GLENDALE -- Four days before becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time, defenseman Kevin Connauton decided he didn't want to leave the Coyotes.
"Getting the two years is nice and I'm excited to come back to a spot that is familiar," Connauton said Wednesday, after signing a two-year contract. "I own a house here in Arizona. I really enjoy my teammates here. It's a really tight-knit group of guys, ones that I get along with really well, and a first-class staff behind it all. So, I'm super fortunate to be coming back and very happy with how it all played out."
Connauton averaged just over 15 minutes per game last season and led the everyday defensemen in plus/minus at +3. Offensively, the left-handed shot scored a career-high 11 goals in 73 games, which ranked ninth on the team and third among Arizona defensemen.
"One of his gifts is he's got a great shot and he brings some offense," General Manager John Chayka said. "I think as the season went on he understood how (Head Coach) Rick Tocchet wanted him to play and he was jumping up in the rush, and as a result he had a career year."
Connauton, 28, is confident in his offensive game and believes his 11-goal season was not a fluke. However, he said he's not planning to focus on matching that feat or scoring a specific number of goals next season.
"I don't think you really want to focus on a number, per se," Connauton said. "It's more just focusing on the process, and working on it in practice and working on shooting and making plays and getting up the ice and creating as much as you can. Goals and points kind of fall into place when you're doing the right things. For myself, I always want to raise the bar each and every season, and I want to get better and better, and I want to contribute more and do whatever I can to help the team win."
Given Connauton's role as a third-pair defenseman on the Coyotes, Chayka said it's not fair to expect Connauton to match his goal production from last season.
"He's got a history of producing offense so certainly I'd say that's one of his strengths," Chayka said. "I think it's very difficult, given the minutes that he's played and his role currently with the group, to keep scoring at that rate. If he can do it, obviously it's a phenomenal accomplishment. But I don't think that can necessarily be the expectation unless he continues to grow and evolve in his role. That's a positive if that occurs."
Connauton is popular in the dressing room and has served as the team's NHL Players' Association representative the past two seasons.
"We like Kevin as a player," Chayka said. "He had a good year and he helped our group grow, and we like him a lot as a person. I think he's great in the room, he's good with the young guys and the older guys respect him. (He has) great work ethic. He lives it and he wants to be better and he wants to continue to grow, and that's the type of attitude and culture we want here."
Connauton is eager to see how he and the Coyotes play under Tocchet in his second season behind the bench, now that the newness of the situation has faded and the players are more familiar with the coaching staff.
"I think that our relationship took some really good steps last year," Connauton said. "As a group, we weren't happy at all with how we were playing, but as the season went along things kind of fell into place. The guys got a little more comfortable and guys started to get a better idea of what (Tocchet) wanted. That was when things started turning around for everyone."
With Connauton signed, the Coyotes appear set on the back end with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, and Jakob Chychrun filling out the depth chart. The competition for the seventh defenseman's job is expected to involve newcomers Ilya Lyubushkin and Robbie Russo, and minor leaguers Kyle Capobianco and Trevor Murphy.
"I think those guys give us some real depth and optionality," Chayka said. "It's going to be a competitive group whether it's for playing time up high in the lineup or just staying in the lineup. There's going to be a lot of competition and depth to it and that's a good thing. We're excited about the depth of our group on the back end."