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Sean Durzi has exceeded expectations with Coyotes

Craig Morgan Avatar
November 22, 2023
Sean Durzi entered play on Wednesday tied for second among NHL defensemen in goals.

Predicting what Sean Durzi’s role might look like with the Coyotes in three years is a fool’s errand. That’s because predicting what the Coyotes’ roster will look like in three years is a fool’s errand.

Only two players (Clayton Keller and Lawson Crouse) are currently slated to be under contract, there is a wealth of prospects who may have made their way to the NHL by then, and there could be some surprising trades between now and then.

It seems safe to assume that most of the roster will have been built through the draft. That approach is in GM Bill Armstrong’s DNA anyway, but between the glut of existing prospects, and the glut of prospects who will join them via the next three drafts, the Coyotes will have more chances than most franchises to assemble the roster the old fashioned way.

That said, there is a cynical narrative that exists among some NHL personnel that Armstrong is too in love with draft picks; that he’ll never cash them in to make the team better. It’s an argument that lacks data to support it. It’s an argument that ignores the timeline for the Coyotes rebuild. It’s an argument that assumes Armstrong won’t alter course when the time is right. And it’s an argument that ignores Durzi, whom the Coyotes acquired in June from the Los Angeles Kings for a 2024 second-round draft pick.

All of those draft picks that the Coyotes have already acquired and executed ensure a greater chance at success through sheer volume of opportunities. All of those draft picks that the Coyotes still possess over the next three drafts ensure a greater chance at sustainable success.

But don’t assume that Armstrong is wed to those picks and wants to extend this rebuild as long as possible. He is following a blueprint that he helped create in St. Louis; a logical plan that he learned to construct under the tutelage of Blues GM Doug Armstrong. And as the Coyotes GM noted this summer, the franchise has entered the next stage of the rebuild.

“Now they’re in a different position than when he got there and you have to be sure that you’re not blindly attached to draft picks or prospects because at certain times you have to use all the assets at your disposal,” Doug Armstrong said. “Sometimes they’re future draft picks and sometimes they’re recently drafted players that you use to get better. That’s an exciting phase for Bill because he’ll get the chance to do something different. The rewards are very immediate with that. You trade for a player, you sign a player or you play the free-agent market, and that result is not four or five years away. It’s four or five hours away.”

Bill Armstrong is actively engaged in discussions to add those sorts of pieces. He is actively engaged in talks that could ship existing prospects or draft picks out the door in exchange for existing NHL players. And if you don’t believe he is willing to pull the trigger, you need look no further than Durzi, whom the Coyotes pro scouting staff identified as a piece that could grow with the club’s core.

Eighteen games is a small sample, but the early returns suggest that Durzi has been well worth the acquisition cost. He leads the team in average time on ice (23:21), he is tied for second among NHL defensemen in goals (5), tied for 18th in points (12), and despite the unit’s two-game slump, he has helped the Coyotes’ power play take a major step forward. Last season, the unit ranked 24th in the NHL with an 18.9 percent success rate. This season, it ranks sixth at 29.4 percent.

“He’s exactly what we thought we were getting,” Armstrong said. “We did a lot of homework on him. I knew him from my scouting days so I was pretty excited about what he could add. I felt like we were missing Ghost (Shayne Gostisbehere) from last year so we could put him in that slot and he could help out that first unit. He could give that first unit somebody that could shoot the puck and also make plays. We’re pretty excited about having him.”

Sean Durzi entered play on Wednesday tied for second among NHL defensemen in goals with five. (Getty Images)

Durzi, who turned 25 a month ago, arrived with some preconceived notions. Some analysts described him as a riverboat gambler in the Keith Yandle vein. He could make some special plays and help out a power play, but he could also make some boneheaded plays that could cost the team. He was good enough to be an NHL defenseman; mistake prone enough never to be considered a core defender.

Those narratives followed Yandle for much of his time in Arizona, and some of them were fair, but mistakes are also more likely for a player who has the puck on his stick so often. As Durzi describes it, he plays defense a different way.

“When the puck’s on my stick in the D-zone, I’m trying to break the puck out and I’m trying to make a good play so there’s gonna be turnovers. It’s hockey. It moves fast and you’re playing against the best players in the world,” he said. “It’s funny to get that criticism sometimes, but you work on what you do well, you focus on what you do well, and obviously you try to continue to get better every day in all areas.

“From my first day in the NHL to now, my game has definitely come a long way; the way I understand defense; the way I understand sticks on the rush, how to put yourself in better areas, how to keep the puck out of dangerous areas. There’s a whole understanding that honestly only came with experience. That’s growth, and as a young offensive defenseman in the league, that’s part of the drill. I think there’s a lot of work to do still, but I’m happy with how my game has come along.”

To be sure, there is still work ahead for Durzi. He has only played 154 NHL games, and most of them were played as an understudy in L.A.

“It’s a little bit different when you’re coming from LA where they had Drew Doughty, who’s been the guy there for a while,” Durzi said. “When I came here, I knew the opportunity was there, but I wasn’t so focused on the individual opportunity. I just focused — and I’m going to continue to do it — on the team mindset. I have found that if I focus on that, I play a lot better. I’m more dialed in for games and I’m not really worried about all the other stuff.”

Coyotes coach André Tourigny has made a name for himself, both by being able to develop relationships with young players, and by being able to help those younger players unlock the potential in their games. He coached against Durzi in the OHL so he had a good sense of his game before the trade occurred.

“Like a lot of young players, he needs to work on his consistency, game management, decision-making process under pressure, but he does a lot of good things,” Tourigny said. “We believe a lot in him so we expect a lot.”

Despite Durzi’s obvious contributions to the power play, Tourigny sees more potential there.

“He has a good shot but he needs to take the hesitation out of his game,” Tourigny said. “I think he overthinks some situations. He has to be a little bit more fluid, more quick in execution, especially to take a shot. Sometimes, he is a little bit predictable, but I think he has a lot of talent. He sees the ice really well and he can be deceptive.”

Sean Durzi will be a restricted free agent this summer. (Getty Images)

It’s fair to say that Durzi’s play has exceeded fans’ and analysts’ expectations. It’s a big step up to the top NHL defensive pairing where Durzi currently sits alongside JJ Moser, but he has, for the most part, delivered promising results.

A quarter of a season may not be the time for a full evaluation of the player’s ability or his future with the franchise, but Durzi can become a restricted free agency with arbitration rights this summer so the topic at least has to be broached. Armstrong acquired Durzi with the hope that he could become a part of the team’s core. Durzi has done nothing to dispel that hope.

“To be honest, I’m not going to say that I ever limited myself to doing anything less,” he said. “You always work to try to be the best at your position and be that guy. With the opportunity to run the first power-play unit, you want to produce, too.

“I’m not going to say I’m super surprised and it’s insane to see all this stuff happening. That’s the goal. That’s the mentality you have to have to get to this level and to stay at this level: Expect the best out of yourself and work to be the best. That’s something I’ll continue to do.”

Top photo of Sean Durzi via Getty Images

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