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From 'D' to shining 'D': Young rearguards ready to take over the spotlight

For the first time since the 1990s, we’re seeing a crop of young blueliners primed to reach superstar status.

It’s Year 4 of Prospects Unlimited, and the meat of the magazine, the Top 100 list, looks different this time around. The likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, after all, have graduated from our age-21 benchmark. That left the snowcapped peaks of our prospect mountain open for new superstars to summit. The result: a defenseman takeover.

The new wave of dominant, franchise-cornerstone D-men – Rasmus Dahlin, Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes – comprises four of our top 10. That’s a major change from our past lists, and the McDavid/Matthews void doesn’t fully explain it.

Prospects Unlimited 2016 placed one defenseman in the top 10: Aaron Ekblad. Four blueliners cracked the top 10 the next season, but none ranked higher than fifth. Two made the grade in ’18, with Dahlin leading the way at No. 4. Now, for the first time in this edition’s history, defensemen are the highlights of the next superstar-level class.

Sure, every NHL generation yields Hall of Fame-caliber blueliners. The 2000s have given us Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, who have combined for seven Norris Trophies. But if we look at which eras produce the highest volumes of legend-caliber defensemen, we arguably haven’t seen a generation like that since the 1980s and 1990s. Those decades gave us Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Nicklas Lidstrom, Rob Blake, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. That nine-pack took the 23 Norris Trophies between 1984-85 and 2007-08. It was a generation so great that it blocked Hall of Famers Scott Stevens, Sergei Zubov, Phil Housley and Larry Murphy from winning the award even once.

Looking at this year’s Top 100 list, I’m reminded of that generation of blueliners. Dahlin, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018 and the most hyped defense prospect since Denis Potvin in 1973, scored the second-most points ever by an 18-year-old defenseman as a rookie last season. The record holder, Housley, played in a far more offensive era, so you could make the case that Dahlin’s debut was the best ever by an 18-year-old blueliner. Meanwhile, Heiskanen “only” scored 12 goals, went to the NHL All-Star Game and averaged the most minutes of any rookie in the past six seasons…at 19. Makar, the first blueliner to rank No. 1 overall in our annual Future Watch edition in nine years, parachuted into the playoffs with Colorado last spring and had six points in 10 games. He and Dahlin each opened 2019-20 scoring at better than a point-per-game clip.

Is it a fluke that we’re seeing a cadre of team-leading defensemen emerge all at once? Maybe it’s not so random. Not every member of this group has size and strength: Dahlin does, but Heiskanen is average sized at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, and Makar and Hughes are below average at 5-foot-11 and 187 and 5-foot-10 and 170, respectively.

What this group does have in common: scintillating offensive acumen. “Handles the puck like a forward” could describe any of Dahlin, Makar or Hughes. The game has opened up in recent years thanks to the slashing crackdown, and that has changed the career trajectories of smaller forwards such as Johnny Gaudreau and Brayden Point. It has also given the sport’s best young defense rushers a chance to shine at a superstar level.

In the past 22 seasons, we’ve seen just three defensemen – Lidstrom, Karlsson and Burns – reach the 80-point plateau. But you can expect a few of the new Prospect Unlimited stars to buck that trend in seasons to come. Every generation treats us to great all-around defensemen and even Hall-caliber players, but the new wave feels different. Prepare for superstardom.

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