Last week, in the first part of our Arizona Coyotes season preview here at THW, we took a look at the franchise’s young group of forwards. Since beginning their current rebuild a handful of years ago, the team’s front office has done an outstanding job of scouting and drafting forwards; former general manager Don Maloney was responsible for drafting and acquiring young players such as Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Christian Dvorak, Dylan Strome, and others, and has set the Coyotes up for offensive success for the foreseeable future.
However, despite his stellar work with the forward group, the same can’t be said for his efforts with the defense and goaltending positions. Outside of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Maloney struggled to draft or develop high-end defensemen during his tenure and was also responsible for the albatross of a contract that goaltender Mike Smith received on the merit of his performance in the 2012 postseason rather than for his overall career body of work up to that point.
Last summer, John Chayka was hired to turn things around after Maloney was relieved of his duties, and he immediately took steps toward rebuilding the franchise’s defense corps, as he added Alex Goligoski and Luke Schenn via trade and free agency, respectively, and traded up to select Jakob Chychrun at the draft. This summer, there was more of the same, as the 28-year-old GM continued to work to find a solution for the team’s recent defensive issues. Let’s take a look at some of the changes that were made:
- D Niklas Hjalmarsson (acquired from CHI)
- D Jason Demers (acquired from FLA)
- D Adam Clendening (signed as a free agent)
- G Antti Raanta (acquired from NYR)
- D Connor Murphy (traded to CHI)
- D Tony DeAngelo (traded to NYR)
- D Zbynek Michalek (free agency)
- G Mike Smith (traded to CGY)
Projected Defense Pairings
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Alex Goligoski – Jason Demers
Kevin Connauton – Luke Schenn
Extra: Adam Clendening
Note: Jakob Chychrun will miss the start of the season with a knee injury.
Ekman-Larsson, Hjalmarsson Form Solid Top Pairing
Although it’s been an offseason full of change in Arizona, one constant has remained: the presence of all-world defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. A Coyote since the 2010-11 season, Ekman-Larsson is now the longest-tenured player on Arizona’s roster and is the presumed frontrunner for the team’s captaincy, left vacant by the retirement of Shane Doan last month.
Ekman-Larsson enters the 2017-18 season fresh off of another solid offensive campaign. He was slowed slightly in 2016-17 by a thumb injury, but the ailment didn’t stop him from recording his fourth consecutive season with 35 or more points. He also lit the lamp 12 times last year and has scored a total of 56 goals over the last three seasons, which ranks him second behind only reigning Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns among defensemen in the NHL.
The statistics don’t lie, ‘OEL’ is arguably one of the league’s top five blueliners, and, at just 26 years of age, he’ll continue to get better as he gains more experience in the league. The man who will presumably be joining Ekman-Larsson on Arizona’s top defense pairing this season will be Niklas Hjalmarsson. Acquired over the offseason in the deal that sent Connor Murphy to the Windy City, Hjalmarsson brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table. He’s won three Stanley Cups as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks and will bring a shutdown style of play to the Coyotes.
Hjalmarsson also figures to ease some of the penalty-killing burden off Arizona’s other defensemen – he led all Blackhawks skaters in shorthanded time on ice last season and likely will do the same in Arizona this season. And, judging from the Coyotes’ recent history on the penalty kill, they could use Hjalmarsson’s help, as they’ve killed penalties at a league-worst rate of 77.9% over the last five seasons.
Overall, the former Swedish Olympic teammates should form a solid d-pairing this season with the defensive-minded Hjalmarsson helping to clean up some of the team’s mistakes while the offensive-minded Ekman-Larsson is free to jump into the play much more often. Look for Ekman-Larsson to put himself squarely in the Norris Trophy discussion in 2017-18.
Demers Joins D-Corps
While the acquisition of Hjalmarsson went a long way toward solving Arizona’s defensive deficiencies, Chayka went a step further on Sept. 17 and acquired Jason Demers from the Florida Panthers. Demers, like Hjalmarsson, also will bring quite a bit of experience to a young Coyotes roster. He’s played in 504 NHL games since breaking into the league in 2009 and will give head coach Rick Tocchet another veteran option to turn to on his blue line.
Demers, an eight-year NHL veteran, will likely play on the right side alongside Alex Goligoski his season. With Jakob Chychrun out indefinitely as he recovers from knee surgery, the Coyotes appeared to be weaker on the right side entering training camp, but Chayka immediately took steps to rectify this potential weakness with the acquisition of Demers.
Similarly to Hjalmarsson, Demers also figures to play an important role on Arizona’s penalty-killing unit this season. Florida finished second in the league in penalty kill percentage in 2016-17 and Demers was on the ice for nearly two shorthanded minutes per game last year in Sunrise, suggesting that he had a hand in their success. Also joining Demers in Arizona is former Panthers assistant Scott Allen – he’ll be in charge of the Coyotes’ penalty kill unit, and, with Demers and Hjalmarsson now at his disposal, he should be able to get things headed in the right direction in Arizona.
Goligoski Settles In
When Alex Goligoski signed a five-year, $27.375 million contract with the Coyotes last summer, expectations for him were sky high. Having averaged 38 points per season during his previous three campaigns in Dallas, Goligoski was expected to form the second half of a one-two punch with Ekman-Larsson on the left side of Arizona’s defense corps.
By the end of January, though, it looked as if the signing was blowing up in Chayka’s face. Through Jan. 31, Goligoski had recorded just one goal, 14 assists, and was a minus-10 rating in 49 games and had not resembled the player he was in Dallas in 2015-16 when he finished seventh in scoring on a deep Stars offense.
However, Goligoski turned things on as the year wound down and showed that he was indeed worth the money he received last summer – he picked up 21 points over his final 33 games and finished the year as one of Arizona’s more dangerous offensive weapons. Now, with a full season in Arizona under his belt, Goligoski will undoubtedly be looking to take another step forward in 2017-18.
He’ll likely be playing with Demers on the second pairing, and, presumably, won’t see as much penalty kill time due to the Coyotes’ newfound depth on the blue line. Goligoski led all Coyotes defensemen in shorthanded time on ice in 2016-17, so a reduction in those duties would surely lead to more offensive opportunities for the 32-year-old this season. If Goligoski is able to pick up where he left off in April and continues recording points at a high rate, the Coyotes could boast one of the Western Conference’s deepest defensive groups this season.
Smith Out, Raanta In
In addition to the moves that were made to shore up the blue line, the Coyotes also made big changes at the goaltending position over the summer, as they sent longtime starter Mike Smith to the Calgary Flames on June 17 and brought in Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers on June 23. Although Raanta has never been a full-time starter at the NHL level, he has managed to build up an impressive resume during just four NHL seasons. He boasts a record of 47-23-9 over 78 career starts with a career save percentage of .917 and a goals-against-average of 2.32.
Despite having far less experience than Smith, Raanta should be an upgrade in goal. Since he broke into the league during the 2013-14 season, Raanta has, statistically, been the better goaltender. At even strength, both goaltenders have been solid – they posted identical .922 even-strength save percentages over the last four seasons, suggesting that there won’t be any drop-off between the veteran Smith and the younger Raanta when the Coyotes are playing at 5-on-5.
However, when it comes to special teams, Raanta has been far superior. Among goaltenders with at least 50 appearances since the start of the 2013-14 season, Smith ranks 47th (out of 68 players) with a shorthanded save percentage of .866. On the other hand, Raanta ranks 24th with a .882 SV% while his team is shorthanded, suggesting that he could have a hand in improving Arizona’s dismal PK numbers.
The story is the same on the power play: Smith has allowed 17 shorthanded goals on 155 shots (.890 SV%) over the last four seasons, while Raanta has stopped 53 of the 55 (.964 SV%) shorthanded shots he’s seen during the same timeframe. Shorthanded goals have been a major issue for the Coyotes of late, but it appears as if Raanta will be able to help improve that area in 2017-18.
Although Raanta has been a backup for the entirety of his career, and his numbers, admittedly, come from a much smaller sample size, the early returns from his career suggest that he’s more than capable of becoming a solid, NHL-caliber starting goaltender for the Coyotes.
Domingue Looks to Stay Hot
The first four months of the 2016-17 season couldn’t have gone any worse for Louis Domingue. The 25-year-old netminder received an early chance to be the starter in Arizona when Smith went down with an injury on Oct. 18, but he struggled badly in this capacity. He won just four times in 12 appearances during Smith’s month-long absence and put up a dismal .899 SV% over that span.
After Smith’s return, Domingue’s workload was reduced but things continued to go downhill for him, as he posted a 1-6-1 record and a .886 SV% in 11 appearances from Nov. 17 through Feb. 24. It was looking like the 2016-17 season would be a lost one but he was able to straighten things out down the stretch. From Feb. 26 through the end of the season, Domingue won six times and posted a stellar .940 SV% in eight appearances. If the fourth-year pro is able to carry that level of success over to 2017-18, he very well could earn more work in goal this season.
Overall, the Coyotes made some solid moves over the offseason to shore up what has been a porous defense by acquiring two solid NHL veteran defensemen in Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers, and also brought in one of the league’s better goaltenders in Antti Raanta. General manager John Chayka did his very best to turn his team’s weaknesses into strengths over the summer, and we’ll soon find out if his offseason moves will pay off.
A lifelong Phoenix resident, Louis has been following hockey since 2010, has covered the Arizona Coyotes since 2015, and has been playing hockey since 2020. So far, Louis has visited eight NHL cities, and one of his personal goals is to eventually make it to all 31 NHL arenas. For any questions or concerns, contact the writer via Twitter @LouisPannone.