Thinking Big: Five NHL Defensemen Coming Into Their Own
We all know the big-name defensemen—Nicklas Lidstrom, Dion Phaneuf, Chris Pronger, Sergei Gonchar, etc. But last season featured a crop of young NHL blue-liners that had breakout seasons.
You may know these names now, and perhaps last year, but this year will be the season that these young stars add their names to the top of the list.
1. Mike Green, Washington Capitals
Man, is this guy good. After posting just 15 points in parts of two seasons, Green exploded, scoring 18 goals and 38 assists in all 82 games. Twenty-three of those points came on the power play, illustrating Green's knack for big goals and crisp passing.
He ended last season with nine points in his last seven games, including a five-game point streak.
Clearly, with the game or season on the line, Green was there to fire pucks home. Total points in the last five minutes of the game? Twenty.
Prediction: 21 goals, 45 assists.
2. Mark Streit, New York Islanders
This year will be quite the transition for Streit, who has made the move from NHL powerhouse Montreal to the lowly Islanders. He will have to learn a new system, work with new players, and study under the tutelage of new coach Scott Gordon.
Where Streit will fit in is not exactly clear. Perhaps he will be paired with puck-moving Radek Martinek (if he stays healthy). But regardless where he plays, he will quickly realize that the top scorer on the Isles' last season had 49 points—a far cry from Montreal's Kovalev and his 84.
Streit's job will be to push a teammate to 70 points, to add punch to the power play—he scored 34 points with the man advantage last season—and to unload his heavy slapshot whenever and where ever he can.
With his days in Montreal behind him, his career-high 62 points may be fading fast. But consistency is Streit's strength—he had 31 points pre- and post-All-Star break.
Hopefully, this talented blue-liner won't get lost in the Coliseum.
Prediction: 15 goals, 35 assists.
3. Brent Burns, Minnesota Wild
A solid 25 points in 77 games in the 2006-2007 season had Wild fans excited for his next year—but 43 points in 82 games in '07-08? I never saw it coming.
Don't be fooled by the gaudy scoring totals. Burns is more than a smooth shooter and solid passer. And sure, he may have totaled more points than forwards Mikko Koivu and Mark Parrish.
But his most important asset may be his ability in his own zone. Burns posted a solid plus-12 rating, ranking third on the Wild—as opposed to Streit's minus-six in Montreal.
And when the going got tough, the tough got going—as exemplified by Burns' throwdown (wait until 43 seconds in) with scary Dion Phaneuf.
This year will be a big one for Burns. A good skater, a tough defender, and a true teammate, Burns will be a favorite with the Minnesota fans—at least throughout 2011-12.
Prediction: 12 goals, 37 assists.
4. Ryan Whitney, Pittsburgh Penguins
After a stellar 59-point performance in '06-07, Whitney fell partway back to earth, registering a nice yet unremarkable 12-goal, 40-point season with the Pens.
A foot injury was likely responsible for the dip in Whitney's production. It will also be the cause of Whitney missing the first few months of the oncoming season. However, if he heals well, Whitney will be a major addition to the defense, hopefully in November.
And if he feels comfortable, Whitney may be able to approach last season's totals—in fewer games.
Prediction: 10 goals, 27 assists.
5. Tobias Enstrom, Atlanta Thrashers
Enstrom played on an Atlanta team last season that was...well, poop. Despite the wasted effort, Enstrom, a rookie, totaled 38 points in a full 82-game season.
Most impressive was Enstrom's proclivity to contribute on the power play, where he added a whopping 22 assists and 26 points. Essentially, if Enstrom wasn't in on the power play, chances for a point were pretty low.
And to top it off, Enstrom finished the season with a respectable minus-five—not bad for a rookie whose team leader sat at a measly plus-four.
Although Enstrom's potential may not be fully exhibited for another two or three years, here's hoping that another rough year on a slumping team won't dull the luster of this young star.
Prediction: 8 goals, 38 assists
There you have it—the newer crop of young defenders. Watch out Lidstrom, and beware Pronger! A new age is being ushered in.
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