Red White & Blueliners

 

Growing up in Virginia, Minn., Matt Niskanen was attracted to the offensive side of the game and wanted to be a forward. Unfortunately for him, he was one of the few youngsters on his team that could skate backward, so his coaches positioned him on the team's blue line.

The move has turned out to be a good one as Niskanen has become one of the most reliable two-way defenders in the game and part of a growing number of talented American blueliners who have taken the NHL by storm.

A look at the top NHL defensemen in terms of scoring and total ice time played has a very distinctive red, white and blue hue to it. Perhaps even more impressive is that among the top scoring American defensemen, two-thirds are under the age of 30, including Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski and Noah Hanifin, who are still not old enough to legally enjoy a postgame beer with their NHL teammates.

"To see some of the younger American defensemen come up and have the impact that they have, pushing offense and pushing the pace of play, is exciting. You can see that the development things that they're learning have prepared them to play at this level," said New Jersey Devils Head Coach John Hynes, who previously helped develop young American talent during his six years with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program.

This season, 25.7 percent of NHL rosters are occupied by homegrown talent. And with USA Hockey's continued emphasis on skill development the number of Americans playing at the highest levels is all but certain to continue to rise.                         

Those involved at the grassroots level point to several rule changes that emphasize important skills like skating and puck possession as putting youngsters on the right track moving forward. Among the changes that have changed the mindset of how the game is played and coached include the impact of cross-ice hockey at the youngest ages, the removal of tag-up offsides and icing the puck when shorthanded at 14 & Under, and no more body checking at the 12 & Under level and below.

"Anytime you create an environment that encourages kids to play with the puck, it enhances the ability and possibility of younger athletes to experience things that they weren't able to in the past," said Roger Grillo, a longtime college coach who now serves as a regional manager with USA Hockey's American Development Model.

"The hardest thing for a coach to do is to encourage creativity, puck skills and support of the puck in a practice setting. I think it's our responsibility to instill that mindset."

Those changes have NHL coaches, like Hynes, excited about the future.

"That's where the game is going," said Hynes, who has the Devils contending for a playoff spot in the competitive Metropolitan Division. "I think the U.S. is developing strong offensive defensemen and strong two-way defensemen. There's no such thing any more as a defensive defenseman, and it's nice to see these American kids come up and be able to play this way at the highest level."

Many of today's players trace the change back to the lockout in 2005. In its aftermath, the league looked to open up the game and emphasize more offense to bring fans back to the game.

"I think it started to change just about the time that I came into the league, probably right after the lockout. Skating became more important with the rule changes that they implemented after the lockout," said Niskanen, who joined the league after two seasons at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"Since then there's been a gradual change from the Derian Hatchers of the world and defensemen in that mold. There are still guys who are more defensive minded, but now they're more mobile."

Those rule changes have placed a premium on mobility, as the clutching and grabbing techniques once used to neutralize speedy forwards have gone the way of the wooden stick and wool jerseys.

"The rule changes have made it a lot harder on how you can defend," said Brooks Orpik, who is now in his 15th season in the league. "I remember being taught as a youngster to get your stick between the forward's legs so you can neutralize him and neutralize his speed. Now you're going to get a hooking or tripping penalty called right away. And down low you can't grab guys or you're going to get a holding penalty.

"Overall, it's been a really good change for the game. It's been really hard for guys to break old habits and transition away from there. And on the other side you don't see one-dimensional guys anymore. Even if you are more of a defensive guy you have to have better puck skills and be able to skate. Guys who couldn't are being pushed out of the league."

Development at the college ranks has played a huge role in the number of young blueliners ready to step in and make an immediate contribution. One recent example is 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher, who is already a mainstay with the Devils this season. The Sun Prairie, Wis., native spent four years at the University of Denver where he helped the Pioneers win the national Championship last season.

"College really helped him understand how to use his strengths and to minimize his weaknesses. He knows how to play the game on both sides of the puck. He's a player who has very good hockey instincts, and a good skill set," Hynes said.

"Everyone says he's not an elite skater but because of his hockey sense and his positioning and the habits he's developed during his four years at Denver he's been able to step into the National Hockey League and be an impact player right away."

But even as the skill level required to play defense may have changed, those who patrol the back end need to keep their defensive guard up. 

"Your responsibilities are the same, but when they changed the rules, you weren't allowed to use your stick as much so you had to move your feet more to gain body position. That's where the skating element has been more important," Niskanen said.

"Defensemen still have to break up plays and start plays. Every aspect of the game is stopped and started by a defenseman. It's a demanding position, for sure." 

 

Issue: 
2018-01

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