It’s the hardest position for youngsters to play in the NHL; preternatural skill doesn’t necessarily translate to success. Why? Defensemen must be physically mature, able to fend off behemoths along the boards and in front of the net. Successful defensemen must be smart, decisive and quick to act, whether simply chipping the puck out of their zone or pinching to keep an offensive chance alive. Blueliners almost always need experience.
This is a tough list to get on. The No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, Erik Johnson, isn’t on it – his lost season in 2008-09 was too much to overcome. The No. 2 pick this past June, Victor Hedman, isn’t on it – he needs to face NHL competition first. Jack Johnson, No. 3 in 2005, nope. Luke Schenn, uh-uh. Cam Barker, 40 points last season and entering his fourth NHL season, left hanging. Here are the young studs who did make it; here’s THN.com’s Top 10 under-25 defensemen.
10. Marc Staal, New York Rangers, 22
He became a top-two blueliner over established veterans such as Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival. He won’t put up big numbers, but he’ll keep opposing players from doing so.
9. Brent Burns, Minnesota, 24
He has an all-around game like few others in the league; he can score, play shutdown ‘D’ and is physical. He scored 15 goals and 43 points two seasons ago, but lost much of last season to injury. Wait and see what kind of totals he puts up in the Wild’s new up-tempo system.
8. Braydon Coburn, Philadelphia, 24
A virtual unknown – even though he was picked eighth overall in 2003 – before being plucked up from Atlanta in 2007 for the aged Alexei Zhitnik, Coburn has emerged as one of the young Beasts of the East. Expect him to be even scarier once he learns a few things from Chris Pronger.
7. Brent Seabrook, Chicago, 24
His plus-23 tied for seventh among defensemen in the league last year and he emerged as a leader on the Blackhawks blueline, where he was second in average ice time. He’s a Team Canada invitee who opened many people’s eyes with his play during the playoffs.
6. Zach Bogosian, Atlanta, 19
In just 47 games last year as a straight-from-junior rookie, he totaled nine goals and 19 points. He also played with reckless abandon – as one THNer said “I like him over others because you can’t teach crazy.” But he also tied for third in plus-minus on Atlanta, so he’s not that reckless.
5. Ryan Suter, Nashville, 24
Along with his partner in crime (No. 2 on this list), he forms one of the league’s best tandems. He had a downturn in plus-minus last year, but his point totals have trended upwards each of his four NHL seasons.
4. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles, 19
Many believe he got jobbed in the Calder voting – he finished fifth – simply because he plays on the left coast. As a true rookie he was the best blueliner on his team and flashed glimpses of uber-talent from October through April.
3. Dion Phaneuf, Calgary, 24
His ‘off’ year in 2008-09 would be a career year for most defensemen. He was a first all-star after his third NHL season and already has 65 goals and 206 points for the Flames. Oh, and he’s a killer out there.
2. Shea Weber, Nashville, 24
His 23 goals were tied for second among D-men last year. He hits like a freight train, has a booming shot and can play lock-down defense. He’s a virtual cinch for Team Canada in Vancouver.
1. Mike Green, Washington, 23
He led all blueliners in goals (31), points (73) and power play goals (18), tied for fifth in plus-minus (plus-24) and was seventh in ice time (25:45) last season, all while playing just 68 games because of an injury. ‘Nuff said.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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