Breakout Defenders: five under-the-radar rearguards stepping up this season

John Carlson is far and away the top newsmaker among defensemen, but October has proven to be a good month for a handful of under-the-radar defensemen playing key roles this season. Here's a look at five players who deserve a lot of credit so far this season.
Author:
Publish date:

We're finally closing in on the one-month mark of the NHL season, meaning we're close to finally putting the "it's too early" claims to rest. How cool is it that we'll see John Carlson record 135 points with the Washington Capitals this season?

If he was to keep shooting at 20 percent and hold on to his 1.64 points-per-game average, Carlson would tie Bobby Orr's remarkable 1974-75 campaign and post the third-highest offensive output by a defenseman in a single season. That's extremely unrealistic given the goals-per-game average was 3.43 that season and last season's 3.01 mark was the first time since 2005-06 the NHL eclipsed the three-goal barrier. It's also unrealistic given Paul Coffey (103 in 1989-90), Al MacInnis (103 in 1990-91) and Brian Leetch (102 in 1991-92) are the only defensemen who have crossed the 100-point threshold since Carlson was born in 1990. Regardless, it's fun to admire just how incredible the Capitals blueliner has been this season as he battles David Pastrnak and Leon Draisaitl for the league-lead in points early on.

But Carlson's defense partner, Michal Kempny, deserves some recognition for his strong start, too. Kempny was a healthy scratch on occasion during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks before becoming a legitimate top-four defenseman with the Caps last season, recording a career-high 25 points in 71 contests. After missing the start of the season due to a torn hamstring suffered late last season, Kempny has recorded five points in his first six games, including a two-goal effort against Vancouver last Friday. Sure, having the top-scoring defenseman in the NHL by your side will boost your point total, but Kempny hasn't looked out of place.

And that got us thinking. Which other defensemen are exceeding expectations this season? Here's a look at five rearguards stepping up early in 2019-20:

MacKenzie Weegar, Florida Panthers
Weegar missed a significant chunk of 2018-19, but finished the regular season off strong and posted a career-high 15 points alongside Keith Yandle. It was a good run, but the addition of Anton Stralman to the fray meant that Weegar was going to have to fight to earn ice time this season. Or so we thought. Weegar, who leads all Cats defensemen with three goals and nine points, has spent most of the season on Florida's top pairing with Aaron Ekblad, finally becoming a consistent 20-minute-a-night defender despite having a career-average of just under 16 minutes before this season. Weegar's 58.43 Corsi-for percentage is the third-best among defenseman at 5-on-5, with Ekblad leading the way at 60.43. Is Weegar's play sustainable? That's the true question.

Ethan Bear, Edmonton Oilers
Evan Bouchard may have been the big-name prospect Oilers fans were most excited about, but Bear has quickly established himself as an unlikely Calder Trophy candidate. Arguably Edmonton's best defenseman on most nights, Bear leads all rookies with an average ice time of 21:16, almost a full minute more than one of the pre-season Calder favorites, Quinn Hughes, and just under three more than Cale Makar, who had short odds to win the rookie of the year award. Despite posting just four points in 14 games, Bear has adjusted well to life beside Darnell Nurse on Edmonton's top pairing, with Bear's 50.83 Corsi percentage putting him first among Oilers defensemen with at least 10 games played. Bear entered training camp quicker and stronger than in the past and his on-ice performance reflects that.

Sean Walker, Los Angeles Kings
Few players, regardless of position, have come out of nowhere like Walker has this season. The undrafted, undersized blueliner sits second behind Drew Doughty (nine) for the team-lead in points by a defenseman with three goals and six points, four points shy of his 39-game total as a rookie last year. Walker's 58.71 Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 is good for second among defenseman with at least 200 minutes played this season – essentially, all top-four defensemen at this point. The Kings haven't hesitated to give him important minutes, and that's a good confidence boost for a player who wasn't expected to play a prominent role this early. As the Kings continue to get more comfortable giving him 20 minutes per game, we'll start to see what Walker's ceiling might be.

Brad Hunt, Minnesota Wild
We're nearly a full month into the season, and up until a few nights ago, Hunt was the Wild's top scorer with seven points in the team's first 11 games. That says a bit more about Minnesota's struggles than anything, but among all defensemen with at least 150 minutes of ice time this season, Hunt sits fifth in the league with an on-ice expected goals percentage of 61.4 percent in 5-on-5 play. Jared Spurgeon is second on the Wild at 53.5 percent. Hunt has recorded a shot in all but one game (the season-opener against Nashville) and his play has even earned him some time on the second power play unit with Matt Dumba. Hunt has bounced around over the past half-decade, but his play has been solid for a team that hasn't had much to get excited about this season.

Taylor Fedun, Dallas Stars
There hasn't been much to cheer about in Texas this season – you were so close, Astros! – but Fedun has done everything in his power to stay in the NHL full-time for the first time in his career. With five assists in 11 games, including three over his past four games, Fedun has made his mark on the scoresheet. When paired with Jamie Oleksiak on Dallas' third-pairing this year, the duo has an expected goals-against of 2.3, first among defense pairings with at least 90 minutes of ice time (although Fedun has found himself with Joel Hanley lately). Fedun has never been a big offensive contributor, so who knows how likely he is to continue this hot start. But for a team struggling out of the gate, Fedun has been a pleasant surprise for the Stars.

Stats from Money Puck and Natural Stat Trick.

Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

TOP HEADLINES

USATSI_15654961_168393426_lowres
Play

NHL Power Rankings: Golden All the Way

Vegas is on top thanks to their two-way ace and their veteran goaltender. Where does your team rank?

Jennifer-Botterill

Q&A: Sportsnet's Breakout Star Analyst Jennifer Botterill

One of hockey's best and busiest studio analysts caught up with the Hockey News to discuss her evolution on Hockey Night in Canada, competing on 'Battle of the Blades' and much more.

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Play

'Kirill the Thrill' Has Been Exactly as Advertised

Kaprizov has made the Minnesota Wild a better team in the early days of his NHL career. His arrival took a while, but it's been absolutely worth every second.