Tyler Myers, all 6'8" of him, might put his pants on one leg at a time—36-inch inseam—but like most NHL defensemen he can be undressed in a hurry. In the sixth game of the season, the Sabres rookie was caught leaning to the outside by Maxim Afinogenov, the dashing Atlanta right wing, who then zipped inside him to score. When Myers went to the bench, Buffalo captain Craig Rivet, also a defenseman, told him, "Don't worry. That's the first time it happened, but it won't be the last."
This is an article from the Dec. 21, 2009 issue
Then, over the next two months, the strangest thing happened: Myers hardly made another glaring mistake.
Playing with Henrik Tallinder on the No. 1 pairing, the 19-year-old is matched against top-line forwards. In a 3--0 win over Washington last week, Myers handled the league's toughest assignment—blanketing left wing Alex Ovechkin. Myers works the power play and kills penalties, and at week's end he led the team in ice time, with an average of 22:24. "I don't want to go insane here," says Rivet, who calls Myers the Sabres' best defenseman, "but in addition to being a great skater, he's even more exciting as a stickhandler."
Considering he plays a position that has historically required a long apprenticeship, Myers's NHL debut has been more impressive than even the rookie-best 15 goals and 27 points by Islanders center John Tavares. But Myers is not only the league's top rookie, he's also one of a glut of precocious defensemen from the 2008 draft—Los Angeles's Drew Doughty and Atlanta's Zach Bogosian among them—who've assumed roles and minutes that were almost unthinkable a decade ago. "The big difference is the increased mobility of this generation of defensemen," says Edmonton assistant G.M. Kevin Prendergast. "They're bigger and stronger, and they're training differently. They're around hockey 12 months a year."
Myers, the 12th player—and fifth defenseman—drafted in 2008, grew up ... and up ... near Houston but became submerged in hockey year-round when his father, Paul, who is in the oil business, was transferred to Calgary in 2000. "A lot more teams there," Myers says, "a lot more excitement around the sport." Although Myers represented the U.S. in an under-18 tournament in 2007, he switched his hockey allegiance after acquiring Canadian citizenship and starred for his new country at the 2009 world juniors. "The move [to Calgary] really contributed to who I am," he says. "If I'd stayed in Texas, I would have probably concentrated on basketball."
While not nearly as imposing as 6'9", 255-pound Zdeno Chara, Boston's 32-year-old Norris Trophy defenseman, Myers, at 222 pounds, is way ahead of the teenaged Chara, who was basically a dancing bear when the Islanders drafted him in 1996. "There are things Tyler can improve: his strength along the boards, his shot, his pivoting," says ever-cautious Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff. "But at least we know he won't be getting shorter—unless he plays until he's 70."
Now on SI.com
Michael Farber's On the Fly and Allan Muir's Power Rankings at SI.com/nhl