The Chosen Few: It's not easy being a rookie defenseman in the NHL

Rasmus Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen have lived up to their promise and look like stars in the making. After that, though, only a handful of rookie blueliners have been able to make an impact in their first big-league season.
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Who’s kidding who? As we enter the final quarter of the NHL regular season, Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson has both hands on the Calder Trophy. He’s got an all but insurmountable lead in goals (26) and points (56), and he’s lapping the field in game-winning goals (seven) and power-play points (16) and a bunch of other offensive categories, too.

But we’re not here to talk about Pettersson’s first-year dominance. We’ve covered that, again and again and again.

So, enough about the kid’s offense. Let’s talk about some kids on defense, instead.

Here’s an overview of the NHL’s freshmen blueliners this season:

– Fifty-nine rookie defensemen have played at least one game in the NHL this season, but only 34 have appeared in 10 games or more.

– Breaking it down further, only 16 have played 30-plus games – and a grand total of nine rookie defensemen have played 40 or more games this season.

– The rookie ‘D’ headliners, of course, are Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin (61 games, 20:52 average ice time) and Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen (62 games, 23:04 average ice time). They’re the only first-year defenders with more than 20 points (Dahlin 36, Heiskanen 27) as well as the only ones playing more than 20 minutes per game. That’s impressive in and of itself, and doubly so when you consider that they’re both still teenagers – Dahlin is 18, Heiskanen is 19. Add it all up, and they’re looking good to join Pettersson as finalists for the Calder Trophy.

– Let’s take a look at the other rookie D-men who have played at least 40 NHL games this season. Among the nine who qualify, Detroit demoted Dennis Cholowski (52 games) to the AHL on Feb. 14 to work on his defensive play, and Igor Ozhiganov (42 games) has been relegated to the press box in Toronto since the Maple Leafs acquired Jake Muzzin on Jan. 28. Cholowski, 21, was a first-round pick (20th overall) in 2016. There’s a lot to like about his skating and puck-moving ability, and he figures to be a key cog on the Wings’ blueline moving forward. Ozhiganov, on the other hand, is a 26-year-old who was signed to a one-year deal after spending most of the previous seven seasons in the KHL. He didn’t look out of place on the Leafs’ third pairing, but then again, he hasn’t seen the ice since Muzzin’s arrival so his future is murky beyond this season.

– Also among the nine who qualify, two are regulars on Ottawa’s blueline: Maxime Lajoie (56 games, 18:54 average ice time) and Christian Jaros (47 games, 14:05 average ice time). Lajoie started with a bang, posting seven points in his first six games, not bad for a player drafted in the fifth round (133rd overall) in 2016. He slowed down considerably with just eight points in his next 50 games, and it should be noted that his minus-25 rating is tied for second-worst in the league. But he’s playing nearly 19 minutes a night on a rebuilding Ottawa team that sits last overall, so a plus/minus number like that shouldn’t be too surprising. Jaros, like Lajoie, was also drafted in the fifth round, 139th overall in 2015. He’s been sheltered more than Lajoie, and missed some time here and there with injury, but he’s been with the Sens virtually all season – save for one game in AHL Belleville – and his strength is on the defensive side of the puck. Lest we forget, Ottawa also has 22-year-old super sophomore Thomas Chabot and a pair of 25-year-old veteran regulars in Cody Ceci and Dylan Demelo, plus 23-year-old rookie prospect Christian Wolanin (13 games, 15:12 average ice time), so there’s hope in Canada’s capital.

--Who else? Rounding out the nine rookie defensemen to play 40-plus games thus far are Pittsburgh’s Marcus Pettersson (64 games, 15:39 average ice time), Calgary’s Rasmus Andersson (59 games, 15:25 average ice time) and Minnesota’s Nick Seeler (57 games, 12:28 average ice time). Pettersson was drafted 38th overall by Anaheim in 2014, and arrived in Pittsburgh in December in the trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Ducks. Pettersson has been relied on more and more by the Penguins, playing close to 23 minutes twice in the past eight games. Andersson, a second-rounder (53rd overall) in 2015, has the makings for a two-way game, though he’s been slotted in a defensive role on Calgary’s third pairing. Seeler, 25, was a fifth-round pick in 2011 who had a 22-game stint with the Wild last season. He’s not going to bump Ryan Suter out of a job, but he’s holding his own as a gritty depth defender.

--Less than 40 NHL games but catching up fast: Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak (38 games, 18:36 average ice time) has become a reliable regular for the Lightning, and obviously you’re doing something right if you can crack that lineup...Oliver Kylington (35 games, 12:04 average ice time) had joined Rasmussen on Calgary’s third pairing, but the Flames’ acquisition of Oscar Fantenberg from Los Angeles at the trade deadline will likely cost Kylington some playing time…Filip Hronek (27 games) was recalled in Detroit around the time Cholowoski was sent down, and the Wings’ deadline trade of Nick Jensen appears to have opened up a spot for Hronek the rest of the season…Devon ‘Don’t Call Me Jonathan’ Toews (27 games) is riding a five-game point streak with the New York Islanders that has accounted for six of his 12 points this season…Arizona’s Ilya Lyubushkin (36 games), San Jose’s Radim Simek (34 games) and Pittsburgh’s Juuso Rikola (34 games) have worked their way into their team’s respective lineups…A couple first-rounders to keep an eye on are Anaheim’s Jacob Larsson (drafted 27th overall in 2015) and Chicago’s Henri Jokiharju (29th overall in 2017). They both clocked in at 38 NHL games before getting sent to the minors to work out the kinks. The Blackhawks have effectively replaced Jokiharju in the lineup with another rookie in Carl Dahlstrom (27 games), a second-round pick in 2013 who’s playing about 18 minutes a night.

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