If the principal issue for the Arizona Coyotes in the off-season was to eliminate pucks flying into their net, general manager John Chayka, and other decision-makers, took steps to address this concern.
That meant shoring up the blue line, allowing for greater puck movement around the Arizona net, make sure the puck was moved swiftly and, cleared from their end with purpose. To address the need, the Coyotes signed free agents Alex Goligoski, Luke Schenn, Jaime McBain, acquired Anthony DeAngelo all in the recent off-season, and signed Kevin Connauton, picked up last season from Columbus, to a two-deal worth a reported $2 million.
All of which created depth at the blue line. With the wealth of talent, comes decisions.
“We’ll get this thing straighten out,” promised coach Dave Tippett. “We have some injured players and a decision whether they will open the season will dictate who’s here.”
When veteran camp opened, the Coyotes had nine players listed as defensemen, and that amount acted as a buffer between the porous past and hope for the future. With the Coyotes down the mandatory 23 players on Tuesday, the blue line population was paired.
The essential six defensemen on the Coyotes’ Mount Rushmore would be Oliver Ekman Larsson, Connor Murphy, Michael Stone, Goligoski, Schenn and Connauton. By the cut-down date of Tuesday, decisions were made with McBain and DeAngelo to send these blue liners to AHL Tucson, and Jarred Tinordi will serve the remaining four games of a suspension held over from last season. He was cited for violating terms of the NHL-NHLPA agreement involving performance-enhancing substances.
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Both Stone (recovery from a torn ACL suffered in a game late last season against the Flyers) and Connauton (an injured right knee in pre-camp informal workouts) are out of this Saturday’s contest with the Flyers. That’s when the Coyotes open their season. Announcing the opening day roster, defensemen McBain and Jakob Chychrun will both be on the 23-man roster. Waived earlier this week, Zbynek Michalek was brought back for insurance.
Going forward, Tippett, Chayka and others feel comfortable with their blue line contingent. The key part appears to be the addition of Goligoski, whom Tippett likes for experience, communication and production.
Having finished the pre-season at 5-3, the key element for Arizona will be the ability to transition success into the regular season. That opportunity happens commences with the season opener.
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“We know it’s game time now,” said Murphy. “There is a great group here, and all character guys. The key for us to be consistent.”
From a coaching standpoint, Tippett put in a structure and a created the kind of discipline needed to energize a strong confidence level among his players.
“We need to build on what we did,” Tippett said. “There’s a structure here, and players are pushing players for jobs and playing time.”
Between the pipes, goalie Mike Smith played well in the pre-season, and is coming off a season where he went 15-13-2, three shutouts and a 2.63 GA. He recovered from a core muscle injury that required surgery, and kept the veteran net-minder out for four months. With a rejuvenated posture, Smith appears ready to tackle the task ahead.
For now, the Coyotes hope to shake the failure of the recent seasons, grab a new breath of energy and accept the challenge of playing in the one of the most competitive divisions in the NHL.
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.