DREW DOUGHTY KINGS
This is an article from the Oct. 4, 2010 issue
ZACH BOGOSIAN THRASHERS
TYLER MYERS SABRES
ERIK JOHNSON BLUES
HE MIGHT as well have been whining, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" from the backseat. As the Kings shuffled out of their dressing room to start a third-period power play in their 2008 season opener, at San Jose, a fidgety Drew Doughty, restive after an NHL career that was all of 40 minutes old, grumbled to fellow Los Angeles rookie Wayne Simmonds, "I've been out there, but I haven't been doing anything. I want to do something."
"Man," Simmonds whispered, "don't try anything risky."
So naturally Doughty played it as safe as a kid with a new skateboard in an empty swimming pool. He veered wide entering the offensive zone—into the midst of four Sharks—lost the puck to a pokecheck and watched helplessly as his giveaway turned into a two-on-one break and an easy San Jose goal.
"I'm lucky," Doughty recalled last month, "that it wasn't my first shift."
Look at him now, all grown up. Almost. A sage 20, he was a key member of Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics and a Norris Trophy finalist last season. He is the Norris favorite for 2010--11. Doughty is "a prodigy," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson says, which spiritually links Doughty to such blueliners as Ray Bourque and Denis Potvin, the rare defensemen who burst into the NHL as nearly finished products, making the most taxing position on the ice look like child's play. But Doughty merely is the most conspicuous example of the greening of the blue line. Since the league expanded from its Original Six more than four decades ago, there never have been so many defensemen who have been this good, this young.
The NHL, of course, has skewed young since the postlockout era began in 2005, when the debut seasons of 18-year-old Sidney Crosby and 20-year-old Alex Ovechkin coincided with a series of rules changes meant to boost offense—including the elimination of the red line. Most of the attention since has gone to those distinguished forwards, as well as to the Lightning's Steven Stamkos, 20, whose 51 goals last year made him the third-youngest player to reach the 50-goal mark. These puck prodigies put their hockey pants on one leg at a time. The difference is that callow defensemen can have their hockey pants taken off, undressed in front of 18,000 fans if they bite on a deke or blow a coverage. The subtleties of the blue line are exponentially greater, the reads trickier and the results potentially more humiliating than for their peers, who are not often required to skate backward. Becoming a superb NHL defenseman once involved a lengthy apprenticeship. Now draft 'em high, add ice and ... voil√†! Generation D.
"For a long time, especially in the early 2000s, the dominant defensemen were all approaching 40—guys like Chris Chelios, Al MacInnis," says Potvin, a Hall of Famer who won the Calder Trophy in 1974 and later four Stanley Cups. "Now there are some really impressive young guys like Doughty and Jack Johnson in L.A., Zach Bogosian in Atlanta and [the Blackhawks'] Duncan Keith, who's a little older [at 27]. If it's cyclical, this is a really strong cycle."
So give Generation D an A.
ALL RIGHT, quiz time. Jot down the NHL's best 15 defensemen. Now draw a line through the Red Wings' 40-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom and 37-year-old Brian Rafalski, and the Flyers' soon-to-be 36-year-old Chris Pronger. Who's left? Chances are most of the remaining players on your list, if sufficiently bribed or threatened, would be able to recall the lyrics to the theme song from Barney & Friends. Generation D men, who marry dexterity with temerity, dot the NHL landscape or, in the case of the Sabres' Tyler Myers, dominate it.
Myers is 6'8". This essentially makes the second-year defenseman the fourth tallest building in downtown Buffalo. Last June, at the tender age of 20, he became the sixth defenseman to win the Calder in the past three decades, which, in part, reflects the complexity of the position. Like many kids, Myers is still growing into his genes—he was 207 pounds at his first training camp, in 2008, and weighs 230 now—but his sideshow size has done nothing to hinder his smooth skating and nifty stickhandling, which is so deft that fellow Sabres defenseman Craig Rivet likens it to Mario Lemieux's. Like Doughty, the 20-year-old Bogosian, the Capitals' Mike Green (24) and revved-up Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban (21), Myers is hardly reticent about working all 200 feet. "That kid in Buffalo is in our end almost as much as their end," says Bruins senior adviser Harry Sinden, whose appreciation of precocious defensemen dates to Bobby Orr. "But he gets back, just like Orr did."
"The big change is this generation's skating," says Chelios, a three-time Norris Trophy winner who retired on Aug. 31 at the age of 48. "Twenty-five years ago some D skated so bad it was almost comical. These kids, they pretty much all can go."
They also all seem to possess Hammer of Thor shots from the point, even if the Blues' 22-year-old Erik Johnson has to be prodded into dropping the hammer. After home games MacInnis, now the St. Louis vice president of hockey operations, walks through the dressing room, glances at Johnson and sadly shakes his head in tacit disapproval if the kid has failed to unload enough strike-fear-in-the-goalie shots. Johnson already has been an Olympian—he played on Team USA's blue line in Vancouver along with the Kings' Johnson, 23, and the Predators' smooth-as-Sinatra Ryan Suter, 25—but his status as a savant has been downgraded since he had reconstructive surgery on his right knee following a cart accident at a team golf outing in 2008. The mishap, which happened when his foot got stuck between the accelerator and the brake and sidelined him for the entire '08--09 season, is etched in hockey's collective memory as surely as names are engraved annually on the Stanley Cup. "I know that's what people think of first," says Johnson, whom the Blues drafted first overall in 2006, "but if I'm a Norris Trophy winner, if I win a Cup, if I'm a model citizen ... those are the things that ultimately will stay with them."
Johnson's permanent record also includes an eight-foot pass he made in the gold medal game against Canada. He was wheeling around the net while trying to fend off Mike Richards and dished the puck to Rafalski's backhand, putting the veteran in a vulnerable position. Richards stripped the puck from Rafalski, and Jonathan Toews promptly gave Canada a 1--0 lead. Johnson remains unapologetic. "If it had been one of my defense partners in St. Louis, he probably would have been expecting that pass," Johnson says. "Really, I make that play a lot." The kids of Generation D occasionally might be wrong, but they aren't diffident.
They gambol in a salary-cap league where their age and experience level makes them relatively inexpensive. "They aren't on pins and needles worrying if they make a bad pass that they're going to be sat down or sent back [to the minors]," veteran Capitals right wing Mike Knuble notes. They wheel the net and start the rush because they won't be obstructed under the postlockout rules that cracked down on hooking and holding. And they shine because they have been schooled more thoroughly and thoughtfully than their predecessors, which shifts their stories from the thunderdomes of the NHL to smaller arenas in places like Kelowna, B.C., and Guelph, Ont. And even Ashburnham, Mass.
IN THE LATE afternoon of the wintry Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, a 17-year-old Tyler Myers was hustling to the rink. He was late coming from school. He wanted to work on his sticks before practice. When he reached the dressing room of the Kelowna Rockets, a Western Hockey League power of the past decade, he found written in green marker on the knob of each stick:
This was not Sesame Street; the letter S was not sponsoring practice. But in a vibrant color and capital letters, Rockets coach Ryan Huska and his assistant, Jeff Finley, were imparting a lesson. Myers had been playing as if he were a 6-footer, and Finley's daily hectoring about using his stick to increase his sphere of influence had yet to sink in. But when he saw the word stick, Myers says, the light bulb went on. "I played six years with [the 6'6"] Pronger and saw how he used his size and how large an area he could control with his reach," says Finley, 43, a former defenseman who played 708 games over 15 NHL seasons. "Tyler wasn't good at it. In fact, it never had crossed his mind how effective he could be if he used the stick.... We were teaching him to use [it] but also how to play people one-on-one, how to read a rush, how to play an odd-man rush. This was pro-type stuff intended to prepare him for the pro game."
"Myers would have been impressive in any era with his size and skating," says Red Wings assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, who played alongside Bourque, Lidstrom and Pronger in their early years. "He would have been making good plays, but the holes in his game would have been apparent. He'd be running around more and picked apart a lot if he hadn't been taught good habits by a solid NHL defenseman like Finley. The stuff like stick and body position and using the wall [to clear pucks from the defensive zone] ... a lot of that was hit or miss years ago until the coaching in juniors got so good."
In the past decade, since Rockets owner Bruce Hamilton revamped his club to mirror an NHL franchise, ensuring his coaching staffs always included someone capable of teaching advanced defensive principles, a series of respected junior coaches and assistants with pro blue line experience have sent a disproportionate number of talented defensemen to the NHL. There are as many defensemen from Kelowna in the league as there are linebackers from Penn State in the NFL. They include Myers; Keith, the 2010 Norris winner; Nashville's 25-year-old Shea Weber, whose muscular shot ripped right through Germany's net in an 8--2 Team Canada victory at the 2010 Olympics; the Canucks' Alex Edler, 24; and the developing Luke Schenn, 20, in Toronto. "The days in junior hockey when a 19-year-old would mentor a 16-year-old, show him the game, are over," Hamilton says. "Now it's coaches.... We spend a lot of time on fundamentals, showing our D-men where to be in their end of the ice."
Kelowna, of course, has not cornered the market on hockey knowledge. Doughty played with the Guelph Storm for former NHL forward Dave Barr and assistant Jason Brooks, now the Storm's coach, who harped on stick positioning and keeping his "head on a swivel." Doughty also learned the principles of right place, right time. Sometimes you need that in life, too. When Bogosian left his hometown of Massena, N.Y., to attend Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, a detour before a junior career in Peterborough, Ont., he was fortunate to spend a season being instructed by a Cushing teammate's father, a gentleman by the name of Bourque. "One thing that Ray stressed was he liked to come late and jump into the rush from the off side [opposite the puck]," Bogosian says. "He'd try it at least once a game. When Ray says something, it pretty much sticks with you."
"All these kids have been fast-tracked because of what's happening at the lower levels," Senators general manager Bryan Murray says. "When a guy like Denis Potvin was coming up, there were smaller teams, smaller programs, not as good competition. Now there's an all-star system. The best kids get to play internationally. It forces guys to get good in a hurry."
"[They] are more mature," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau says. "You used to think of defensemen as guys who didn't make it until they were 28, 29. I can't tell you why it's happened, but I also think that if you see a young defenseman who can play, you're more apt to play him than a young forward ... because every team is looking for a defenseman."
So, are they there yet? Are they there yet? Not only are they there, they're everywhere.
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Al MacInnis on Erik Johnson: "He sees the ice and has an absolute bomb of a shot, but for me the most striking part of his game is [his] mobility. He's one of the few guys in the league who, when he really winds up, he seems to be skating faster with the puck than he does without it. When he starts wheeling it out of the [defensive] zone, especially on those four-on-fours or when there's some room [on] five-on-fives.... I don't know how he does it, but he's going faster with the puck when most guys carrying it have to slow down."
Chris Chelios on Drew Doughty: "I really noticed him at the Olympics. I was impressed with his vision on the ice, but the big thing for me is that he skates really well. He's obviously making a lot of the right decisions, not getting caught out of position, but because of his skating he can get back into the play, can pop right back in if he does get caught. [He] looks pretty confident to me. Comparing him to how I felt years ago, once you get that confidence, you feel like you can do it no matter what level you're at. Juniors. College. Pros."
Ray Bourque on Myers: "The striking thing is how well he moves. How tall is he? Six-five ... six-eight? You're telling me he's six-eight? I don't think I've ever seen a guy that big be so mobile. He already has so much poise and makes a great first pass. He came in and was pretty much [the Sabres'] best guy back there. That's incredible. With the physical and mental maturity bound to come his way in the next three or four years, Buffalo should be real excited."
Denis Potvin on Zach Bogosian:"I really like his body language [when] he moves the puck. I'm looking to see if a guy can move it on his forehand and on his backhand. Is he moving his feet when he makes a pass or do his feet stop? He moves 'em. I think those feet are a pretty good indication of where his game might be going, and Bogosian's body language tells me he's going beyond the 50-point [per season] level. He's got some headiness about his play. Bogosian should be a dominant player this year."