If never trust anyone over 30 was the motto of an earlier
generation, never trust a defenseman under 30 has been the rule
of thumb in the NHL. The league wouldn't know the Chicago Seven
from the Original Six, but it has known that the defensemen it
wants on the ice for 35 minutes a game are guys like Chris
Chelios of the Chicago Blackhawks and Raymond Bourque of the
Boston Bruins, players who have been around so long they are
eligible for the 10% seniors' discount at the drugstore.
This season the changing of the rear guard takes place. After
almost a decade during which most of the touted young blueliners
never reached their potential, there is a crop of defensemen 24
years or younger who are capable of elbowing--and checking and
scoring--their way into the elite group.
"Right now," Florida Panthers president Bill Torrey says, "we
are on the brink of another era of first-rate defensemen."
While there might not be an all-timer in the group, there are at
least four who have arrived at the chasm that separates the
greats in their mid-30s (and 28-year-old pup Brian Leetch of the
New York Rangers) from the mediocre players on the blue line in
October 6, 1996
Ed Jovanovski of Florida has received the biggest headlines
because last spring he took on the NHL's biggest force,
Philadelphia Flyers' center Eric Lindros, that 6'4", 229-pound
bundle of bad attitude. Jovanovski, 20, engaged Lindros in a
six-game series of seismic hits in the Eastern Conference
semifinals that caught the attention not only of the Flyers but
also of the entire hockey world. Of course, the 6'2", 205-pound
Jovanovski must smooth out some rough edges, but his ability to
hit, carry the puck and shoot makes him special. "A throwback to
the old days," says former NHL defenseman Ted Green, who is in
the Oilers' front office. "He can make the plays offensively and
is a great open-ice hitter. He has the ability to attain the
level of a player like [Hall of Famer] Denis Potvin."
If Jovanovski is the total package, two other defensemen might
be missing only the bows and the ribbons. Chris Pronger and the
St. Louis Blues were ousted after two playoff rounds last
season, but the 21-year-old imposed himself on the Detroit Red
Wings in the Western Conference semifinals. Pronger combines
ranginess (he's 6'5", 210 pounds) with confidence and puck sense.
The Dallas Stars' 24-year-old Derian Hatcher didn't have the
Stanley Cup showcase, though he distinguished himself last month
in the World Cup, scoring two goals for the U.S. in the first
game of the best-of-three finals. Hatcher displayed a
combination of toughness, surprising offensive instincts and
decent speed. "He looks like he's lumbering out there at times,"
Flyers coach Terry Murray says of the 6'5", 225-pounder, "but
he's tough and makes good decisions with the puck."
If Jovanovski, Pronger and Hatcher are the next two-way
defensive stars, Sandis Ozolinsh of the Colorado Avalanche is a
natural heir to the Red Wings' 35-year-old Paul Coffey as the
king of offensive blueliners. "The fact that Ozolinsh played so
well in the Stanley Cup finals last year is indicative of his
potential," Anaheim Mighty Ducks assistant coach Tim Army says.
The 24-year-old Ozolinsh, who had been spinning his wheels most
of the year, finally found fourth gear in the postseason as he
played with brio over 200 feet of ice.
After the collective groans concerning the dismal defensemen
drafted in the late 1980s, the optimism over the young group is
refreshing. The question is, What took so long? The NHL, bless
its introspective soul, might not have answers, but it does have
Theory No. 1: The tag-up offsides rule impeded the development
The NHL introduced the tag-up rule in 1986 in an effort to
reduce the number of offsides and to speed play. Before the rule
change, offsides was whistled immediately if attacking players
were in the offensive zone when the puck crossed the blue line.
Back then a defenseman had to stickhandle, pass, yo-yo the puck
to his partner, do something until his teammates got back
onside. Only then would he shoot the puck back into the zone.
For the last 10 years a defenseman didn't need that bag of
tricks. He could simply fire the puck into the offensive zone at
any time, even if his forwards were well past the blue line; all
his forwards had to do was skate back to the blue line and tag
up--like a runner going back to third base before scoring on a
sacrifice fly--and then chase the puck into the attacking zone.
After experimenting with the old offsides rule in the exhibition
season, NHL general managers voted on Sept. 25 to rescind the
"I think the tag-up rule allowed bigger people to play at a
lesser skill level because you didn't have to handle the puck,"
says Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Brad McCrimmon, a 17-year
veteran. Even rookie Coyotes coach Don Hay, a former junior
coach who insists the effect of the tag-up rule on development
is overblown, agrees the return to the old rules will penalize
the lumbering defenseman who handles the puck as if it were a
hand grenade with the pin pulled.
Theory No. 2: The change in defensive strategy in the NHL during
the past decade has stifled the development of backliners.
When the last group of brilliant defensemen blossomed, the
Edmonton Oilers dynasty was in full flower. The Oilers, who took
five Cups in seven seasons between 1983-84 and 1989-90, won with
attacking, freewheeling hockey first made possible, in part, by
the speed and offensive style of Coffey. When Coffey, who has
scored more points than any defenseman in NHL history, was
traded to Pittsburgh in 1987, the Penguins used that same
attacking style to win the Cup in 1991 and '92. But with the
addition of five franchises this decade--and the dilution of
talent--came the neutral-zone trap.
The trap is a model of forechecking simplicity that reduces the
options for both those playing the system and those playing
against it. Creativity was out; short head-man passes or
chipping the puck out of the zone were in. Jacques Lemaire, who
coached the New Jersey Devils to the 1995 Cup with the help of
the trap, kept the shackles even on defenseman Scott
Niedermayer, whose coast-to-coast goal in Game 2 of the finals
against Detroit that spring and his instant replay for Canada
against Sweden in the World Cup last month offered tantalizing
glimpses of his gifts. There have been rushing defensemen coming
out of junior hockey, but they are being muffled by the NHL's
dependence on the trap.
St. Louis Blues coach Mike Keenan is a contrarian, which augurs
well for Pronger. When Keenan's 1993-94 Rangers won the Stanley
Cup, defenseman Sergei Zubov led New York in scoring and Leetch
was tied for third. Pronger should have a similar opportunity to
play a two-way game for the Blues, at least if he and the coach
are still speaking by Christmas. (Last September, Keenan ripped
Pronger because he showed up for training camp out of shape.)
Dallas general manager Bob Gainey thinks that "in two or three
years [Pronger] could turn the league upside down." Says Ottawa
Senators general manager Pierre Gauthier, "Pronger's got skill
and physical presence. He's got more jam." We'll see. Pronger
can use Keenan's platform as a springboard to greatness or as a
tower off which to jump.
Theory No. 3: The arrival of good defensemen is an overdue
correction in the market, part of the natural hockey cycle.
The theory behind door No. 3 looks like a winner. Washington
Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld, a solid NHL defenseman for 13
seasons and a proponent of the cycle theory, says there always
will be ebb and flow. "Until Bobby Orr came along," Schoenfeld
says, "the best young players didn't want to be defensemen. He
changed the minds of those eight-, nine- and 10-year-olds who
then wanted to grow up to be the next Orr. Bourque and Coffey
are of that generation. Then Wayne Gretzky came along, and all
the kids wanted to be centers. You always make believe you're
some star when you play in the street, right?"
The wheel has turned. Expansion came, and all but the forlorn
Senators looked to the model of hockey's best start-from-scratch
team, the New York Islanders of the 1970s. Torrey built those
Islanders from the back out, using Potvin as the cornerstone. He
did the same for Florida by drafting Jovanovski in 1994 as the
overall No. 1 pick.
Defense has become the sexy position in the draft of the 1990s.
In a belated effort to emulate a professional hockey team,
Ottawa selected defenseman Chris Phillips first overall in June,
the fourth time in five years that a defenseman was taken as No.
1. In 1995 defensemen went 1-2-3 in the draft. In 1994 Oleg
Tverdovsky of Phoenix was picked right after Jovanovski. The
position requires a longer apprenticeship than forward--"You
have to have seen a situation and been burned before you can
master it," Islanders coach and general manager Mike Milbury
says--but with defensemen at the top of recent drafts, at least
a few seem destined to break through.
If there was a symbolic changing of the guard, it occurred in
Game 5 of the Florida-Boston playoff series last spring when
Bill Lindsay, a winger with nice but not blinding speed, beat
Bourque to the outside, cut in and scored the series-winning
goal from his knees. Bourque, a first-team All-Star as a rookie,
is a player whose greatness is not that he is a 35-year-old who
looks 18, but that he was once an 18-year-old who played like
35. When the sturdy and steadfast Bourque couldn't fend off
Lindsay in a critical situation, it was a reminder that he can't
beat back time forever.
"You can say the veterans set a standard so high that almost no
one could match it," says Potvin, a Panthers broadcaster. "When
I retired in 1988 there were Bourque and Coffey and Al MacInnis,
and Larry Robinson was still playing tremendous hockey. There
were probably more good defensemen in that soon-to-be-graduated
class than we have ever seen at one time in the NHL."
Bourque and Chelios will be among the best defensemen at the end
of 1996-97, but they will have youthful company at long last. In
addition to the big four, you can find Lidstrom Lovers
(Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom), Gonchar Groupies (Washington's
Sergei Gonchar) and Foote Fetishists (Adam Foote of Colorado).
The change is at hand.