Other than the press box, there is virtually nowhere to hide a young defenceman while he’s adapting to life in the NHL. The opponents are bigger, the game is faster and the high-pressured decisions with the puck come with more … pressure. No wonder so few teenagers have played the position in the NHL, much less made a significant impact.
At least that used to be the case. Whether it’s the declining salary cap this year or a bumper crop of blue-liners from the 2012 entry draft, the old rule of thumb about patiently developing defencemen is currently being challenged with 10 teenagers now filling roles on NHL blue-lines. Even though some of them may be sent back to junior, that number is ridiculously high when you consider that just 18 have spent half a year or more in the league the previous eight seasons combined.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the steep learning curve that comes with the job. Unlike a young forward, who can be more easily insulated with good linemates and favourable minutes, there is no hiding a defenceman. “They handle (the puck) more often, they’re under pressure with it more often,” Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Friday.
And the young ones are being counted on more than ever before.
A spot on Pittsburgh’s blue-line opened up for 19-year-old Olli Maatta when Kris Letang went down with a knee injury last week. Maatta played a manageable 14:44 in Thursday’s victory over New Jersey, which leaves GM Ray Shero as many as eight more games to evaluate him before deciding whether to keep him or ship him back to the OHL’s London Knights.
Outside of Seth Jones (Nashville) and Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg), who are virtual locks to get an extended look, the nine-game mark will be significant for all of the teenaged defencemen still on NHL rosters. Once they play a 10th game, the first year of their contracts kicks in and they will be much less likely to get demoted.
Some of them are still waiting for their first game-Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm, Toronto’s Morgan Rielly and Griffin Reinhart of the New York Islanders were all in the press box when their teams opened the regular season.
Arguably the biggest roster surprise in the entire league coming out of training camp was Washington’s decision to keep Connor Carrick, a 5-foot-10 defenceman drafted in the fifth round last year. He wasn’t on the radar for too many observers as a result, but ended up earning a job over the more experienced Dmitry Orlov and Tomas Kundratek. “I’m normally not big on bringing teenagers up to the NHL, but these guys showed us too much for us not to have them here,” Caps GM George McPhee said on the eve of the season.
Carrick scored his first NHL goal against Calgary Thursday night, and no one should be surprised if he sticks around for more than a quick cup of coffee. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs were expected to give Rielly his NHL debut on Saturday night in the home opener against Ottawa. A spot appears to have opened up for him with Friday’s news that Mark Fraser will miss three to four weeks with a knee injury.
Having a youngster on the blue-line is far from new territory for Carlyle, a former defenceman himself who had both Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa on his Anaheim Ducks teams while they were teenagers. The veteran coach believes the most important thing he can do for players in that situation is keep them away from trouble by carefully managing matchups and playing situations.
He also thinks that expectations should be kept in check, although that didn’t keep him from heaping praise on Rielly after Friday’s practice. “He plays the game with his head and his legs and his hands,” said Carlyle. “He’s got three assets that separate him from other people in his age group.”
Rielly’s age means that he can only be sent to the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors if the Maple Leafs decide not to keep him in the NHL this season. That scenario has made for a fair bit of uncertainty.
The Vancouver native has been living out of a hotel since early September and says he’s sampled every item on the room service menu. He’s not taking anything for granted-reluctant to even send out his laundry because it takes 48 hours to be returned. “I don’t know what the next two weeks is going to bring,” said Rielly. “It’s just been pretty casual. I just hope my gear is there in the morning when I come in.”
Spoken like an old pro.
A look at the teenaged defenceman currently on NHL rosters (with draft position):
Connor Carrick, Washington (No. 137 in 2012)
Matt Dumba, Minnesota (No. 7 in 2012)
Seth Jones, Nashville (No. 4 in 2013)
Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim (No. 6 in 2012)
Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh (No. 22 in 2012)
Griffin Reinhart, N.Y. Islanders (No. 4 in 2012)
Morgan Rielly, Toronto (No. 5 in 2012)
Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo (No. 8 in 2013)
Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg (No. 9 in 2012)
**Nikita Zadorov, Buffalo (No. 16 in 2013)
**Zadorov is currently sidelined with a hand injury