Picking the Next Generation of NHL Defensive Superstars

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2012

Picking the Next Generation of NHL Defensive Superstars

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    Playing defense in the NHL takes incredible know-how and skill.

    While young and explosive forwards may be able to make the NHL shortly after they are drafted, it usually takes defensemen a bit longer to make it at the highest level.

    The Boston Bruins proved this point with the selection of Tyler Seguin in 2010 and Dougie Hamilton in 2011. Seguin was the No. 2 pick in the draft behind Taylor Hall. He had all the measurables as a high-scoring forward including speed, shooting talent and the ability to handle the puck. When he came to training camp in top shape and ready to show off those skills, he made the Bruins roster in 2010-11.

    Hamilton was the No. 9 pick in the draft and he had the size, skating ability, puck-handling talent and shot to become an impact player. Despite those impressive skills, the Bruins let him play another year of junior hockey.

    He will almost certainly make the team this year.

    Here's a look at the players who will become the NHL's best defensemen in the next few years.

Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins

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    No team has the history of great defensemen in the NHL like the Boston Bruins.

    At the top of the list is Bobby Orr, certainly the greatest defenseman in NHL history and perhaps the best hockey player of all time. Follow with Ray Bourque, Eddie Shore, Zdeno Chara and Brad Park.

    The Bruins have high hopes that Hamilton would join their ranks. He has elite puck-handling skills and the kind of vision that allows him to see the open spots so he can deliver the puck to his teammates. He has a booming shot from the point and knows how to move to a spot on the ice so it won't be blocked.

    When asked if he had come close to moving Hamilton prior to last year's trade deadline, general manager Peter Chiarelli emphatically said "No." He knows Hamilton has a chance to be the Bruins' No.1 defenseman when Chara eventually calls it a career.

    Hockey's Future said he may remind fans of Rob Blake because of his right-handed shot and all-around ability.

David Rundblad, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Rundblad may not be ready to make a big contribution to the Coyotes in 2012-13, but it's just a matter of time before he becomes an NHL superstar.

    He is a solid offensive prospect who skates well and moves the puck through traffic and sets up his teammates. While his overall defensive play may not be NHL-caliber, it should get to that level with just a bit more seasoning.

    At 6'2" and 198 pounds, he has the size and range to become a dominant player. He was perhaps the best prospect in the Ottawa Senators' system until he was traded last year for Kyle Turris.

    Rundblad figures to be a dominant player on the power play once he moves up to the NHL on a permanent basis.

Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    The 2012 draft class was dominated by explosive defensive prospects and Murray seems like he is the best of those prospects.

    The Columbus Blue Jackets were denied the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft in late June, but they did select Murray with the No. 3 pick. He has "can't miss" written all over him.

    It may take a year or more for him to get to feel comfortable playing in the NHL, but it seems almost certain that he will play for the Blue Jackets this season. Once he acclimates himself to the NHL, he should be able to show off his puck-moving skills, his quick and accurate shot and his penchant for making big plays at key moments.

    He may remind fans of Scott Niedermayer, and Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe called him one of the "top players" in last spring's draft (source: Edmonton Journal).

Brendan Smith, Detroit Red Wings

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    The Red Wings normally don't need their best young prospects to step up immediately and fill a role on the big club, but they don't have that luxury any more because Nicklas Lidstrom has decided to end his stellar career.

    Smith has the size, skills and skating ability to become a top NHL defenseman. He has seen some NHL action, playing 14 regular-season games last year and scoring one goal and six assists while recording a plus-3.

    HockeysFuture.com said he still has some small details to work on his game, but he is solid, dependable and should eventually be one of the top players at his position.

Griffin Reinhart, New York Islanders

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    Reinhart is the son of former Calgary Flames star defenseman Paul Reinhart and he should be a dominant defenseman. At 6'4" and 200 pounds, Reinhart has the size to be a powerful player who asserts himself on an every-game basis.

    He's not there yet. Scouts would like to see him use his size to become a more physical player. However, one thing he does have is a powerful and booming shot from the point that should make him an explosive offensive player once he gets up to the NHL.

    He skates very well and his mobility may tell the Islanders' management that he is ready to play at the big league level.

Nathan Beaulieu, Montreal Canadiens

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    Beaulieu slid quite a bit in the 2011 draft, but he should be an explosive player once he gets his chance to play regularly for the Canadiens.

    Beaulieu is a brilliant skater who can get the puck from one end of the ice to the other in a heartbeat. He has excellent offensive skills and knows how to jump into the play and get his shot off quickly.

    Scouts like his vision and his ability to put an accurate pass on the stick of his teammates. While he needs to show some improvement at the defensive aspects of the game, he should be a dominant next-generation player.

Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators

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    While the Predators were upset that Ryan Suter left via free agency for the Minnesota Wild, they may not be in such bad shape as a result of the defection.

    That's because of the presence of Ryan Ellis, who has the speed and skills to become an excellent NHL defenseman. He played 32 games for the Preds last season and his ability to move up in the zone and fire his wicked right-handed shot should make him a formidable factor from the point on the power play.

    While Ellis is on the small side at 5'10" and 179 pounds, his mobility and assertiveness more than makes up for that deficiency.

Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers

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    Schultz was an unstoppable player for the University of Wisconsin, leading WCHA defensemen in scoring for two years in a row.

    However, he has not ignored the defensive aspects of the game. He is a solid positional defender and if he can make the adjustment to the speed of the NHL, he will play a key role for a young team that needs an upgrade in its defensive play.

    The pressure will be on Schultz after he became a highly sought after unrestricted free agent. He had been drafted by the Anaheim Ducks four years ago but never signed with the team. That allowed him to go to his destination of choice, and he wants to be with the explosive talent on the Oilers.

Joe Morrow, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Penguins are hoping that Morrow will develop into one of the next generation's best skating defensemen. Morrow has speed to burn and he can carry the puck.

    He knows how to play at a very fast pace and that's what Dan Bylsma likes with the skilled players on the Penguins. Morrow has a big frame and should grow to become a strong and hard-hitting player.

    He's not quite at that level yet, but one thing he can do is carry the puck out of his own zone and turn defense into offense. He also has a heavy shot that is difficult for goaltenders to control.

    The Penguins won't push him at the NHL level until he's ready; but once he is he has a chance to become a superstar.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Morgan Rielly is an all-or-nothing type player who could turn out to be a superstar if he can stay healthy and allow his offensive skills to develop.

    Rielly does not have a lot of experience on his resume because he suffered a torn ACL. However, he came back strong from that injury and is a brilliant offensive player. That's the key to his game. He likes to fire the puck and he has a great shot.

    His defensive game needs a lot of work, but if he gets paired with a defensive defenseman, his offensive skills will be allowed to flourish. He makes solid decisions with the puck.