Thursday, September 4, 2008

Who's the best young defenseman?

Of all the "best young" features that Hound Central 4.0 will produce this week, this one -- profiling the top young defensemen in the NHL -- contains the most surprises. And the most names

While most of the names will be familiar, more familiar names have fallen off the top five listings. And it's not just because they're older than 25, as of Oct. 4. Nope, the winds of change were brought about by changes to Hound Central 4.0's formulaic criteria for defensemen.

Beyond scoring, games played and plus-minus, the staples for past editions, this season's rankings incorporate more defensive-minded statistics into the equation: blocked shots, hits and a player's giveaway/takeway score.

As you'll soon see, it led to a nearly widespread shuffling in the rankings. No longer on these lists: Pittsburgh's Ryan Whitney, Nashville's Shea Weber and Tampa Bay's Matthew Carle, three of last year's top five.

Instead, they've been replaced by some surprising names, players who play a more complete game:

No. 5: Dan Hamhuis
Nashville Predators
25 years old (12.13.82)
Drafted 12th overall in 2001
The skinny: While it's easy to get lost in the shuffle of the Predators blueline, Hamhuis stood shoulders above teammates Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. He likes to hit (162) and posted a respectable 27 points. Only a minus 4 kept him from fourth place.
Last season's rankings: n/a

No. 4: Duncan Keith
Chicago Blackhawks
25 years old (7.16.83)
Drafted 54th overall in 2002
The skinny: Over time, the Blackhawks have been blessed with great defensemen: Pierre Pilote, Chris Chelios, the late Keith Magnuson, Doug Wilson, Bob Murray and, yes, Bobby Orr. It's time to add Keith's name to the list. Look beyond his 32 points and plus-30. Marvel at his 115 blocked shots and plus-11 in giveways/takeaways. This guy is good. Real good.
Last season's ranking: n/a

No. 3: Brent Seabrook
Chicago Blackhawks
23 years old (4.20.85)
Drafted 14th overall in 2003
The skinny: Well, if Keith makes the list of Chicago's top defensemen, I better add Seabrook as well. He loves to hit. He loves to block shots. And, like Keith, he pitches in offensively. What more can I say? The Blackhawks are blessed on the blueline.
Last season's ranking: n/a

No. 2: Dan Girardi
New York Rangers
24 years old (4.29.84)
Signed as a free agent in 2006
The skinny: If this isn't the biggest surprise on the list, I don't know who else I could name. Ulf Samuelsson? Seriously, though, this kid is flying under way too many radars. If you haven't heard of him by now, you will soon enough. A Memorial Cup winner with the London Knights, he's not afraid to sacrifice his body -- 179 hits and 123 blocked shots. Twenty-eight points in a full 82-game season only help his cause.
Last season's ranking: n/a

No. 1: Dion Phaneuf
Calgary Flames
23 years old (4.10.85)
Drafted 9th overall in 2003
The skinny: As much of a surprise as Girardi may be, there's should be little debate as to who is the best young defenseman. Hands down, it's Phaneuf. He can skate. He can score. He plays the point on the Flames' power play. His mile-wide mean streak (194 hits) can scare the living snot out of you, too. I only hope that being the cover boy for EA Sports' NHL09 doesn't prove to be a jinx.
Last season's ranking: No. 2

Ones to watch

These young defenseman, in alphabetical order, have either already made, or will soon make, their presences felt on NHL bluelines. I won't apologize for the length of this list, either. The NHL is deep in young defensemen:

Jay Bouwmeester, Florida Panthers
25 years old (9.27.83) / 3rd overall in 2002 Draft
The skinny: Really, I expected more out of Jay-Bo last season. Hence, his fall from the No. 3 spot on last year's list. Perhaps the arrival of Bryan McCabe, as well as a season under the belts of the Panthers young core, will help both the team and Bouwmeester. Age alone knocks hom off next year's list.

Brent Burns, Minnesota Wild
23 years old (3.9.85) / 20th overall in 2003 Draft
The skinny: Quietly, Burns put together a solid offensive campaign (15-28=43, 8 PPG, 4 GWG) within Minnesota's defense-first system last season. Because of that, expectations will be higher this season. There's plenty of room for improvement on the defensive side of his game. Patience will pay off here.

Braydon Coburn, Philadelphia Flyers
23 years old (2.27.85) / 8th overall (Atlanta) in 2003 Draft
The skinny: Though slightly prone to turning over the puck, there are few holes in Coburn's game. Points (36) and power play goals (5) are plentiful for a defenseman. A plus-17 shows he's not a defensive liability.

Tobias Enstrom, Atlanta Thrashers
23 years old (11.5.84) / overall in 200 Draft
The skinny: A pleasant surprise out of camp last year, he brought some offensive pop (5-33=38) to Blueland's blueline. He'll block shots (106), but shies away from hitting (21). Thrashers fans must drool at the thought of Enstrom and Zach Bogosian (No. 3 overall in 2008) on defense.

Tom Gilbert, Edmonton Oilers
25 years old (1.10.83) / 129th overall in 2002 Draft
The skinny: Though he's not a big hitter (27), Gilbert has no problem laying down to block shots (159). With 13 goals among his 33 points, scoring isn't a problem. Greater concentration to defense will round out his game.

Mike Green, Washington Capitals
22 years old (10.12.85) / 29th overall in 2004 Draft
The skinny: When I started researching this list, I figured Green would pose some serious competition for Phaneuf as the game's young top defenseman. It wasn't even close. Granted, Green posted a ton of points (56, including 18 goals). But he logged less than 100 hits (94) and blocked only 68 shots. He's kind of sloppy with the puck, too.

Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues
20 years old (3.21.88) / 1st overall in 2006 Draft
The skinny: Just another key part in the rebuilding project going on in St. Louis. Another season of tutelage under Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman, Jay McKee and Al MacInnis will only hasten the maturation process. Another instance where patience will be rewarded.

Jack Johnson, Los Angeles Kings
21 years old (1.13.87) / 3rd overall in 2005 Draft
The skinny: With Jonathan Bernier, Drew Doughty (No. 2 overall in 2008), Alexander Frolov and Anze Kopitar, Johnson joins a talented nucleus with the Kings' young lineup. His talents will become better known as the Kings' fortunes improve.

Brian Lee, Ottawa Senators
21 years old (3.26.87) / 9th overall in 2005 Draft
The skinny: Given the departures of Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros from Ottawa's defensive unit, the University of North Dakota product stands a chance of cracking the Senators' opening-night lineup as a rookie. If not, he'll do it soon enough.

Andrej Meszaros, Tampa Bay Lightning
25 years old (10.13.85) / 23rd overall in 2004 Draft
The skinny: In surfing the Web recently, I ran across some blog comments that thanked the Lightning for taking Meszaros off the Senators' hands. Mez, as they call him, wasn't as good as everyone believes him to be, that his game suffered after Zdeno Chara signed with Boston. I don't buy that. In fact, I look forward to watching this kid blossom into a premiere blueliner.

Matt Niskanen, Dallas Stars
21 years old (12.6.86) / 28th overall in 2005 Draft
The skinny: When your teammates are Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow, Jere Lehtinen, Sergei Zubov and Marty Turco, it's understandable that a player like Niskanen might go unnoticed. Though he could improve the physicality of his play (47 hits and 62 blocked shots), he brings enough offense (7-19=26 and a plus-22) to the table.

Paul Ranger, Tampa Bay Lightning
24 years old (9.12.84) / 183rd overall in 2002 Draft
The skinny: As fortunate as Chicago is to have Keith and Seabrook, Lightning fans should start singing the praises of Ranger and Meszaros (And, really, Carle will turn out to be a fine defenseman). Ranger, with 31 points in 72 games, won't face the pressure to play a 10-year-veteran game this season. Hopefully, offseason shoulder surgery won't impede his progress.

Marc Staal, New York Rangers
21 years old (1.13.87) / 12th overall in 2005 Draft
The skinny: It's like I said last year, let's all sit back and enjoy today's version of the Sutter brothers roam and reign among NHL rinks. It won't be long before all four brothers -- Eric, Marc, Jordan and Jared -- will rack up a million air miles between them every season. Maybe they'll let their folks use them.

Feel free to check out Hound Central 3.0's best young defensemen.

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