Times changing for League's young defensemen
Evan Grossman | NHL.com Staff Writer Feb 4, 2007, 9:23 AM EST
Some of them are barely old enough to shave. Some could not rent a car or enter a casino because they're too young. Others have made the quantum leap to the NHL right from junior hockey. Many come from different parts of the world, their upbringing as distinctive as their style on the ice.
But for an elite crop of young NHL defensemen, one thing they do share in common is the opportunity they’ve been given -- the chance to play. And for the majority of this new generation of fresh-faced, multi-tasking defensemen, they have risen to the challenge and made it look so easy along the way.
The door has most certainly been opened for young players to make their mark on the league with the movement towards a skating and finesse game. And while figuring out how to play defense like a pro was normally a lengthy learning process, some of the young d-men in the game right now are on the fast track to stardom.
It used to be that it took defensemen several years in the minors and before NHL coaches felt comfortable having them on the ice. This season, continuing the trend seen in last year’s emergence of a new, younger generation of the rearguard, even more adolescent defensemen are getting huge chunks of ice time and are being asked to do things once unthinkable for kids their age. In San Jose, for example, Matt Carle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are playing light years ahead of their experience level and age.
“We call him ‘Pickles,’” Sharks center Joe Thornton told NHL.com. “He’s had a great year, he really has. He’s only 19 years old and he’s playing so many big minutes for us. Obviously Matt Carle, being with the YoungStars, he’s just a great all-around player. Great offensive ability. Great instinct. They’re two really important pieces of our team and they’re only 22- and 19-years-old. The future for the Sharks looks great.”
Carle, a native of Anchorage, Alaska, came to the NHL by way of the University of Denver, and has paced all rookie defensemen in scoring since the start of this season.
“My dad always said, ‘You have to see this new kid, he really stands out.’ And just skating with Matt in the summer, he’s just a great kid,” fellow Alaskan Scott Gomez said. “He’s going to be one of the best in the league. I’m dead honest. He’s the real deal. Plus he’s from Alaska, which makes him 10 times better.
“He was the best college player there for a couple of years,” Gomez said. “He’s definitely the Rookie of the Year. Well, in my eyes. What he’s doing, I think, is pretty awesome.”
Vlasic is currently the league’s youngest defenseman, an accomplishment in itself. The 21:46 he averages every night is an eye-popping total, but to hear Sidney Crosby tell it, Vlasic is one of the toughest defenders of the new generation who plays light years beyond his age.
“There’s a lot of strong young defensemen, but there’s one guy who I played with in juniors that’s in San Jose now – Vlasic -- he’s doing great,” Crosby told NHL.com. “He was a guy I played against in junior that didn’t really stand out a lot but you knew he was solid. Every time I played against him, you could tell there was something real solid about him. Everyone was so surprised, but in the back of my head I knew he was solid in junior and I knew he would be a good defenseman.
“He’s playing 20 minutes a game, he’s with (Scott) Hannan on the top D there and he’s a guy that’s been solid,” Crosby said. “Of course, they have Carle, too, and he’s another young guy. Those guys are impressive, for sure.”
The long list of impressive defensemen – or should we say “defenseboys” – doesn’t end there.
In Nashville, the Predators deploy a pair of 21-year old workhorses in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. In Anaheim, where Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer get all the headlines, 23-year old Shane O’Brien is writing a nice sidebar of his own on the blue line. In New York, homegrown 23-year old Fedor Tyutin is one of the Rangers’ most responsible defenders, while 22-year olds Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais figure to patrol the Islanders’ blue line for years. Because of injuries and shakeups, the Flyers have four defensemen 25 or younger on their roster.
Ryan Whitney, 23, is having a breakout season with the Penguins where there is an unmistakable youth movement going on. They call it “The Evolution” in Pittsburgh.
“I feel pretty good right now,” Whitney, averaging close to 25:00 per game, says. “It helps when you play a lot. I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of ice time here and it definitely helps the confidence.
“I think defensively, I can be better,” Whitney, who is from Boston, said. “I’m trying to be consistent. When I haven’t competed as hard, the coaches let me know. That’s one thing, you want to be real intense and in control in your own zone.”
Mike Komisarek, 23, gets better with every game he plays with the Canadiens, while the Southeast Division is loaded with fresh-faced d-men like Atlanta’s 21-year-old Braydon Coburn, Carolina’s 23-year-old Tim Gleason, Florida’s 23-year-old Jay Bouwmeester, Tampa’s 22-year-old Paul Ranger and Washington’s 21-year-old Mike Green.
Coburn was called up earlier this season and with defense regular Andy Sutton out with a cracked ankle, there was an opportunity for the fleet-footed big man to get some additional minutes with the first-place Thrashers. Coburn is a freak of nature, in that he’s 6-foot-5 and can skate like the wind, which an unusual combination. Big guys generally have to work on their skating at the NHL level, but Coburn is blessed with a fluid stride and according to head coach Bob Hartley, can get up and back with the best of them.
“He doesn’t even touch the ice,” Hartley said. “He just floats out there.”
“Coby has his own style,” Hartley said. “Even today, I wouldn’t hesitate to put Coburn with the best skaters in the NHL. I think that from goal line to goal line, he has to be one of the fastest skaters and one of the nicest skaters in the NHL. But at the same time, the mental game and the physical game all combine together and you never know how kids will react. Some take a little longer time than others, but I think he’s going to be a great defenseman for us and he’s going to be with this organization for many years to come.”
The Blackhawks aren’t afraid to have 22-year-old Duncan Keith or 21-year-old Brent Seabrook on the ice against the opponents’ top scoring lines. Out West, Calgary fans love 21-year-old All-Star Dion Phaneuf for his fierce checks and bazooka point shot, while Edmonton boasts 23-year-old Matt Greene and 20-year-old Ladislav Smid in the Battle of Alberta.
Young defensemen are everywhere, and during the first three months of this season, they’re getting unprecedented heaps of ice time and responsibilities, such as work on the power play, spots on the penalty kill and regular shifts against scoring threats.
In New Jersey, David Hale, Paul Martin and rookie Johnny Oduya are all 25-years-old and get significant time on what is traditionally one of the league’s stingiest defensive units. Hale and Martin are both Americans (also a growing trend among NHL defenders, with many of the league’s top blue-line prospects calling the USA home) and are in their third full seasons with the Devils.
“It’s been a bit of a process,” Hale says. “I’ve been up and down certain years. This is my fourth year pro. Myself and Paul Martin had to go through the lockout and put things on pause for a little bit. He went over and played in Switzerland and I played in Albany, but for the most part it’s been great. Everyone here has really helped out, including the staff and the players, and I can’t really speak from experience, but I think this organization is really great for developing a defensive style of hockey players.”
It’s helped that they’ve come up through the system with each other and have had someone the same age to lean on as they’ve climbed the same ladder to the big leagues together.
“We can certainly relate to each other and some of the things we’ve gone through,” Hale said. “It’s always nice to have a guy that you’ve played with before or know a little bit of his background. And especially having some other guys that I played with in school (University of North Dakota) here, it’s nice.”
Hale has occupied the same locker since he was promoted to the Devils, and in his first season, 2003-04, he couldn’t have asked to be seated next to a better role model. He lived every young defenseman’s dream when he was Scott Stevens’ dressing room neighbor and got to witness, first hand, what goes into being a top defenseman.
“I sat right next to Stevens and just to see what he would go through, his routines and this and that. He would, you know, pull us aside and used top give us a piece of information about each player we were playing against that night, and it’s something I never really thought of doing before I got here,” Hale said. “It was just one of the many pieces of information that I got out of him.”
In the past, coaches would be reluctant to have younger players on the roster, especially on the blue line. Defense was long considered – and still is, to an extent – the most difficult position on the ice to master under the speed and ferocity of the NHL game. Mistakes on the blue line are always magnified when they occur, and the thought has long been that young defensemen were as prone to having accidents out there as a lit stick of dynamite. There was also a prevailing thought that throwing a kid into the fire too soon could hinder his hockey education.
Not so much anymore.
“Maybe it has something to do with the rule changes,” Hale said. “It’s a bit more of a skating game, and maybe because in college, skating might be a little more emphasized.”
According to one NHL scout, there’s no doubt teams used to like to have experienced defensemen with sound positioning and a high level of intelligence in their own zone, skills that don’t come overnight. But the times, they are a changing, and if you can skate like the young generation can, coaches seem more willing to allow younger defensive players to learn on the job.
That mentality has allowed many younger defensemen, who might have been marked for the minors in the past, a chance to play and learn – and in most cases, succeed – at the NHL level.
“I think with the way the game is played now, there isn’t as much clutching and grabbing and it’s more of a speed game,” Crosby said. “I think physically, they don’t have to be as strong as they used to be. And I think there’s such an emphasis on getting to the NHL now that you’re kind of molding guys in junior to play a certain way. Also with the lockout, too, that’s two years of younger guys in one that gave a lot of younger guys an opportunity to get that extra year before they came to the NHL and I think that really helped, too.”
Crosby singled him out! Maybe he used to torment him. :P
Went to the Blackhawks game on Saturday with Roz and we won! I was starting to worry a little bit that she's a jinx becuase we lost all the games she's gone to before; she was worrying a little too. :P
Got there early for warm-up to watch Marty, har har, and the first thing that popped into my mind when he appeared (looking exactly like he does on camera) was that he looked very clean. And then I thought about that, I mean, how weird! Does that mean I expected him to be a dirty pig? I've never thought of him that way. Maybe because I know the Czech boys aren't quite the best with hygiene.
Speaking of them, Vrbata and Milan were hooking up at center ice, along with two other couples. So much love.
Marty is very boring in warm up! He still misses Marian. :( He's got exactly the same expression the whole time, you know, the slack-jawed yokel (Joolzie's description, I think!) look. The only time he broke it was to laugh at something Smolinski or Khabibulin were doing.
He also kind of owns the team. Guys were in a semi-circle taking turns to shoot on Khabi, and Marty was doing his own thing, then skated over and checked Stewart out of the way (full body contact!) so that he could cut in line. Then he skated away to do his own thing again for a while before coming back to cut in line again. :P
His left hand was bothering him, apparently, because he kept shaking his wrist out, rotating his forearm back and forth and... I was relieved when Joolzie told me he'd hurt his hand, because that would be a very unfortunate tic to have. :P
Curtis Brown scored the best goal ever!!! Oh man, I was so ridiculously excited, haha, I've never seen someone bust ass to beat an icing, take a one-timer and score. Watching the replay made it even better, cos' it was a backhand roofer (just like Goc's and Milan's goals, strangely enough). And Vesa with the two random assists, haha. Everyone got all excited at the end, hoping that he'd try to score into the empty net. Good times.
I've been wondering if the Sharks have more problems at home because of the shitty ice. Which makes the home-and-home with the Ducks great, because we'll be going from shitty ice here to shitty ice in Anaheim. We need to score old school Sharks goals, the ones where you have no idea who got it, but the puck is in the net. :P