Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
The Phoenix Coyotes bulked up their blue line on Monday, trading Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto in exchange for defenseman Rostislav Klesla from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Klesla has been a disappointment in his long career with the Blue Jackets, never living up to expectations after being the first player picked by the Jackets in the NHL Entry Draft in 2000. He is a decent big-bodied guy at 6’3″ 220 pounds, but he has been made expendable this season by the emergence of defensemen like Grant Clitsome and Marc Methot.
Coming back to Columbus is a forward in Upshall who hasn’t re-found the form that he displayed last season when he first arrived in Phoenix. He scored 18 goals in 49 games for the Coyotes before going down with a knee injury that ended his season. This year he has scored 16 goals and picked up 11 assists in 61 games for the Coyotes, and he has largely been a disappointment for the club.
Also headed to the Jackets is Lepisto, who is more of a stay-at-home guy and doesn’t really assert himself on the offensive side of the puck, only taking 31 shots in 51 games so far this season for Phoenix. He has scored four goals and seven assists, but his real asset has been his ability to play effective defense while getting 16:38 of ice time per game.
Looking at the trade from Phoenix’s perspective, it is interesting that they elected to take on salary when they have been so adamant about not doing so throughout their ownership transition in recent years. Klesla has the Coyotes on the hook for the next three seasons at an annual cap hit of nearly $3 million, and with his injury concerns that have popped up in the past, this could be a big risk that Phoenix is taking.
The main reason for acquiring Klesla is that the team has been lacking a guy who can play big time minutes ever since Zbynek Michalek departed via free agency in the off-season. The Coyotes have tried various defense pairings over the course of the season, but with Klesla in the fold they may finally have their answer in that department.
Another potential reason that Phoenix pulled the trigger on this trade is the impending free agency of Upshall. Last off-season, Phoenix gambled that they would be able to bring back Michalek and Matthew Lombardi with new contracts, but both players ended up leaving town to Pittsburgh and Nashville respectively. The notion of getting nothing for a decent asset probably did not sit well with Don Maloney, and so he picked up a guy who he thought could help the team in the future.
As for Columbus, the deal represents a good step forward for them. Shedding Klesla seemed to be a priority of Scott Howson’s, and he was able to do that while getting back a decent return on a difficult contract to move. Upshall is going to bring some veteran leadership out on the wing, and getting a guy like Lepisto may not be the biggest move possible, but it definitely adds to their stable of talented young defensemen.
This trade seems at first blush to be one of those moves that has potentially great benefits from both teams. The Coyotes are getting a guy who could potentially be a mainstay on their blue line for at least the next three years, and the Jackets got a couple of solid short-term assets in Upshall and Lepisto. Both teams solidified in areas that could help them come playoff time, and it will be interesting to see how these moves work out both this year and beyond.
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