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by Dave Vest / Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes made a strong commitment to enhance their defensive unit in the off-season by adding some seasoned and gritty players and a new goaltending coach, and if the preseason is any indication, Phoenix will be much tougher to score goals against in 2009-10.

General Manager Don Maloney made several roster moves over the summer to bolster the blue line. First, defenseman Jim Vandermeer was acquired in a trade with the Calgary Flames during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in June. Then, Maloney inked defenseman Adrian Aucoin during the free-agent signing period in July. Later in the summer, Maloney complemented those acquisitions by re-signing up-and-coming blueliner Keith Yandle two a two-year contract. Those three players, teamed with Ed Jovanovski, Zbynek Michalek and Kurt Sauer, form an extremely solid and reliable defensive rotation.

“Our goal is to be a top-10 defensive team,” Maloney said. “We still want the puck and we want to attack the puck, but the best defense is when you have the puck all the time … We don’t yet have that superstar who’s going to get us 40 ro 50 goals a season, so we’re going to have to play better defense this year.”

Adrian Aucoin (right).
Aucoin and Vandermeer, who have combined to play 1,163 NHL games, impressed Maloney in the preseason.

“You can just see Aucoin’s intelligence on the ice and the composure that he has,” Maloney said. “And I was really impressed with Jim Vandermeer, too. I knew he was tough, but he’s a better player than I thought. He can move the puck. He has a hard shot. And if you watch around the net, he’s a fun guy to play around.”

Coyotes captain Shane Doan also is glad Aucoin and Vandermeer are wearing Coyotes sweaters this season.

“It’s always been challenging to play Calgary,” Doan said. “Jim Vandermeer was so tough to play against. It will be really nice to watch him give other players a hard time for a change. And
Adrian Aucoin is a true pro who will have a terrific impact on our younger players.”

Vandermeer is eager to help the Coyotes reach the next level via stingy defense.

“I’m not a highly offensive guy, but I take pride in my defensive game,” Vandermeer said. “My approach is to make it as tough as possible on the opposing forwards game after game.”

Jovanovski, of course, is an NHL All-Star in the prime of his career. Sauer is a textbook shutdown defenseman who always gives star players fits in Phoenix’s zone. And Michalek is a quiet and reliable contributor who just happened to lead the NHL with 271 blocked shots in 2008-09.
Zbynek Michalek.

“I really think Zbynek Michalek is a terrific player who doesn’t get nearly the credit that he deserves,” Maloney said. “He is always sacrificing his body for the good of this team. That is an invaluable trait.”

As for Yandle, the charismatic Boston native appears poised for a breakout season.

Should they need reinforcements on the blue line during the season, the Coyotes have plenty of them eager to jump into the top six spots on the depth chart. Shaun Heshka and Sami Lepisto were acquired in the off-season and got lengthy looks during training camp. So did David Schlemko, who plays with the poise of much more experienced NHL player.

In another manuever to improve the defense, Maloney switched Sean Burke’s role from Director of Prospect Development to Goaltending Coach, hoping to spark Ilya Bryzgalov and newcomer Jason LaBarbera to big seasons. Note the word “big” in the previous sentence. Like Burke did for 18-plus NHL seasons, Bryzgalov and LaBarbera, who signed as a free agent, stand tall in the net.

“Our first goal is to be very consistent all year,” Burke said. “Everybody needs good goaltending to be successful and we’re no different. But I think with these guys, they’re both big guys, they’re both very talented and I think what we need to do from Day One is to establish a real consistent work ethic here with them. I want our preparation to be consistent so the other players on the team know our goaltending is ready every night. …I think that if the goaltending can be top-10 in the league in goals- against, this team will make the playoffs.”

Ilya Bryzgalov.
A big key to reaching the postseason will be the play of Bryzgalov. Maloney often says that the Coyotes will go only as far as their goaltending takes them. This year, he is expecting the Russian netminder to play about 60 games and post career-high statistics.

Bryzgalov’s confidence undoubtedly received a boost in the off-season when he posted a 2.08 goals-against average while leading Russia to the gold medal at the IIHF World Championship.

“I played OK,” Bryzgalov said. “It was a great experience for me because when you’re facing the international teams, it’s always fun, and it’s fun to play with pride for your country.”

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