PHOENIX — When the Arizona Coyotes signed defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin to a one-year contract this offseason, it meant the team had eight NHL regulars from last season under contract for 2019-20 on their blueline.
That’s probably one too many, creating a “logjam” while the Coyotes still looked to add to their forward group. The overcrowding was alleviated on Tuesday when general manager John Chayka traded Connauton and a 2020 third-round pick for center Carl Soderberg.
“Kevin Connauton’s an unbelievable character guy,” Chayka said. “I thought he brought a lot to our room and a good person without a doubt. So it’s a tough trade to make in that sense, but in the other sense of our logjam on the back end, we’ve got a number of defensemen.
“We’ve got some young guys coming up that we feel strongly about and it just was a bit of a numbers game. So for us, he wasn’t going to be a player that was going to be able to fit in and play a role, so to make better use of his cash, we were able to include him in this deal and hopefully it’s a good fit for him in Colorado. But ultimately for us, it wasn’t going to be a fit here for next year.”
Enter Soderberg, a 33-year-old center who scored 23-26-49 last year in Colorado with a 12.2 shooting percentage. Those same numbers on the Coyotes in 2018-19 would’ve put him first on the team in goals, first in points and fourth in shooting percentage.
He’s on the final year of a deal that carries a $4.75 million AAV cap hit, per CapFriendly. By losing Connauton’s $1.375M cap hit, the Coyotes’ net cap increase is only $3.375 million. On a cost-per-point basis, that figures to be a better value than how the market has trended early this offseason with contracts to other forwards.
“It just felt like the ability at a low cost, in both asset and cash, maintains flexibility for us through the offseason here if there’s other opportunities for us that arise that make sense,” Chayka said. “I think our group, basically we need to score more, so you can add another dynamic scorer and we’re looking into that and considering those options, but another way to look at it is we’ve got a guy that stabilizes things that can eat a lot of tough minutes, and that’s going to free up some of our younger dynamic players to be more productive and be put in even better situations to be able to score more, as well.”
In other words, the Coyotes gave up relatively little in both the trade and in the cap space to get a dependable, durable center that plays well defensively and has offensive upside.
Missing only seven games in the past five seasons, Soderberg has not only dressed for so many of his team’s game but has been on the ice quite a bit, even in his age-33 season. Last year, Soderberg averaged 17:27 time on ice, the second-highest of his career.
He also had the second-highest relative Corsi-for percentage of his career, despite his defensive zone starts percentage being north of 60 percent.
“Just looking through all the alternatives and through the cost to acquire players whether it was asset-wise or cash-wise, we have a strong desire to keep our core group of players together here and feel strongly about a few of our prospects,” Chayka said. “So we’re looking to keep that together but add to our team and add to our group. So the ability to get a veteran, 200-foot player, can play center, versatile guy, can play up and down your lineup, obviously scored 20-plus goals. He’s a stabilizer for us and that made a lot of sense.”
Chayka and Soderberg both noted Tuesday the player’s familiarity with being a net-front presence. Sean Tierney’s Charting Hockey shows this shot map for Soderberg last year, with the larger symbols representing goals:
“Carl’s game is a simple game,” Chayka said. “He makes plays, he breaks up plays in the D zone, he closes quick in the D zone. Once the puck starts moving north, he’s going to the middle of the ice and goes straight to the net and he stops. So just obviously he’s a big body, in unbelievable shape, he’s strong, he’s a horse through the middle of the ice and when he’s in the offensive zone, he goes to the net.”
And Chayka suggested that because the team has several centers now — Derek Stepan, Christian Dvorak, Brad Richardson, Nick Schmaltz, Soderberg and possibly Barrett Hayton — Soderberg may not be tasked with as much defensive responsibility as in years past.
That wealth of centers also does two things for Arizona: It allows them to carry multiple centers on a single line and it provides depth in the event of injuries, which the Coyotes suffered to the extreme degree last year.
“I don’t see us having too many or a logjam or anything like that,” Chayka said. “I think it will play itself out. In the event we do have some injuries, we’ve got great contingencies in place so that our lineup continues to be strong.”
From Soderberg’s perspective, he joins a Coyotes team that chased Colorado in the standings late last year; The two teams played high-stakes games against one another down the stretch.
“I think their style of playing is pretty much like my game,” Soderberg said. “It’s hard, competitive, good defensively, structured. So they were always hard to play against and it was very hard to win games for us last year against them.”
He also reunites with two of his former teammates from the Swedish national team, defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
QUALIFYING OFFER DEADLINE
Tuesday was the deadline for NHL teams to submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents.
Chakya did not rule out a possible return of Nick Cousins and/or Josh Archibald at the right price, but said those players will get a chance to test the market. Lawson Crouse was qualified. Goaltender Hunter Miska (minors) was not.