Photo Credit: Norm Hall & Getty Images
This summer, Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Michael Barnett had a clear goal in mind, to improve the defensive unit with skill and toughness. As the Coyotes prepare for the start of training camp, it is clear that Barnett has not just improved the blueline, he has built one of the best overall defensive units in the league.
Last season the Coyotes saw the emergence of rookies Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek. The pair put on an impressive first-year performance culminating with both finishing in the top-11 among all rookie defensemen in scoring and in the top-10 in minutes-per-game.
Defenseman Dennis Seidenberg was also solidifying his own reputation as a solid two-way player as the two-time Olympian (Germany) finished the season with career highs in games played (63), assists (15), points (18), power-play goals (2) and power-play assists (7).
While the Coyotes were reaping unexpected benefits from the play of Ballard and Michalek, they were also suffering through a serious ankle injury to Derek Morris that kept the former first-round draft choice out of the lineup for 29 games on the year. As a result, the young defensive unit was shouldering a heavier burden and the need for increased depth was becoming more evident.
Barnett set his rebuilding plan in motion on June 26, 2006 when he acquired former all-star defenseman Nick Boynton from the Boston Bruins. Less than a week later, the Coyotes made headlines when they jumped into the free-agent market and signed three-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Ed Jovanovski. Barnett's plan had been executed to perfection and the improved Phoenix backend had an entirely new look and feel.
"I think we've got a blueline now that, based on the personnel of the six-seven man group, is more inclined to join the rush and skilled enough to meaningfully contribute to the offense than our defensemen, as a unit, have in the past," said Barnett"
One of the most exciting prospects about the Coyotes new blueline is the ability of every defenseman on the ice to be able to help contribute offensively when given the opportunity.
"It's a great mixture," said Jovanovski. "With (Keith) Ballard and (Zbynek) Michalek, two young guys, myself, "Mo" (Derek Morris), Boynton and "Seids" (Dennis Seidenberg); we all like to move the puck and jump up, so I think it will be a really good fit."
In addition to the offensive exploits of the Coyotes blueline, each member is just as responsible in their own end and have the ability to stand their ground when push comes to shove.
"I think we're a pretty deep defensive unit this year, especially with the additions of Jovanovski and Boynton," said Seidenberg. "We added two-experienced defensemen and will be very solid on the backend.
"I think each and every guy on the blueline is agile and quick so we all have the ability to jump into the rush if he has to. I think we're also big enough and strong enough to play physical in our own end."
The ability to play stronger physically within the defensive end will prove to be a detriment to opposing offenses, news that is just fine with Coyotes goaltender Curtis Joseph.
"I think all the additions we got play with a bit of an edge, so certainly we're going to be a tougher team, physically, to play against," said Joseph. "I think that around the league if you look at any article being written, people are looking for the Coyotes to move up."
Phoenix wasn't the only team to add to their blueline this off-season. Acquisitions by inner-division rivals Los Angeles (Rob Blake) and Anaheim (Chris Pronger), have helped add to the competitiveness in the West, but looking at the defensive units as a whole, it is tough to see any that can match-up with the Coyotes.
"I think we have one of the best all-around defensive units in the league," said Morris. "We got a good balance of offensive defensemen in Ballard and 'Jovo' and some real good defensive-defensemen. I think Nick Boynton is one of the better defensive defensemen in the league; he also moves the puck real well and skates real well. I think we have a solid six-man unit and can move some young kids in as the seventh and we got a bright future."