A quick glance at the Western Conference standings shows the Phoenix Coyotes as one of the stronger teams out of the gate.
Some point to a new confidence generated by stable ownership. Others mention the coaching acumen of Dave Tippett for success and some cite general manager Don Maloney for putting players in place to produce in key situations.
The resurgence of captain Shane Doan, as well, cannot be minimized and goalie Mike Smith continues to keep the Coyotes in games with stellar efforts.
Perhaps the biggest factor for the Coyotes success through the first month of the season is the play and production from the blue line.
Clearly, the emergence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and elevation of his game has turned heads.
Coming into the Coyotes’ home game with Tampa Bay this Saturday, Ekman-Larsson is third among defensemen in scoring and only the Senators’ Erik Karlsson (18) and P. K. Stubben of Montreal (17) have more scoring points. In 20 games to date, the 22-year-old native of Karlskrona, Sweden has four goals and 12 assists for 16 points.
If Ekman-Larsson remains a threat with the puck, he’s only complemented by teammate Keith Yandle.
An offensive-minded defenseman, Yandle has changed his approach this season and concentrates on a greater defensive approach. Still, the native of Boston, and huge Red Sox fan, leads all NHL defensemen in assists with 15, and that’s coming into play Saturday.
“We’re fortunate to have such a great group back there,” Doan said. “Guys like Ekman-Larsson and Yandle tend to get all the ink, but there is a solid corps. Even a guy like David Rundblad, who’s trying to earn minutes here, could be a starter on a number of teams.”
To balance the play of Yandle and Ekman-Larsson, Doan identified important contributors from the blue line, including Zbynek Michalek, David Schlemko, Rostislav Klesla, Michael Stone and Derek Morris.
For his part, Morris was enjoying perhaps the best year in this 16-year NHL career.
Before he went down with a lower back injury during a game against Vancouver on November 5, the 36-year-old native of Edmonton scored four goals and was credited with 10 points. At the time of his injury, that was good enough to be among top scoring defensemen.
Coming into play Saturday, only Torey Krug of Boston (six), Karlsson (six), and Dan Boyle of San Jose (five) have scored more. Morris is tied with four others, including teammate Ekman-Larsson, with those four goals.
“We believe we can contribute,” Morris said of the defensemen. “We have a lot of depth and everyone is contributing. There are guys who played here together for a long time and it’s a good corps.”
Morris then points to a critical reason why defensemen have been able to jump into plays and make things happen.
“The forwards are doing an excellent job of forechecking,” he added. “We’re getting more chances in the opposing end and we, as defensemen, can hang back and control the blue line. Most important, we believe in ourselves.”
While discussion may be early, the Coyotes could have two Olympians coming from the blue line.
Yandle has a more-than-even shot to skate for the United States in Sochi, and Ekman-Larsson should be a stable for Team Sweden.
After the Winter Games, the NHL enters the stretch drive and, at this point, the Coyotes’ fortunes in both the Western Conference and Stanley Cup playoffs could depend on play from the blue line.