Is there anything better than the National Hockey League Playoffs? After a four-and-a-half month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it looks as though the puck will drop on an expanded, 24-team postseason in just under two weeks’ time. The Arizona Coyotes are among the teams vying for a shot at Lord Stanley’s mug. Standing in their way, at least for the time being, is the Nashville Predators.
The Coyotes have their fair share of game-changers even though they typically fly under the radar. Nonetheless, these players have enjoyed solid campaigns and are poised to make a big impact this summer. Who are these difference-makers and what do they have in store for the hockey world this summer? Let’s read on and find out.
Does any defenseman in the NHL fly under the radar more than Coyotes stopper, Niklas Hjalmarsson? Despite appearing in only 27 games this season, he is one of the few members on the roster with vast playoff (and Stanley Cup) experience.
After winning three Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks, he was traded to Arizona as a “cap casualty.” His wealth of experience also earned him the “A” as an alternate captain in the desert. An integral piece on those superb Chicago teams over 10 seasons, the Coyotes are very lucky to have him. When we speak about going to war in the NHL Playoffs, look no further than the 6-foot-3 Swedish defenseman who’s seen it all.
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Hjalmarsson is a defensive-minded blueliner who can eat minutes and lineup against the best players. This season, he averaged 18:45 of ice time and played a sound game in his own end. His 45 blocked shots, 20 hits, and 11 takeaways are impressive for someone who only played 27 games due to injury.
I have always admired Hjalmarsson’s game because he’s a winner, an excellent teammate, and a selfless player who leaves it all on the ice. A healthy Hjalmarsson is excellent news for the Coyotes. Head coach Rick Tocchet will lean on him for long, hard minutes when the puck drops in early August.
This season saw centerman Nick Schmaltz develop into one of Arizona’s most reliable players. He was also the team’s top scorer with 45 points (11 goals, 34 assists). Schmaltz has quickly evolved into a trustworthy and consistent performer, who leads by example and plays the game the right way each and every night. He’s also emerged as a leader both on and off the ice which is something young players can learn from.
After trading for Schmaltz in a deal that sent Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome to the Blackhawks, Coyotes general manager John Chayka raised a few eyebrows when he inked Schmaltz to a lucrative seven-year, $40.95 million contract extension in March 2019. However, that deal now looks like one of Chayka’s best moves when you factor in Schmaltz’s on-ice creativity, high-skill level, and all that he brings to the organization.
He enters the play-in series against Nashville as one of Arizona’s most important players. Not only is he an exceptional offensive talent, but he’s also a confident and intelligent player with a keen awareness for the defensive side of the game.
Against the high flying Preds and their potent offense, Schmaltz will play a massive role as he tries to shut down the Predators’ Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, and Ryan Johansen. In addition to his scoring accolades, he finished the year with 35 blocked shots and 52 takeaways with an average of 15:32 of ice time per game. He will have to be at the top of his game if the Coyotes are to get past the high-octane Preds.
It’s taken a few years, but Jakob Chychrun has become a staple on the Arizona blue line with his physical play, high hockey-IQ, puck-moving skills, and ability to create offense. He will be heavily relied upon to stymie Nashville’s talented forwards. After looking at his body of work in 2019-20, he’s up to the challenge.
This season, Chychrun set career highs in goals (12), points (26), plus/minus (plus-four), and ice time (22:26) despite missing time with injury. At the age of 22, he is a player who’s game is really starting to round into form. He can shoot, skate, defend, log big minutes, put up points, and play a physically dominant game that has become a hallmark of Arizona’s style under Tocchet.
Alongside stud defenseman and captain, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the two have formed one of the most underrated one-two punches in the NHL. I love where Chychrun’s game is because he has all the makings of a good top-end defenseman with tremendous upside. Look for him to play a vital role in the playoffs.
Coyotes vs. Predators: A Scintillating Encounter
The Coyotes-Predators series has the makings of an instant classic with game-breakers aplenty on both sides. As in all playoff rounds, the best players will need to be at the very top of their game if either team wants to advance. The Coyotes, who have ascribed to the notion of “scoring by committee” all season, will rely on their “team-first” mantra, and timely scoring if they are to prevail. The one-two tandem in goal of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta will also be crucial.
Hjalmarsson, Schmaltz, and Chychrun each bring specific and valuable skillsets that should place the Coyotes in good stead against Nashville. When it comes to the Stanely Cup Playoffs, we all know that talent only takes you so far. You need wit, hard-work, attention to detail, and commitment to go on a deep run. As we move closer to the end of training camp 2.0, these three players and the young Coyotes will be ready to rock. Hockey in the desert is back, ladies and gentlemen!