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How NHL Defensemen Have Evolved Since the Start of Zdeno Chára’s Career

Sara CivianSeptember 21, 2022

Charlie McAvoy (right) gets valuable wisdom from the old vet Zdeno Chara back in 2020. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

If Zdeno Chára, Keith Yandle and P.K. Subban all retiring Tuesday morning sent you into an existential crisis, you’re not alone. The three defensemen, each leaving behind a unique legacy, logged 53 seasons and 3,977 total NHL games combined.

That's a lot of memories and a lot of sonks.

Part of Chára’s lore was his longevity. He took care of himself so well that he managed to stay in the league and make an impact for 24 seasons despite the wear-and-tear inevitable with his style of play. When you stick around the NHL for nearly 1.5 decades, though, you’re bound to play through some changes.

And when someone like Chára retires, we all tend to reflect on those changes.

For one, scoring is on the rise all around—the league average goals per game has been steadily increasing over the past five years, and the 3.14 average last season was the highest in 26 years. The 2021-22 expected goal rate per 60 was the highest its been since the metric was born in 2007.

While plenty of this is because of your elite forwards like Auston Matthews hitting the 60-goal mark, more and more defensemen are getting comfortable jumping the rush.

The shutdown style Chára mastered during his prime hasn’t totally disappeared, but hockey has undeniably gone through a transitional period, and the rigid, heavier style of the dead puck era has given way to a more positionless, skill-based game in which all skaters are expected to contribute offensively.

Eight NHL defensemen registered at least 60 points last season. That number was two per season in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11. Further, more of these points are turning into goals, and much of it is coming from younger players (two of the last three Calder winners are defensemen, and the last two Norris winners are under 25)—indicating even more of this on the horizon.

The new-age star defenseman must thrive in transition, quarterback a mean power play and jump the rush when necessary. Active veterans like Victor Hedman and Roman Josi have had instrumental roles in the evolution of the modern defensive star, but let’s look even further into the future.

As we prepare for our first hockey season without Chára in 25 years, which defensemen under 25 should we keep an eye on as the defensive game continues to evolve?


The obvious

Cale Makar: If Makar wasn’t the first player to pop in your head, you’re overthinking it. He’s already got a Calder Trophy, a Norris Trophy, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup at age 23, likely years before his prime. He ended the 2021-22 regular season with 28 goals and 86 points in 77 games, and finished the playoffs with a team-leading 29 points, the fourth-most for a defenseman in a single postseason in league history.

His weapons? Patience and speed. It’s funny, you never see him busting out any flashy moves, but he has this ability to make the mundane fundamentals feel like must-watch, highlight reel hockey. There’s a lesson in that.

Adam Fox: Speaking of patience, the 2021 Norris winner is cut from a similar cloth as Makar. To me, Fox is a bit more of a classic defenseman whereas Makar is more positionless. Fox is a masterclass in zone entries, and I promise that’s a skill you’ll want to learn if you’re looking to excel in the modern NHL.

New York Rangers @NYRangers

"I got this one." - Coast-to-coast Adam Fox. <a href="https://t.co/IDQk244QfJ">pic.twitter.com/IDQk244QfJ</a>

Although he and Makar will be compared until the end of the time, both deserve appreciation for their subtle differences that kids coming up now will surely emulate.


The people’s choice

Miro Heiskanen: The 23-year-old Finn is primed for a breakout season now that John Klingberg has cleared a path on the power play depth chart, not that Heiskanen hasn’t already turned heads. It’s hard to believe he already has four NHL seasons under his belt. He did have that incredible production in the 2020 playoffs with six goals and 26 points in 27 games, but I tend to like him because he’s not always racking up some insane point tally yet his game still feels modern. He’s the people’s defenseman of the future.


The dark horse

Scott Perunovich: I don’t know, folks, don’t come for me. I just have a good feeling about the 24-year-old Blues defenseman after his brief rookie season. With Marco Scandella needing hip surgery, I can see Perunovich sliding in there and making a name for himself among the rest of these ridiculously talented young defensemen if he can stay healthy.


My sneaky favorite

Mortiz Seider: “Sneaky” might be a stretch considering Seider won the 2022 Calder Trophy, but I’m not sure many of us outside of Detroit have truly grasped how good and fun this kid is going to be.

His stats are good—he led a stacked rookie class in assists (43) and power play points (21), and he led rookie defensemen in points (50) and game-winning goals (four) in 82 games. But I’d rather talk about all that combined with the fact that the 6-foot-4 21-year-old also led the struggling Red Wings in average time on ice (23:02) and blocked shots (161), while bringing the physicality every night.

Listen, I am totally here for the short king, skill-based NHL defenseman era. But did we ever consider maybe we can have it all?

Others to watch: Charlie McAvoy (when he returns in December), Quinn Hughes, Rasmus Dahlin (breakout year?)

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