Coyotes Would be Wise to Stack Blue Line

If I had to hone in on the most interesting aspect of professional sports, it’d be team building. I don’t know anything about baseball or football, but the idea across all leagues is the same: add good players for as little money as possible while competing for a championship.

The phrase team building can mean different things to different people. In this instance, I simply mean the act of putting a team together across various levels of development. Forget about things like coaching, trades and training regimens for the purposes of this discussion.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because April tends to be an odd time to be a hockey fan.

Your favorite team is either in/close to the playoffs and thinking about a Stanley Cup—in which case, the team has been built at least somewhat well—or you’re thinking about the draft, where your squad will be looking for a high-end talent to make a bad season worth it. As a person that is lucky enough to cover the game for a living, I really don’t have a particular team that I cheer for. Instead, I get to view things things from a distance and try to figure out how they’re going to come together.

I’ve been speaking with Jaime Eisner at the FanRag offices lately. He has covered the Arizona Coyotes extensively, and that team is in a unique situation as the 2015 NHL draft could be huge for the organization. Let’s assume they strike out on Connor McDavid and don’t land his services. That will (probably) leave Arizona in one of two places: the second- or third-overall pick. Jack Eichel goes second this season, so it’s that third selection we’ve been discussing.

At No.3, a handful of tantalizing options are in place. Namely Noah Hanifin, Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse and Mitch Marner. Two months ago it looked like Hanifin had the third spot on lock, but the ISS recently released their updated player rankings and the defenseman had slipped to fourth.

If you even casually follow prospects, you already see how tough a call this would be for the Coyotes. It’s a cage match between an outstanding defenseman, two elite offensive forwards and that power winger that so many NHL teams covet. It’s a fun discussion on the surface, but to me the choice isn’t a tough one.

If there’s an elite defenseman available in the draft and you’re a rebuilding franchise, that’s the player you should take. For those of you shaking your head, asking “why?” just check out the NHL standings and look at the seven teams that have clinched playoff positions.

What do they all have in common? Elite (or at least outstanding) defenders patrolling the blue line.

  • Montreal Canadiens – P.K. Subban
  • Tampa Bay Lightning – Victor Hedman
  • New York Rangers – Ryan McDonagh
  • Nashville Predators – Shea Weber/Roman Josi
  • St. Louis Blues – Kevin Shattenkirk/Alex Pietrangelo
  • Chicago Blackhawks – Duncan Keith
  • Anaheim Ducks – Cam Fowler/Hampus Lindholm

Outside of McDonagh and Shattenkirk, all of these defenseman are homegrown and were selected in the first or second round of the draft. There’s no way around it: you have to snag strong blueliners when they are available because smart organizations don’t typically let top-four defenders walk for nothing.

Having a strong core of offensive players is obviously important, but for a rebuilding team, taking care of the blue line should be priority number uno. If you look at the inverse of the above list—the seven worst teams in the league that are competing for a high lotto pick—you’ll typically see the same hole across the board. It’s on defense.

The Coyotes are, of course, one of the exceptions to that rule.

They already have Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He’s only 23-years-old and is only now starting to hit his prime. Why add Hanifin when Ekman-Larsson is already the top guy?

Because teams with more than one high-end defender tend to do OK in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Drew Doughty hasn’t been doing it alone for the L.A. Kings over the last few seasons. He’s had plenty of backup. The same goes for Keith in Chicago and Zdeno Chara in Boston.

A one-two punch of Ekman-Larsson and Hanifin could put Arizona in a pretty good spot by 2018. Especially since some scouts think the latter could be better than Aaron Ekblad, and the Florida Panthers’ rookie has been incredible this year. Would the Coyotes have too many left-handed shooters? You bet. Mike Babcock has been dealing with that situation in Detroit since Brian Rafalski retired in 2011. The Red Wings are doing OK with too many lefties, and the Coyotes would survive too.

Florida would have regretted passing on Ekblad and the Coyotes will look back at the 2015 draft with a tinge of bitterness if they pass on Hanifin if they select third overall. Regardless of what Strome, Crouse or Marner go on to do with their careers.

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