Playoff fire awaits Werenski, Jones, more young defensemen
When Seth Jones entered the NHL, coach Barry Trotz saw a player not intimidated by pressure or expectations.
The son of former NBA power forward Popeye Jones, already a No. 1 defenseman in his fourth season, is now about to face the biggest challenge of his career. In a couple of weeks, Jones and 19-year-old Columbus Blue Jackets defense partner Zach Werenski will go up against opponents' top players in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
''They've got two dynamic people,'' Trotz said. ''I know Jonesy, he's been in the league a few years so he's got some experience. Werenski is a real gem of a talent.''
Youth along the blue line will be served this postseason. Jones and Werenski are among more than two dozen defensemen under the age of 24 filling prominent roles.
Along with Jones - who played six playoff games with the Nashville Predators in 2015 - the Edmonton Oilers have a 23-year-old top defenseman in Oskar Klefbom, the Toronto Maple Leafs another in Morgan Rielly and the Ottawa Senators ask a lot out of 23-year-old Cody Ceci.
There's also Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin in Minnesota, Colton Parayko in St. Louis, Brandon Carlo in Boston and Brady Skjei with the New York Rangers. They could all soon be confronting the same thoughts Oliver Ekman-Larsson experienced during his first NHL postseason.
''I was just excited to be on the ice with those guys and not try to get burned by some superstar,'' the Arizona Coyotes defenseman said. ''It feels like everybody's stepping up a couple levels and it's a different style of hockey.''
With the pressure on last spring, young Washington Capitals defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt made mistakes that turned them into healthy scratches after being lineup mainstays during the regular season. Trotz called it ''next-level hockey'' and said the first postseason taste can be eye-opening for young players.
Rielly, who could help the Maple Leafs to their second playoff appearance in 12 season, expects to ''learn on the fly'' alongside 22-year-old Connor Carrick and with the help of coach Mike Babcock.
''Every day, you're facing new challenges,'' Rielly said. ''We have a great coach who's played in these games his whole career as a coach. ... He certainly knows how to handle it.''
Jones, Werenski and 22-year-old Columbus teammate Ryan Murray have veteran coach John Tortorella to lean on, and 22-year-old Olli Maatta was part of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Cup run last year. Trotz said Werenski has adjusted well and that the Blue Jackets put him in the right situations, and Jones seems to have spent the entire season preparing for his playoff close-up.
''I've taken strides with my consistency,'' Jones said. ''That was probably my biggest struggle was consistency in my game. So this year playing alongside Zach as well I've been a lot more consistent with my game defensively and offensively.''
Offensively, there are no qualms with 23-year-olds Dougie Hamilton in Calgary and Hampus Lindholm in Anaheim, or Parayko, Skjei and Werenski. But knowing the stakes of playoff hockey means they'll be under the microscope whenever they touch the puck.
''Mistakes are magnified,'' veteran Maple Leafs defenseman Matt Hunwick said. ''You watch playoff games, and it seems like one mistake can cost you the game.''
EICHEL ON FIRE
Despite frustrations over what could be another disappointing season in Buffalo, Jack Eichel has been one of the league's top players over the past two months. Eichel leads the Sabres with 55 points on 23 goals and 32 assists in 55 games after missing the first 21 with a sprained left ankle.
Trouble is, the Sabres' playoff drought has reached a franchise-worst sixth consecutive season, and the Leafs have suddenly jumped ahead of the Sabres in rebuilding their franchise.
''Obviously, they're ahead of us,'' Eichel said. ''It's frustrating.''
The Detroit Red Wings' playoff streak is over after 25 seasons, the third-longest run in NHL history. The Red Wings last missed the playoffs in 1989-90 and since then have won the Cup four times.
The Edmonton Oilers' playoff drought is over after 10 seasons, by far the longest in the illustrious franchise's almost 40-year history. Said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top pick in the 2011 draft who will soon play his first NHL playoff game, ''We've had some tough years, but it's all worth it right now.''
GAME OF THE WEEK
The scuffling San Jose Sharks look to get back on track Friday night against league-leading scorer Connor McDavid and the Oilers.
Goals: Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh), 42; Points: McDavid, 89; Faceoff Percentage: Matt Duchene (Colorado), 62.8; Time On Ice: Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg), 27:27; Wins: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), 41; Goals-Against Average: Bobrovsky, 1.97; Save Percentage: Bobrovsky, .935.
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup four, not three, times during their 25-season playoff streak.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .