Stars Of Tomorrow: Top 15 Rising Defensemen
All throughout the NHL season I will be following the stars of tomorrow. My criteria for these players is two years in the NHL or less than 160 games combined (with minor exceptions).
Many players take that next big step in year three and really come into their own. Some sooner, some later, but the development of a star is fascinating to watch. The rankings will be updated as the season unfolds to reflect who's living up to expectations and who is not.
Let's take a look at who the movers and shakers at the quarter-way mark of the season...
15: Karl Alzner
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Karl Alzner just missed the cut in my offseason rankings, but I gave him the first honorable mention due to his upside. This former 1st-round draft pick had big expectations coming out of the draft. He is finally starting to live up to those expectations this season and has plugged a huge hole on the Capitals blueline.
At 6'2'', 205 pounds he has good size to go along with his above-average mobility. Alzner has untapped offensive upside that he has been working hard at improving. He has the potential to be a shutdown defenseman.
Alzner might get overlooked on a roster full of stars, but he should get more attention later in the year when the team gears up for the playoffs.
14: Cam Fowler
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Another newcomer to the list is Anaheim Ducks first round pick Cam Fowler. He got off to a hot start early in the year and he's cooled off a bit of late with one point in his last four games and a -6 rating on the season, but he has given the Ducks important minutes on the back end.
He has great mobility and offensive instincts. It's hard to believe what some of these defensmen are doing at such a young age, but this is the new NHL. Losing Scott Niedermayer wasn't easy for this franchise, but this kid should provide a nice transition. Like most teenagers he needs to fill out, but he has all the tools to be a stud in this league.
13: Cody Franson
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Cody Franson is a very underrated young player in the NHL and placing number 13 on my list isn't about to get him national exposure, but anything is better than nothing. Nashville know what they are doing when it comes to developing players and Franson is another great example.
He has 4 goals, 4 assists, and a plus 4 rating this year. This kind of production was exactly what the team needed after losing Dan Hamhuis to free agency. He's only averaging about 15 minutes of ice time per game, but expect this to go up as the season goes along.
12: Kevin Shattenkirk
Speaking of players with an interesting developmental curve, Kevin Shattenkirk has had an unorthodox introduction to the NHL this year. A lot was expected of him coming into training camp, but he looked very mediocre and coaches didn't think he was ready for the big leagues. In the minors this year, Shattenkirk looked even worse.
Therefore, it was pretty surprising to everybody when he looked like an NHL veteran in his first call up this season. He was so impressive that he's continued to get 20+ minutes a game and is quarterbacking the power play alongside of John-Michael Liles. He already has 3 goals and 4 assists in 11 games with a plus 1 rating.
A young, exciting Avalanche roster just got a lot more dangerous.
11: Erik Karlsson
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Erik Karlsson has great offensive talent and plays with an edge despite having a smaller frame. The Senators have a stud of a defenseman on their hands and he will dramatically improve on his rookie point totals as his career takes off. Unfortunately for the Senators, this dramatic improvement wasn't there to start the 2010/2011 season.
However, he has picked up his game over the last month and now has 4 goals and 7 assists under his belt. He is blessed with great hockey sense and a powerful shot, and provides Ottawa with a great power play tandem with Sergei Gonchar.
He still needs to improve his defensive game and improve his strength, but that will come with time.
10: Tyler Myers
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I have to admit that I wasn't the biggest fan of Tyler Myers last season because I thought there were a number of young defensemen that had better upside. However, there was no denying how great he played last season and I had little choice to put him number two on the list.
Needless to say, I wasn't terribly surprised that he has had a bit of a sophomore slump this year. He has a pretty unsightly -9 rating and too many giveaways to count. For these reasons he slipped quite a bit in the rankings.
Having said that, let's get real about our expectations. When you consider how young he is, it is still unreal how good he is on the ice. He's already started to turn his game around over the last few weeks and should level out his game as the season goes along. I expect him back in the top 5 by the halfway mark.
9: Zack Bogosian
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Originally drafted third overall by Atlanta, Bogosian has the makings of an all-around stud on the blueline. He has natural offensive ability along with a booming shot. He should live up to his franchise-defenseman potential with his high hockey intelligence one day, but that day isn't today.
For whatever reason, Bogosian hasn't taken off yet like many have expected. He is still solid in his own zone and will be a top-pairing shutdown defenseman for the Thrashers at some point in time. Right now, he's still searching for that elusive something that will bring all of the elements together.
8: Erik Johnson
When I made my offseason rankings, some people were surprised at who I had ahead of Erik Johnson. Those people won't be happy that he's dropped from 6 to 8 on my list, but this shouldn't be taken as a knock on his game. There are incredible young defensemen in this league right now and some of them are developing a lot faster than others.
Erik Johnson has all the makings for a top offensive talent in the NHL. In fact, he has the potential to be a top-pairing two-way defenseman given all his skills.
He is a smooth skater with great stickhandling and passing skills. He is reliable in his own end and plays with a physical edge. At 6'4'', 225 pounds, Johnson has the size and strength to keep the front of his net clear and win the tough battles in the corner.
This season his numbers are solid, but given his ability I think more was expected. The season is still young and we'll see where he is at the mid-way point.
7: Alex Goligoski
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At 25, Alex Goligoski is the elder statesman of this group, but has only been in the NHL for two seasons. He is very mobile blueliner with good offensive ability. He has good hockey sense which allows him to jump into the play to utilize his solid puck-moving ability.
He got off to a blazing start this season and even led all defenders in production at one point. His offensive game has tailed off a bit since then, but he's still made impressive strides with his increased ice time and responsibility. He gets a whopping 5 minutes per game on the power play and 2 minutes per game on the penalty kill. Look for his point totals to pick back up again sooner than later.
6: P.K. Subban
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P.K. Subban is someone I left off my list to start the season because I needed to see more of him than just a few playoff games. In hindsight, he's someone I should have included because it's pretty clear that he's the real deal.
Subban has incredible skating ability, a good outlet pass, and a feisty edge to him. Mike Richards might not like his cocky attitude as a rookie, but I love it. This league needs new players to challenge the status quo and if he can back it up with his play he'll eventually earn that respect.
He has a respectable 9 points in 22 games, but his best stat is his plus 6 rating. Not many young, offensively-minded players come into this league without defensive liabilities, but Subban appears to be an exception. He will undoubtedly cushion the loss of Andrei Markov the rest of the way.
5: Michael Del Zotto
Michael Del Zotto has shot up my rankings and he deserves all the accolades that are coming his way. This power-play quarterback for the New York Rangers had an up and down rookie season, but he's proving that he's much more than this year.
He's not afraid to use the body as he already has 45 hits this season. With great vision and skating skills, opposing teams are quickly learning to respect his game. John Tortorella is now trusting him on the penalty kill and more overall ice time. The sky is the limit for this youngster.
4: Alex Pietrangelo
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I got some criticism when I placed Alex Pietraneglo number 5 on my offseason list since he had only played 18 NHL games, but a large part of my reasoning was his massive potential. I would have been shocked if he didn't stick with the team out of training camp this year, but he had little trouble receiving the full support from the coaching staff.
Many have still not heard of Alex Pietrangelo yet, but that should change as the season unfolds. He models his game off of Chris Pronger, and if you get a chance to see him play it's easy to see why.
Rated by many as the top NHL defensive prospect heading into the season, he is quickly proving all of those scouts right. He already has 11 points in his first 20 games and he is logging 3 minutes on the power play and 2 minutes on the penalty kill. Perhaps one of the most incredible stats Pietrangelo has this year is twice as many takeaways as giveaways. That is almost unheard of for a defenseman of his age.
A franchise defenseman in the making, his superb on-ice vision is only matched by his impeccable hockey intelligence. With all the skills one could want from a player, he will be a household name for years to come.
3: Victor Hedman
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Victor Hedman remains number 3 on my list despite a lot of movement around him. He has looked a lot more comfortable on the ice this season compared to last year. Hedman is still adjusting to the North American game, but the difference between this year and last is almost night and day.
Loaded with an impressive skill set, Hedman is the complete package and will anchor Tampa Bay's defense for the next decade.
The number-two overall draft pick is already touted as the Lightning franchise defenseman and if anyone has seen him play they will agree he is the real deal.
At 6'6'', 220 pounds, no one is going to intimidate him and he has unbelievable skating ability for a player his stature. His size and skill combination are unique and he will be a Norris Trophy candidate sooner than later.
2: John Carlson
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John Carlson is someone I've touted and written about a lot this season. His offensive production has slipped in November, but this doesn't mean his game has suffered. He is still on pace for a 40 point rookie season and is one of the biggest reasons the Capitals didn't go looking to bring in any defensemen in the offseason.
There just isn't much this kid doesn't do. He mans the power play, kills penalties, and plays in key situations near the end of a game. When Mike Green goes down with an injury, John Carlson is the first to pick up the slack.
I'll be surprised if he drops out of the top 5 on my list at any point this season and it's possible that he ascends to number one depending on how the season plays out.
1: Luke Schenn
If you are surprised that I have Luke Schenn as the top ranked rising defensive star in the NHL than you have good company. Coming into his third season I expected him to take his game to the next level, but I never imagined that he would skyrocket up the Leafs depth chart the way he has.
With Dion Phaneuf out due to injury, Luke Schenn has really stepped up to the plate. He might only have a modest 6 points on the season, but his overall game has been outstanding. He is the Leafs best defenseman on many nights and is getting significant ice time in all situations.
If you consider how bad Toronto has been offensively this year, it is amazing that Schenn has the best plus/minus rating on the team. In fact he is a staggering plus 5 even though the team has a negative goal differential. This is also a surprise given that he plays over 2 minutes per game on the penalty kill and 23 minutes overall.
Schenn also has more hits than anyone on this list and his natural leadership abilities are starting to shine through. I'm curious to see how long he can keep playing at this level, but something tells me he's not looking back.