SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes’ top-six defensive group hasn’t gotten the chance to all play in the same game this season.
Jakob Chychrun suffered a knee injury in the offseason and returned on Dec. 3. But by the time he came back, Niklas Hjalmarsson — a major offseason trade acquisition who came to Arizona in a trade with the Blackhawks — had hit injured reserve.
Because of two separate stretches of games missed due to injury this year, Hjalmarsson has played in only 17 of the Coyotes’ 40 games. He hasn’t played since Nov. 28.
The good news? Hjalmarsson practiced with the Coyotes on Saturday.
“He’s actually feeling better,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “I don’t have an exact timeframe but he’s had some really good days the past couple days.”
Tocchet added that Hjalmarsson would not play on Sunday in a matinee matchup in Anaheim.
“Everything starts with your D-zone coverage and your breakouts,” Tocchet said. “Obviously when you have your top six guys, obviously it helps. The way my system is, I rely a lot on the defense offensively but also to be involved in the breakouts and the D-zone coverages.
“Plus, [Nik’s] pedigree in the room, that’s what we’ve missed. He’s not around to calm some of the young guys down.”
Getting Chychrun back earlier this month was helpful, Tocchet said, and that the team can get “traction” from having all of its top-six defensemen healthy.
“It’s going to give us another level in our game and he’s used to playing against top players,” defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “That’s why he’s here, so it’s going to be nice to have him back.”
Before the Coyotes acquired Hjalmarsson over the summer, GM John Chayka consulted with Ekman-Larsson on who a good partner would be on a defensive pairing, and the fellow Swede was his answer, according to Craig Morgan. But not long after the season began, the two were no longer paired up.
Neither Tocchet nor Ekman-Larsson would say whether they knew if the two defensemen would be back on the same pairing once Hjalmarsson returns.
“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. I won’t tell you,” Ekman-Larsson said with a smile. “But I think he’s getting closer. He was out there with us today, so hopefully soon.”
UP NEXT: ANAHEIM DUCKS
Arizona will get a rare afternoon game when the Coyotes play in Anaheim on Sunday at 2 p.m. It will be the team’s first matchup against the Ducks since opening night on Oct. 5, when the Coyotes got out to a 4-1 lead in the second period and eventually lost 5-4.
“It’s actually a microcosm of our season, that game,” Tocchet said. “There’s probably been 12 games this season where we’re either tied or ahead late in the game and obviously we come on the wrong side. That’s a learning lesson. We’ve had 40 games to learn from that.”
Antti Raanta will start in net.
Forward Brad Richardson (upper-body) was not on the ice Saturday for the Coyotes’ practice in Scottsdale and is still considered day-to-day.