Barring further injuries, the time is near when the lineup the Arizona Coyotes envisioned at the start of the season is the one that actually takes the ice.
Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson traveled with the team when it departed for Winnipeg on Monday. Hjalmarsson has been sidelined since Oct. 30 with an upper-body injury, but there’s a chance he will play at some point on the team’s four-game Canadian trip through Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
“We’re not ruling out Nik,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said.
Defenseman Jakob Chychrun should also join the team at some point on the trip to practice. Chychrun suffered a knee injury in summer training and underwent surgery on Aug. 3. He has been skating on his own. He won’t play on this trip once he joins the team, but the fact that he could start practicing with the team is a clear sign that his return is drawing near, perhaps as soon as the end of the month.
“They’re getting closer,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “There’s a lot of lights at the end of the tunnel.”
The Coyotes need those lights after a 2-14-3 start. Arizona hasn’t won a game in regulation through its first 19 games, tying the NHL record set by the Calgary Flames in 1999-2000.
Injuries do not tell the whole tale, but they played a role. The team played three weeks without starting goaltender Antti Raanta, who has returned for five November starts and has mostly played well. The Coyotes have played two weeks without Hjalmarsson so far, and they have played the entire season without Chychrun, who had a good rookie season (seven goals, 20 points) after making the team unexpectedly out of training camp last year.
When Chayka traded forward Jamie McGinn for defenseman Jason Demers on Sept. 17 — on the heels of a summer trade that brought Hjalmarsson from Chicago for Connor Murphy and minor-league center Laurent Dauphin — the Coyotes believed they had solidified their blue line with veteran presences and mobile puck movers who would help shepherd the younger forwards through their growth process and ease the transition to Tocchet’s go-north playing style.
They envisioned three capable pairs with Oliver Ekman-Larsson playing alongside Hjalmarsson on the top pair, Demers playing alongside Alex Goligoski on the second pair, and Chychrun joining Luke Schenn on the third pair.
The veterans didn’t perform as expected, however. They struggled. Tocchet split up Ekman-Larsson and Hjalmarsson when their anticipated chemistry did not materialize, putting Demers alongside Ekman-Larsson.
It’s unclear what will happen when Hjalmarsson and Chychrun return.
It would make sense to ease Chychrun in with fewer minutes on the third pair, given his injury and age (19), but if he impresses, the Coyotes have multiple options. Chychrun could play some second-pair minutes, and both Goligoski and Hjalmarsson can play either side.
Chayka expected the blue line to be the strength of the Coyotes this season. The time is fast approaching when he’ll find out if that expectation will meet reality.