The Phoenix Coyotes blue line went through a major overhaul this offseason when Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton were traded to Florida as the main pieces of the Olli Jokinen trade. Going into free agency, Don Maloney was certainly going to be looking at a deep defensive crop.
However, speaking to him at the Coyotes Rookie Open House, he said that he would not be going after the big name free agents rather focusing on what he called "value" players. Guys that would be able to replace Boynton and Ballard and eat up the minutes they played and take over their role.
Maloney certainly did that this offseason. The first defenseman he signed was Kurt Sauer. Kurt is a big kid at 6'4 220 pounds and is only 27 years old. He has played with Colorado for the past few seasons where he has excelled as a shutdown defenseman.
In a great article on Hockeybuzz, Daniel Tolensky broke down the number of minutes among Colorado defensemen going up against the big offensive producers in the Western Conference. Tolensky was trying to show that the Toronto Maple Leafs had signed the wrong defenseman when they signed Jeff Finger to an outrageous contract and that they should have signed Kurt Sauer. If you don't feel like reading it, it shows that Kurt Sauer was the man out there against those big name players like Iginla, Thornton, and Sedin.
The points scored by these players on the ice against Sauer is not told but the fact that Sauer was out there for these kinds of minutes shows the kind of skill he has and the trust that the Avalanche put into him. He isn't a big point producer but he will definitely help prevent points from being scored.
The other defenseman that the Coyotes snagged was David Hale. He is another young defenseman at 27 years old who played for Calgary. While not a big point producer, Hale is a good depth defenseman who will play a safe style knowing that in his case defense is more important than offense. He is still looking for his first NHL goal. It would be nice to see him get it this year but as long as he does his job as a lower pairing defenseman I will be happy with this acquisition.
These two players join Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris, Zbynek Michalek, and Keith Yandle (maybe) on the blue line. Jovanovski finally played a full season this past year and set a career high in points with 51 (12 goals, 39 assists). He finally looked like the defenseman that the Coyotes signed to that big contract. This year he will be looking to not only improve on his point total but also provide leadership on a blue line that is relatively young with an average age of 27 when the season starts.
Derek Morris is coming into a contract year this upcoming season and will also be providing leadership as one of the alternate captains to captain Shane Doan. His defensive play improved greatly this year even though his offensive production has been better than recently. The Coyotes will be looking for that same defensive play along with a bit more offense to help stabilize the defense.
One of the most unknown yet best young blue liners in the game is Zbynek Michalek. He spent much of last year playing with Jovanovski primarily as a defensive partner rather than in an offensive role. He is a young guy who is learning how to be a solid defensive force on the blue line while also learning the offensive skills needed to become an effective puck moving defenseman. Hopefully he can move off the pairing with Jovanovski and show his abilities that he showed when playing his first few seasons with Keith Ballard, scoring 20+ points each year.
The last spot on defense is sort of a mystery. Matt Jones just signed a one way contract that could give him the spot if he can earn it. However, young defenseman Keith Yandle is certainly making a run at it. He played 43 games with Phoenix last year tallying 5 goals and 7 assists. Not much right now but he has the skills to become a very good puck mover in the NHL someday and the Coyotes are counting on him to be that considering their lack of prospect depth on defense relative to the rest of the team (Chris Summers is a name you will be hearing soon). He had some defensive lapses this past year but if he is paired with someone like David Hale who focuses on defense most of the time, then Yandle should be able to loosen up the grip on his stick and play a simpler game rather than trying to do too much at once.
The Coyotes certainly lost 2 big names on the blue line in Ballard and Boynton. Keith Ballard is a great young defenseman whose hip checks are second to none while Nick Boynton brought grit and a bit of an edge to the back end. But the additions of Sauer and Hale along with the growth of Michalek and Yandle, and the leadership of Morris and Jovanovski will be plenty to let this blue line really improve from last year and be an effective defense for the team to be supported on.
Things are really looking up in Phoenix.
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