The Phoenix Coyotes already have a history of finding unheralded defensemen in the middle rounds of the NHL Draft and grooming them into elite blueliners. They've already turned Keith Yandle from a fourth-round pick into one of the best all-round defensemen in the game.
They may have done it again with Michael Stone.
A third-round pick (No. 69) in 2008, Stone was a Western Hockey League first-team All-Star with the Calgary Hitmen and barely played a single full season with Phoenix's American Hockey League affiliate in Portland before getting the call from the Coyotes. Despite playing half of the AHL season in 2012-13, Stone finished among the league's top 40 in scoring among defensemen.
However, the Winnipeg native struggled at the start of the NHL season with Phoenix, with one goal and a minus-8 rating in his first 11 games. The Coyotes stuck with Stone, who slowly turned things around as the season went on. By the final month, he looked like a true NHL defenseman.
In his last 11 games, Stone had two goals, five points and a plus-5 rating. It was a significant turnaround for a player who didn't turn 23 until June. Now Stone could figure prominently on a defense that is one of the Coyotes' strong points.
At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he brings a big body with a booming slap shot to match. Despite being a rookie, Stone took on more responsibility as last season went on and emerged as a major contributor. He averaged 16:41 of ice time per game and skated more than 24 minutes in two of his final three games, including a season-high 24:37 in the final home game, April 26. His five goals tied him for fourth among NHL rookie defensemen.
"He's a player that is going to continue to blossom and grab a regular role on our blue line," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney told NHL.com. "We feel we're in very good shape on our blue line."
The Coyotes showed their commitment this summer when they signed Stone to a three-year contract extension. With that, they solidified a unit that includes an All-Star, Yandle, and an emerging star, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who enjoyed a breakout 2012-13 season. Though Yandle and Ekman-Larsson demonstrate a smoother skill set, Stone brings a more physical presence to a Phoenix defense that isn't known for its size.
"He plays all situations," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "He's played some power play for us. He's a shot-blocker on the penalty kill. He's a player I really feel will take a step forward this year. We're looking for big things from him. He reminds me of a younger Adrian Aucoin. The way he plays the game, a right-handed shot, smart player who plays well positionally -- just a solid all-round player."
With a new contract and a season of NHL action under his belt, Stone's development could play a sizeable role in the Coyotes' quest to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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