Steady and reliable; two proper terms that apply when describing the Arizona Coyotes' 2018-19 defensive corps, which performed stoutly in front of the team's impressive goaltending to finish the season tied for fifth in the NHL in goals-against, allowing their opponents just 2.68 goals per game.
With Thursday's signing of defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin to a one-year deal, all eight blue-liners from last season to play on a regular basis are now under contract, a sure sign of roster stability with the league's July 1 free agency deadline yet to dock.
The 25-year-old Lyubushkin joins the likes of Jakob Chychrun, Kevin Connauton, Jason Demers, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jordan Oesterle to be under contract for the coming season.
"Our blue line was the strength of our team and it has a good mix," said President of Hockey Operations and General Manager John Chayka, who originally found intrigue in the defenseman during the 2018 IIHF World Championship tournament in Denmark. "Signing Ilya allows us to maintain our depth and I expect him to push for more ice time."
Lyubushkin played in 41 games for the Coyotes during his rookie NHL season, many of which came during the key months of February and March to bolster a blue-line depleted by injury, providing a physical, big-bodied presence to clog up lanes and disrupt opponents' flow.
"Ilya is a physical defender that opponents don't enjoy playing against," Chayka added. "He brings an element to our group that we require. He had a strong first season in the NHL, and I'm excited to see his growth and progress now that he has some experience. Our defensive corps played extremely well all season and he was a part of generating great results from our back-end."
The Moscow, Russia native registered 150 hits, which ranked second among Coyotes defensemen and fourth overall, despite playing in only half of the team's 82 games. He blocked an average of 1.5 shots per game as well, utilizing his size to stymie puck trajectory to complement his thorough ability to knock opponents off balance.
Lyubushkin's right-hand shot is another key asset for the Coyotes, who are loaded with lefties on the blue-line. "It's important to us to have right-left splits in our lineup," Chayka noted in regard. "Being a right shot allows us to better slot our defense core and move pucks more efficiently."
Other than Demers, Lyubushkin is the only righty to grace Arizona's blue-line.