As the Arizona Coyotes fight for a playoff spot -- they're fourth in the West Division, with a one-point lead over the St. Louis Blues -- defenseman Jakob Chychrun has emerged as one of the team's most important players. The 23-year-old leads Arizona in average ice time (23:09), surpassing captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the team's No. 1 defenseman. Chychrun is tied for second on the team in goals (13, including three game winners) and is third in points (31).

The Coyotes always knew Chychrun was capable of this, but watching him flourish has been a treat, especially after a series of injuries hampered the start of his career. Chychrun had shoulder surgery in his draft year, "which I kind of struggled to come back from," he said. Then, while training in the summer in 2017 following his first NHL season, he tore the meniscus in his left knee.

"I came back from that, and I was playing some of my best hockey toward the end of the year," Chychrun said. "We had two or three games remaining in the season, and in Calgary I got slew-footed from behind, kind of awkwardly. My other knee, the ACL was torn. So I had back-to-back summers of major knee surgeries where I was just rehabbing. It felt like I was just rehabbing every summer for a number of years, and it was tough to just stick with it. I never lost doubt in myself, and I always knew I'd get back to the player that I knew I could be. And so right now, it's just rewarding to be healthy."

In many ways, Chychrun should be a great American hockey success story. He was born and raised in South Florida, reaping the benefits of the NHL's Sun Belt expansion. "I grew up playing at the Panthers' practice facility," he said. "My first organized skate was a 'learn to skate' [event] with Stanley the Panther, the mascot."

Chychrun then got drafted by Arizona (No. 16 overall) in 2016 and subsequently signed a six-year extension in 2018, committing to a franchise that's been deeply important to commissioner Gary Bettman's goals of expanding hockey's American reach.

Which makes it all the more intriguing that at the 2022 Olympics, Chychrun will be aiming for a roster spot on ... Team Canada.

Wait, what?

"Yeah," he said, laughing. "It's kind of a crazy story."

Chychrun's father, Jeff, played 262 games in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in 1992. Jeff Chychrun is Canadian but met Nancy Garfield while he was playing for the Flyers. The couple dated long distance for a while. When Jeff retired in 1994, Nancy was living in Florida, so they decided to start a family there.