contributes mightily as a second-pairing defenseman and penalty killer. He’s regarded as one of the better defensive defensemen in the NHL.

“He’s as good as I’ve seen or played with as far as anticipating where pucks are going to go and getting his stick or skates or body on pucks,” Coyotes defenseman Alex Goligoski told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station last month.

After a full year last year, this will mark the second time in three seasons with the Coyotes that Hjalmarsson will play far fewer than a whole slate of games. He played only 48 games for the Coyotes in 2017-18, his first year in the desert after coming over in a trade from the Blackhawks, and called last year a bounce-back year.

Shot-blocking is one of Hjalmarsson’s best skills, so there’s cruel irony in that he was injured while doing that very thing on Saturday in Colorado. Last year, Hjalmarsson ranked second in the league in blocked shots behind only New Jersey’s Andy Greene. He’s also on the first PK unit for a team that ranked tied for first in that category a year ago.

“He’s a fabulous PK guy,” Tocchet said. “That’s really going to hurt us, so we have some guys that, they’re going to have to PK a little more than usual. We have some guys that haven’t PKed before, so it’s more of a committee thing. It’s a big loss for us.”

In the wake of Hjalmarsson’s injury and the team placing him on IR, the Coyotes recalled Kyle Capobianco from the Tucson Roadrunners (AHL). Capobianco and Ilya Lyubushkin, who was called up on Friday before Hjalmarsson got hurt, figure to fill in while Hjalmarsson is out. Capobianco was expected to play Tuesday night in Winnipeg.

“When he got called up last year before he got hurt, I thought he was coming,” Tocchet said of Capobianco. “So it’s a good team for him to play against.”

Still, Hjalmarsson a big loss. The Coyotes had to play 38 games without Niklas Hjalmarsson in 2017-18. They were 11-18-5 (.397 point%) in those games and had losing streaks of five and seven games in length. They were 18-23-7 (.447) in games with Hjalmarsson.

It would be dishonest to suggest that there weren’t other factors at play coincidentally there. Of the 34 games Hjalmarsson missed, 24 were before the start of the new year, after which point the Coyotes got hot and went 20-14-7 down the stretch. Nonetheless, that disparity sure helps his case as one of the team’s most important players.

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