NHL fans, welcome to your Erik Karlsson years. Or, if you’re more predisposed to the Western Conference, the Ryan Ellis Era.
And though neither of those players has suited up for a game yet in 2017-18, once those injured blueliners return to their respective lineups, they will be essentials. The fact that neither Karlsson or Ellis have a lot of size in their game has not slowed them down a bit in the NHL, because they are, as we all know, master puckmovers. That Ottawa nabbed Karlsson 15th overall in the 2008 draft, while Nashville selected Ellis 11th in 2009 speaks to a size bias that has slowly eroded over time and is now gone. And some teams are reaping the rewards already.
The 2017 draft was a watershed for smaller, skilled defensemen, with Miro Heiskanen (DAL) and Cale Makar (COL) going third and fourth overall; the first two blueliners selected. And you can expect more of that this summer when Quinn Hughes, Ryan Merkley and Ty Smith – none of whom even reach six feet in height – are vying for top-10 slots in the draft.
Clearly the position has changed in recent years and the fact that puck rushers are more valued than stay-at-home goliaths favors the quick, not necessarily the big. Karlsson is obviously the best in this sense, but the philosophical underpinning has already grabbed this year’s best draft prospect, Rasmus Dahlin. Now, Dahlin is intriguing because he has incredible offensive skills and skating ability in a 6-foot-2 frame – so he’s not small by any measure. But he converted from forward to defense as a 12-year-old and has realized that an elite blueliner can have an outsized impact on the game.
“You can score goals if you’re a D-man, too,” Dahlin said. “But D-men have the puck more. Before, ‘D’ was all hitting, but now they have to control the puck so I like it very much.”
Look atop the rookie scoring race through the first week of the season and you’ll see a couple of Devils. First overall in winger Jesper Bratt, quickly becoming one of the best storylines of the opening month. But second is Will Butcher, the highly acclaimed defenseman who comes in at 5-foot-10, but also packs a dynamic skills package. Butcher has five assists in his first three games and has been a terror on the power play for the surprising Devils.
Meanwhile, one of the few positive stories coming out of Montreal so far has been the rapid ascent of 5-foot-9 defenseman Victor Mete, who is still eligible to play in the world juniors for Canada in December. Mete is a tremendous offensive blueliner and an underrated defender. Montreal’s defense corps got older and slower over the summer, so Mete’s NHL debut was just the tonic the team needed (at least in the big picture – the Habs are still struggling).
Over in Nashville, the Predators are dealing with the loss of Ellis (knee surgery) in part by giving 5-foot-10 Samuel Girard his first shot at the NHL lineup (and Roman Josi's lower body injury really paved the way for Girard). In his debut against Philadelphia, the slick puckmover played with 6-foot-4 veteran Mattias Ekholm and picked up his first point in the process. Girard can also play for Canada at the world juniors this year.
This is not to say that big defensemen are out. Gabriel Carlsson has brought his reach and smarts to Columbus, while Mikhail Sergachev has started off his NHL career in Tampa Bay with solid minutes – but neither guy is a slug on his skates, either.
But the NHL world has definitely opened up over the years. Whether it’s Karlsson, Ellis or Jared Spurgeon, or the next wave of Mete, Girard and Butcher, it’s the skills and the skating that are getting noticed over the height and the weight on the blueline.