The Phoenix Coyotes defense is solid heading into this season. Not only do I think that this sector of the team is their strongest component, I think it is one of the best and most underrated units in the league. There are nine or ten NHL-ready defenseman in the Coyotes system right now.
The Coyotes will look to roll four defensive lines during their brief training camp and the competition for the sixth and final spot will be fierce amongst as many as five people.
The top five defenseman are established NHL names. Keith Yandle, one of the Coyotes' assistant captains, leads the group. The slick passing defenseman has grown into one of the NHL's best offensive defenseman.
The 6'1", 190-pound Boston native put together a solid season last year, amassing 11 goals and 32 assists for 43 points and a plus-5 rating. Yandle's speed and intuition are his two greatest assets, and his ability to score during regular play and on special teams while staying defensively cognizant makes him very unique in today's game.
Young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson truly came into his own last season. The 6'2",190-pound defenseman has it all. He is fast and shifty, he can create with his slick passing ability, he has the ability to score goals from the blue line as well as jump into the play and his defensive play continues to get better and better.
Last season, the 21-year-old Swedish international led all Coyote defensemen in goals scored with 13, and he added 19 assists for 32 points while garnering a zero plus/minus rating. His play in all facets of the game makes him extremely important to the Coyotes defense. Don't be surprised if Ekman-Larsson is mentioned among the game's elite defensemen in the near future.
Veteran Zybnek Michalek was re-acquired from Pittsburgh for prospect Harrison Ruopp, goaltender Marc Cheverie and a 2012 third round draft pick (81st overall) in a trade that flew mostly under the radar during the off-season. The 30-year-old Michalek brings a positionally sound, stay-at-home approach to playing defense and will add to the Coyotes toughness and grit on the blue line.
He scored 2 goals and added 11 assists, finishing the season with a zero plus/minus rating last season with the Penguins. The 6'2", 210-pound defenseman is known for his willingness to sacrifice his body and is always amongst the league leaders in blocked shots.
Rugged Rostislav Klesla will be the fourth defenseman. The 6'3", 223-pound defenseman is one of the unsung heroes of this Coyotes team. His is the most responsible defenseman on the team, posting a plus-12 rating last season. His physical play against some of the league's best offensive players has endeared him to Coyotes fans.
He contributes offensively as well. His three goals and 10 assists for 13 points last season were a benefit to the squad, but Klesla is at his best when a game gets downright mean and physical. The team's play suffered when he went down with an injury last season, as he missed 65 games in the 2012 campaign, and his health is extremely important to the Coyotes success this season.
Veteran Derek Morris will occupy the fifth defensive position. The 34-year-old Morris is in his 17th year in the NHL, and while he is not the offensive threat that he used to be, Morris still provides the Coyotes with some veteran experience on the blue line.
Last season, the 6'0", 216-pound Morris dealt with a number of injuries that prevented him from playing his best. His two goals and 11 assists over 59 games are amongst the worst of his career. His minus-12 plus/minus rating is also worrying, but given his high level of play in his career when he is healthy, he gets the benefit of the doubt.
The sixth defenseman spot is up for grabs. There are as many as five defenseman who could win the job. David Schlemko, Michael Stone, David Rundblad, Chris Summers and Brandon Gormley all have a chance to win the job.
Schlemko might have the inside track on the sixth and final spot. The 6'1",196-pound defenseman put up some impressive numbers at the Junior level with Medicine Hat (WHL), averaging almost 44 points a season from 2004-2007. In the NHL, his game is more of the stay-at-home variety. He is a solid defender who uses his intelligence and positioning to be effective.
The 25-year-old Schlemko is also more confident at moving the puck out of his own zone and starting the Coyotes' transition game. He has some NHL experience, playing in over 100 games with the Coyotes organization over the last three seasons. He is coming off of an injury-plagued season (foot surgery) that limited him to 46 games in which he had one goal and 11 points.
Michael Stone was very impressive when he was called up throughout the season, earning a plus-7 rating over 13 games with the Coyotes. His game translated into more of a stay-at-home variety at the NHL level. He is a skilled puck-mover and plays physical when necessary.
In the minors, the 6'3", 207-pound defenseman has shown a different side to his game, putting up great offensive numbers. From 2008-2010, Stone averaged 63 points a season at the Junior level with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. He has been playing very well in Portland (AHL) during the lockout. Through 30 games, he has scored five goals and amassed 15 assists for 20 points and a plus-2 plus/minus rating.
Rundblad is an extremely talented offensive defenseman that the Coyotes acquired in a trade last year with Ottawa. The 6'2", 190-pound defenseman is quick on his skates, moves the puck well and has a good shot from the point, which could help the Coyotes power play. At 21, he plays with good poise for his age, and he has good size and strength for his position.
Still, Rundblad's youth and inexperience work against him as a defender. While he contributes offensively, he hurts his team on defense by being out of position and being too aggressive. Combining his minor and NHL statistics from the last year, he was a minus-30. His game has developed this season in Portland (AHL). Through 31 games, his offense is solid, scoring 6 times and notching 16 assists, but more impressive is his plus/minus rating of zero. If he becomes more defensively sound, he could have a long future in Phoenix.
Chris Summers has had a couple of slightly disappointing seasons considering the expectations that were placed on him. The former first-round draft pick was a rock on the back line for the University of Michigan from 2006-2010, but his game has not translated to the NHL level as expected. He has struggled to stick at the NHL level and his statistics at the AHL level over the past two seasons (12 points in 103 games) are nothing to get excited about. This season in Portland (AHL), not much has changed, as he has five points and a minus-2 plus/minus rating, making him a long shot to make the NHL this season.
The 20-year-old Brandon Gormley is the most highly-touted of all of these young defensemen. He is ultra-talented and has the potential to excel in all aspects of the game. The 6'1", 205-pound defenseman has great hands, good vision, a strong build and the ability to play physically. He's not afraid to hit and does not shy away from contact.
His offensive potential is what excites many prognosticators, but his ability to be rock-solid in his own end will allow him to become a top-four defenseman in this league someday.
His 41 points in 42 games with Moncton and Shawnigan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League helped convince the Coyotes to draft him in the first round in 2010. In his first professional season, Gormley has been playing in Portland and has acquitted himself well. He has amassed nine points on three goals and six assists through 30 games.