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Rookie defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin brings physicality to Coyotes' blue line.
8 2018 . azcentral.com. By Richard Morin

Regardless of how long he sticks with the team, Ilya Lyubushkin seems to be fitting right in with the Coyotes.

The Russian defenseman was signed out of his countrys top professional league this offseason to give the Coyotes some depth on the blue line as well as bolster their right-handed options at the position. But Lyubushkin, 24, won a job on the NHL roster out of training camp and has continued to impress his teammates and coaches.

Lyubushkin made his NHL debut in Saturdays 1-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks at Gila River Arena. He looked a bit wobbly in the first period, but appeared to right the ship as the minutes wore on.

Playing on the Coyotes third defense pair with Alex Goligoski, Lyubushkin logged 11:13 of ice time and registered one shot on goal, four hits and one rebound created. In terms of possession, Lyubushkin graded out competently as he was on the ice for 11 Coyotes shot attempts compared to nine against.

Although head coach Rick Tocchet said he would have liked to get Lyubushkin a bit more ice time, he was happy with the rookies NHL debut.

I thought he was pretty solid, Tocchet said. Hes learning that our game is a little different. Its a smaller rink than hes used to and I think hes used to taking the puck back. We play a faster pace so thats something where hes started to get used to that.

It might surprise some that Lyubushkin is actually the only rookie to play a game for the team this season. First-round pick Barrett Hayton is the only other rookie on the roster, but he hasnt seen any game action.

Lyubushkin played parts of five seasons with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) before coming to Arizona this season. Adjusting to smaller ice, a quicker style of play and an arduous language barrier, Lyubushkin has nonetheless been impressing with his performance.

The Russian brings a physical element to the game that the Coyotes do not otherwise possess on the blue line. According to Goligoski, that skill set could come in handy this season.

Theres definitely certain situations where you get into certain games that become very physical games and a guy like that becomes very valuable, Goligoski said. He wants to go in there and bust plays up. No matter what kind of game it is, its what hes good at.

He plays a simple game and talks out there and talks on the bench, too. Hes a good communicator and a good hockey player.

Just how long Lyubushkin sticks on the NHL roster will depend on the eventual return of defenseman Jakob Chychrun, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery. Lyubushkin is waiver exempt, so he would be an easy target to send to the clubs AHL affiliate in Tucson upon Chychruns activation.

However, the fact that Lyubushkin won the NHL job over non-exempt players such as Trevor Murphy and Dakota Mermis suggests the Coyotes could try to keep him on the roster even when Chychrun is healthy.

Chychrun skated with the Coyotes in a non-contact jersey in the teams last two practices but did not take part in Mondays skate at the Ice Den in Scottsdale. Tocchet said the absence was part of Chychruns schedule and not a setback.

We want to keep him on a set time frame because hes obviously going to play here for a while, Tocchet said of Chychrun. I dont want him to come back early even if hes ready to go. A kid like that, theres data that states if you keep a guy out with that kind of injury for this amount of time, the stats go in your favor that there wont be a re-injury.

Tocchet said he had not yet made a determination if Lyubushkin will be back in the lineup for Wednesdays game in Anaheim, but the rookie seems to have proved what he needed to prove in his NHL debut Saturday.

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