One speaks of rookie "crops," perhaps because, to wily veterans, rookies are green and ripe for the plucking, like avocados. This is especially true of rookie defensemen, whom their goaltenders more often view as turnstiles than brick walls. First-year defensemen so rarely excel that only four times in the 41-year history of the Calder Trophy, the NHL's Rookie-of-the-Year award, has a defenseman won it (1963: Kent Douglas; 1964: Jacques Laperriere; 1967: Bobby Orr; 1974: Denis Potvin). Says Colorado Rockies General Manager Ray Miron, succinctly, "Good defensemen are tougher to find than good forwards."
Miron should know. In 6'3", 216-pound Barry Beck he had the prize avocado of last year's exceptional crop. Beck is built like an unusually strong football player. His nickname is Bubba, after former NFL Defensive End Bubba Smith. When asked after whom he modeled himself as a young hockey player, Bubba says, "Dick Butkus." He is not, however, a "goon," as evidenced by his scoring totals as a rookie: 22 goals and 60 points—both league records for first-year defensemen. These stats should have set him off as an anomaly, a rookie excelling from the blue line. But they didn't. He had company.
Reed Larson of Detroit also scored a record 60 points last year. Stefan Persson of the New York Islanders had 56 points in only 66 games, including a rookie-record 50 assists. Brad Maxwell of Minnesota set team records for goals (18) and points (47) by a blue-liner and led the entire league with 12 power-play goals from defense. Doug Wilson topped all Chicago defensemen in scoring with 34 points. Robert Pi-card of Washington didn't score the first of his 10 goals until Dec. 7, but woke up in time to lead the Capitals with four game-winning goals.
Curiously, this new breed of defenseman knows no regional bounds. Persson is from Sweden. Beck and Maxwell are from western Canada and were junior teammates in New Westminster, British Columbia. Larson, a former student at the University of Minnesota, is from Minneapolis. Picard is a French Canadian from Montreal, and Wilson is from Ontario. All have good size (Larson is the shortest at six feet, Maxwell the lightest at 180) and hard shots and play the point on their clubs' power play. But they all also kill penalties.
"It was just a fluke that all these guys came at once," says Chicago Coach Bob Pulford. "It's the best group I can remember. They're not the guys that stand back and hit, but there's an aspect to the athlete today that the old guys didn't have. They're bigger and faster, and they all grew up watching Bobby Orr play defense by controlling play in both ends of the ice. I don't think there's any question that Orr revolutionized the way defense is played."
Many feel that the 6'2", 210-pound Picard may turn out to be the best of the crop. In fact, the Montreal Canadiens have tried to acquire him from the Capitals for the last five months; their last offer of three players from their Stanley Cup roster was rejected last week.
Picard says that as a youngster he remembers hearing people talk about Montreal All-Star Doug Harvey, who was named the NHL's best defenseman seven times. "He was the kind of guy who would sit back in his own end of the ice and relax and pass the puck and control the game," Picard says. "Bobby Orr liked to control the puck, too—but in the offensive end. Before Orr, they used to be defensive defensemen. I don't want to take anything away from Ed Van Impe and those big, hard-hitting guys who used to be around, but today's defensemen must move the puck and skate and follow the play."
One of the reasons for Persson's successful switch from the Swedish National team to the Islanders last year was that Europeans make their defensemen move the puck with passes, and this is the strongest part of Persson's game. The 6'1", 185-pound Persson has a scholar's demeanor, and on defense he is more skilled at steering a player to the corner than knocking him through it. "I was used to the speed of the NHL game because of playing in the World Championships against the Czechs and Russians," Persson says, "but the body checking here took a while to get used to. Still, after the stories you hear, I was surprised it wasn't rougher."
Indeed, neither Persson nor Chicago's Wilson was in a fight last year, and only Beck, who grew up in ex-Canadien brawler John Ferguson's Vancouver neighborhood, earned a reputation as a fighter. Early in the season, Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren inadvisedly challenged Bubba and got a pounding for his bravado, making Beck the unofficial heavyweight champ of the league, if a highly reluctant one.
Of the sophomores, Persson has the most savvy on the ice, but it is Beck whose defensive skills most nearly match his offensive talents. "The western Canadian coaches teach you that the man who doesn't have the puck is the most dangerous guy," Beck says. "That's the Russian theory, too, and it's made it easier for me to adjust to the speed of this league. Still, it will be four or five years before I reach my peak. Defensemen take longer because there's more to learn. Guy Lafleur's a forward, and it took him three years. Denis Potvin just reached his peak after five."
Well, avocados take time to ripen, too.