The Curious Case of the Coyotes Defensive Depth

Your eyes do not deceive you, the cover picture for this post is Luke Schenn. Why? Luke Schenn is the top Right-Handed defenseman on the Arizona Coyotes depth chart.  Let that one sink in.

At this point in the dark NHL offseason, there are plenty of things to ponder about the upcoming season.  The Coyotes have made notable changes this off-season, including bringing in: a new coaching staff, a new starting goaltender, a new #1 center, and a new top-pairing defenseman.  With all these changes the goaltending and forward groups seem to be shaping up nicely.  However, even with the addition of Niklas Hjalmarsson, the defense is in as turbulent state as it’s ever been.

First, lets look at NHL defensemen for the Coyotes for the upcoming season.

Returning Defensemen:

Jakob Chychrun: The then-18 year old defenseman who fell all the way to 16th overall made a lot of teams look silly for passing on him in the 2016 draft.  As an 18 year old, Chychrun did everything he needed to do to make the Coyotes’ opening night roster.  Then, he continued to prove he belonged in the best league in the world, despite his age; as he eventually secured a full time roster spot.  He never looked back, putting together a remarkable rookie season for the youngest defenseman in the NHL.  Unfortunately, Chychrun underwent knee surgery on August 3rd following an injury received from training.  The 19 year old defenseman will be out indefinitely, which is bad news for the Coyotes.  The gravity of his loss is another example of how talented this player is and will be.  This injury and a couple articles on the issue by Craig Morgan and Catherine Silverman were the inspiration for this piece.

Additionally: Chychrun is an unnatural physical freak of a human being, so it isn’t hard to imagine he will recover ahead of schedule.

 

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: An entire piece could be written about how OEL will bounce back from a rough year that included a broken thumb and the extremely unfortunate and untimely death of his mother from a battle with cancer.   OEL is rumored to be the next Arizona Coyotes captain, following the tumultuous break-up from Shane Doan.  To keep it simple, OEL is going to come back and take this entire team on his back as he continues to grow into one of the best defensemen in the NHL.  OEL finished last season with 12G-27A-39P in 79 games played, which even in for a “down year” is pretty impressive.

 

Alex Goligoski: Goligoski was often a whipping boy for Coyotes fans in the 2016-17 season.  One of the top Free Agents a year ago, Goligoski had an “underwhelming” season to many fans.  As far as the Coyotes are concerned, they shouldn’t be worried in the slightest about Goligoski.  He has averaged 34 points a season through 9 full seasons (playing at least 40 games), and finished with 36 points in his first year in Arizona.  This point total is particularly impressive, considering most of those previous seasons were with two high scoring teams: Dallas and Pittsburg.  A quick look at the rosters from those teams over that time, compared to the 2016-17 Coyotes is pretty telling.  Defensively, he wasn’t great; however, he came as advertised.  Goligoski was not signed to be a shut-down player, and he is going to continue to fill his role nicely.

Luke Schenn: Luke Schenn, the former 5th overall pick from 2008, is still underwhelming.  Luke Schenn, the Arizona Coyotes big and scrappy right handed defenseman (RHD) is poised to have a great 2017-18 NHL season.  That, of course, depends on where he slots into the lineup.  As a top pairing defenseman playing with OEL and against top talent in the NHL, he would be picked apart (again).   As a third pairing RD, he could be incredibly valuable to the Coyotes.  There is clear issue with RHD depth in the Coyotes system (which will be addressed later), so there will probably be times Schenn is forced into a role he cannot fill.  In a perfect world, Luke Schenn would be on the third pairing for the Coyotes and would fill that role perfectly.  Time will tell where Schenn lands, but with the addition of Hjalmarsson, it seems he will be in a more appropriate role during the 2017-18 season.

Kevin Connauton: With the emergence of Chychrun, Connauton was relegated to the Coyotes 7th defenseman role.  With the injury to Chychrun, he is the most likely to fill the void left by Chychrun’s potential absence.  Connauton has only played 92 NHL games between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.  He fills the role of 7th defenseman well, and there is no reason to think he will not step up in Chychrun’s absence and be a viable option for the Coyotes blueline.

The New Guys:

Adam Clendening: With a big absence of right handed defensemen in Arizona’s system, it finally appears Adam Clendening will get a shot to be a full-time NHL player.  With limited NHL playing time, it is hard to gauge just how Clendening will perform with a full schedule. Check out this great article from Five for Howling on what to expect from a guy that is going from 81 career NHL games to a potential full-time role.

Niklas Hjalmarsson: Although not the flashiest trade John Chyaka may have made this summer, this may just turn out to be one of the most important moves the Coyotes have made in years.  Despite his emergence as one of the best defensemen in the NHL, the Coyotes have not been able to find a compatible partner for Ekman-Larsson.  That changes with this move.  Although he is left handed, Hjalmarsson may just be one of the best compliments for OEL in the NHL, and they are now (re)united in Arizona.  Check out this gem from before the World Cup by Second City Hockey with quotes from OEL and Hjalmarsson about playing with each other.  This pairing should excite Coyotes and Swedish fans everywhere.

The (Obvious) Problem with the Coyotes Defensive Depth:

NHL Defensemen
LHD RHD
Oliver Ekman-Larsson Luke Schenn
Niklas Hjalmarsson Adam Clendening
Alex Goligoski
Jakob Chychrun (Injured)
Kevin Connauton
Depth
LHD RHD
Andrew Campbell Kyle Wood
Kyle Capobianco Dysin Mayo
Jalen Smereck
Joel Hanley
Dakota Mermis
Cam Dineen

It doesn’t take an expert to see an obvious issue with the Coyote’s Defensive Depth.  Of  the 15 current signed defensemen, there are only four RHD in the system.   The right sides of this table gets even more troublesome when one takes into account that Dysin Mayo split time between the AHL and ECHL last season, indicating he is not even remotely close to being able to step up to the NHL.  Kyle Wood had a great rookie professional season in 2016-17, being named the AHL Rookie of the Month in October.  However, it seems very unlikely he gets extended time up with the Coyotes during the 2017-18 season.

Hjalmarsson will play on his off-side with OEL, and even with the injury to Chychrun, the NHL club seems set with NHL defensemen.  However, by nature of the sport, there will be times this upcoming season that the Coyotes will be playing through injuries.

If the injury occurs on the left side, there are a couple options for the Coyotes.  Andrew Campbell has played 42 NHL games between the Los Angeles Kings, Arizona Coyotes, and Toronto Maple Leafs.  He is a proven AHL caliber player, but his game is probably not suited for extended time in the NHL.  Outside of Campbell, Joel Hanley is the only other defensemen in the system with NHL experience (17 games).  Kyle Capobianco is a potential star offensive defenseman in the making, but this upcoming season will be his first full year playing professionally.  Capobianco, according to his uncle (and former professional goaltender) Randy Exelby, Ekman-Larsson is one of Capobianco’s biggest inspirations as a player. This shows in how he plays, and it will be interesting to see how the most recent Sudbury Wolves captain translates into the pro game. Another player that will be joining Capobianco as a rookie in the AHL is Jalen Smereck.  Smereck was Mr. Irrelevant of the 2013 OHL entry draft, taken at #299 overall by the Oshawa Generals.  He went undrafted in the NHL but caught the eyes of Coyotes management after a quiet but impressive Prospect Camp invite in 2016.  He was invited back for rookie camp and stuck around for main camp and even played a preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings.   He was cut shortly after, but made such an impression the Coyotes signed him to an Entry-Level contract.  Five for Howling’s Rose Ford recently wrote a great piece about Smereck.  The likelihood of either Capobianco or Smereck getting any NHL ice time this season seems unlikely, and unless there are some major injuries with the NHL club, these two would be best served growing in the AHL.

The biggest issue the Coyotes could run into this season is if any of Hjalmarsson, Schenn, or Clendening are out for any extended period of time.  It is very rare (Hjalmarsson is one of the few) for LHD to play RD on a consistent basis in the NHL, and there is no way indication Kyle Wood is ready to be a full-time NHL player, yet.  If any RD player goes down, or worse, an injury bug plagues the RD for the Coyotes, the defense could be in big trouble.

There is still time and options available in Free Agency (Cody Franson, anyone?) or through Professional Tryouts for the Coyotes to add more RHD depth before the season starts, but things could get really interesting on the blueline for the Arizona Coyotes in 2017-18.

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