The Coyotes blueline was bolstered with the summer acquisition of Niklas Hjalmarsson, but adding Jason Demers will allow Arizona to ice their best blueline in years.
The Arizona Coyotes have been the league’s most active team this off-season, flipping players and bringing in more fresh faces than any other organization, and with training camp and pre-season underway, GM John Chayka has continued to tinker with his lineup.
On Sunday afternoon, the Coyotes and Florida Panthers linked up on a trade that sent winger Jamie McGinn to the Sunshine State with defenseman Jason Demers packing his bags and heading to the desert. The Panthers also retained 12.5 percent of Demers’ salary, per Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, giving the Coyotes a little more than $560,000 in cap savings on the remaining four years of Demers’ five-year, $22.5-million contract.
For Chayka, the trade marked the 17th personnel addition the team has made in a summer filled with changes. What started with the acquisition of Nick Cousins and the trade that sent longtime goaltender Mike Smith to the Calgary Flames in mid-June has grown to now include both major and minor additions, and the latest of which, Demers, is an easy win for the Coyotes, especially when viewed strictly as a one-for-one swap.
While McGinn’s a capable winger who can provide some offense and has three 20-goal seasons under his belt, he hasn’t been all that consistent. That’s noted by the fact he managed just nine goals and 17 points last season in Arizona after a career-best 22 goals and 39 points the campaign prior. McGinn also won’t see much more than bottom-six minutes, having only averaged more than 16 minutes of ice time once in nine-season career.
Demers, on the other hand, has the ability to skate quality minutes this season, provide offensive punch and use his puck-moving acumen to improve Arizona’s mediocre possession game. Last season, he outscored McGinn, netting nine goals and 28 points, and Demers was impactful playing on both the penalty kill and power play.
But what makes the acquisition that much better for the Coyotes, and a much more clear victory for Chayka, is that Demers rounds out the Arizona blueline in a way the organization hasn’t seen in several years. No one will confuse the defense corps with one of the league’s very best, mind you, but the transformation the group has undergone over the past few months is impressive.
Last season, the Coyotes’ top pairing consisted of Oliver-Ekman Larsson and Alex Goligoski. The second unit saw Michael Stone and Connor Murphy skate together. And the group was rounded out by Luke Schenn, Anthony DeAngelo, Jakob Chychrun and, at times, Kevin Connauton. Not exactly a defense that would be spoken of in the same breath as, say, the blueline that helped propel the Nashville Predators to a Western Conference title and the Stanley Cup final.
But the changes have been vast. Stone was dealt to the Flames ahead of last season’s deadline, the Coyotes receiving draft picks in return, and two additional rearguards have since been utilized in trades that have reshaped both the front and back end of the team. Murphy, for example, was included as part of the package sent to the Chicago Blackhawks that allowed Arizona to bring aboard blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson, while DeAngelo and a first-round pick were shipped out to the New York Rangers for center Derek Stepan and goaltender Antti Raanta. Add Demers into the mix on the blueline and there’s an almost entirely new look on the top two pairings.
Ideally, or at least as projections would suggest, the first pairing will now be made up of Ekman-Larsson and Hjalmarsson, which is a duo that has great promise. Ekman-Larsson’s offensive ability is unquestionable and pairing him with a rock-solid defense-minded defender in Hjalmarsson, who played a major role in three Stanley Cup championships and skated alongside Duncan Keith for much of the past two seasons, serves to give the Coyotes their best top pairing in years. On the second unit, Goligoski can play with Demers. And while it might take some adjustment for two primarily offense-minded rearguards, it’s a pairing the two will be at least somewhat familiar with having skated limited minutes together as former Dallas Stars teammates.
That’s a solid top-four on the back end, too. Much more solid than last season's or, truthfully, any combination of four defensemen the Coyotes have possessed over the past three or four campaigns. At some point, too, Chychrun will be cleared to return to action, allowing the Coyotes to tie up the loose ends on the bottom pairing by slotting him alongside either Schenn or Kyle Wood. That wouldn’t make for an awful bottom pairing, and if Chychrun takes another step forward in his development after a decent rookie year, it could actually become a unit that can take some of the pressure off of the second pairing.
The hope in Arizona is that the additions on the blueline allow the forward group to flourish and Raanta to succeed in his first go-round as a No. 1 netminder. There’s a reasonable expectation of success in both regards, too. A stronger defense should provide Max Domi, Tobias Rieder, Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, Lawson Crouse and others with more opportunity to take chances offensively, and that can give the attack a jolt. Not to mention, Stepan’s two-way ability should also allow the offense to be let loose a bit more when he’s on the ice. Meanwhile, the insulation provided from a solid top-four should allow Raanta to get into a groove with the Coyotes. He’s relatively unproven with the weight squarely on his shoulders, but his .922 save percentage last season in New York was promising and he’s managed a .924 SP across his last 69 appearances.
It has been five years since the last time the Coyotes earned a post-season berth and the past three seasons have been especially gruelling, but Chayka’s wheeling and dealing could put Arizona, at the very least, back in the playoff hunt. And it’s about time.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.