By Mitch Brandner, Staff Writer | Follow him on Twitter
Last season the Phoenix Coyotes finished with a total of 204 goals against. This was good for 7th in the league and 5th in the Western Conference. In the playoffs the Coyotes we behind only Los Angeles and Nashville in goals against per game, further proving that they were one of the best defensive teams in the NHL.
That was due in large part to Dave Tippett’s tight checking system and Mike Smith’s stellar goaltending. With that said, the Coyotes were still outscored 14-8 in the Western Conference finals. Allowing 2.8 goals per game is not terrible by any means, but when your team struggles to score a lot of goals, it makes it difficult to win hockey games.
Adding scoring to your roster in the offseason is no easy task. Goal scorers demand top dollars, and teams that will trade goal scorers are looking for huge returns. So far this offseason Maloney has not gutted the prospect cupboard in order to add more scoring. What he has done however, is brought in arguably one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL in Zbynek Michalek. Adding him to a team that already had a top 10 defense core and the Coyotes are looking like they may have the best in the league this upcoming season.
Zbynek Michalek is the definition of a defensive defenseman. He doesn’t put up a lot of points, but he will block a ton of shots and he’s an excellent penalty killer. Over the past three years Michalek has ranked 30th or higher in blocked shots, despite missing 39 games over the course of those 3 seasons. If he’s paired with Oliver Ekman-Larsson (which seems to be the plan) they have the potential to be one of the best pairings in the league.
The second pairing will most likely be Keith Yandle and Derek Morris. Keith Yandle is one of the best offensive defenseman in the game today. He put up 43 points this past year, and 59 the year before. He’s got an excellent first pass out of the zone and has a great ability to quarterback the powerplay. On the other side, Derek Morris is a stay-at-home defenseman. He struggled early on last year and eventually had to take a leave of absence to deal with personal issues. When he returned, however, he played more like he did in 2010-2011. He was throwing his weight around, blocking shots, and shutting down opposing players. If both of these players are on their game, this pairing can be as lethal as Michalek and Ekman-Larsson.
The third and final pairing still has some question marks heading into training camp. Rusty Klesla will obviously be the rock of the pairing, and his ability to kill penalties is outstanding. His partner, however, has yet to be decided. As of now it looks like it will be a four horse race between Schlemko, Stone, Summers, and Rundblad. Each of these players brings something different to the table. Stone and Summers are more defensive minded whereas Rundblad and Schlemko are more offensive defensemen. Schlemko was phenomenal last year until he got hurt. After his injury he never seemed to find his groove again. Stone played a few games in the playoffs and didn’t look out of place. He doesn’t really stand out when he plays; he just quietly does his job. Summers is like a younger version of Michalek, just not as refined. The most interesting of the group is Rundblad. His offensive ability is off the charts. If he can work on the defensive aspect of his game to a point where Dave Tippett can trust him to hold his own in the defensive end, he has the potential to become a game changer.
When you compare this defense core to others around the league, there aren’t many that come close. The Coyotes may have trouble scoring goals this year, but they definitely will not have a problem keeping the puck out of their own net. Barring any substantial injuries, the Coyotes could be a real treat to watch if you enjoy solid, defensive hockey.