Evolution of top defensemen on display in NHL playoffs

Sports

Colorado Avalanche’s Nazem Kadri (91) scores against Dallas Stars’ goalie Anton Khudobin (35) as Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon (29), Stars’ Miro Heiskanen (4) and Stars’ Blake Comeau (15) battle during second-period NHL Western Conference Stanley Cup playoff game action in Edmonton, Alberta, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Victor Hedman put the Tampa Bay Lightning on his back and carried them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.

Five years later, the 6-foot-6 monster of a man can shoulder even more of a load.

Hedman is perhaps the best defenseman in the world and headlines an NHL playoffs showcasing the present and future stars at hockey’s most complicated position.

If the big Swede represents the pinnacle of blue line play, teammate Mikhail Sergachev, Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars and Shea Theodore of the Vegas Golden Knights show ascent to the summit, and others such as Colorado’s Cale Makar and Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes display the potential to make that climb.

Hedman has almost 800 games of experience, Klingberg over 400, Theodore over 300, Sergachev over 200 and Heiskanen over 100, while Makar and Hughes are still in double digits.

The path to the Stanley Cup this year looks like a road map in the evolution of a defenseman and how it sometimes takes hundreds of games to get it right.

“There’s a process to get to that point,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s about knowing your opponents. It’s about the big thing about knowing how much time and space you have, because when players get in the league, everything is happening lightning fast.”

Hedman’s progression was slow from being thrown into the pros as the second pick in the 2009 draft through a few rocky adjustment years. It took until his fourth or fifth NHL season at age 23 or 24 to find his way on the ice.

That’s a common path being followed by Klingberg, Theodore and even Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov, who was one of the Flyers’ best players through two rounds.

Heiskanen is ahead of that curve at 21 and leads not only the Stars but the entire playoffs in scoring while also providing a calming presence for a veteran team.

Rick Bowness, the oldest coach in the playoffs, has a strategy: “When things aren’t going well, put Miro on the ice and he’ll settle it down.” After coaching now 42-year-old Zdeno Chara’s first few NHL games and being behind Tampa Bay’s bench for Hedman’s emergence, that’s about as big an endorsement a hockey lifer can give a young defenseman.

“Miro, he’s different than those two, but he’s going to be just as dominant as those two,” Bowness said. “We’re throwing him out there against the best players in the league at 21 years old, and it does take a little time. It took both Z and Victor a couple of years to get to where they were comfortable being a dominant player. Miro, he will get there. He’s just going to keep getting better, but it does take some time.”

Teammates laud Heiskanen for his humility and opponents see the smooth skating and rapid puck movement that sets the Finn apart. He credits being ahead of schedule on his development to playing professionally back home and representing Finland internationally in the world juniors and 2018 Olympics.

“There’s different situations I’ve been in, so it’s probably easier to play here now,” Heiskanen said.

Theodore learned — sometimes the hard way — in the Stanley Cup playoffs in his early 20s. He struggled when the Golden Knights got to the Cup Final two years ago and lost in five games, but now he’s among their best players.

Vegas forward Mark Stone, who played with two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in Ottawa, thinks Theodore has reached that caliber of play.

“I’m just trying to do my job,” said Theodore, now 25. “I’m trying to jump into the offense but at the same time not really give up anything defensively. I feel like when I can do that, I can be most effective out there.”

Peter DeBoer knows a thing or two about Norris-caliber defensemen after coaching Karlsson and Brent Burns in San Jose and believes the praise former Sharks captain Joe Pavelski heaps on Heiskanen. Sounds familiar to how he feels about his top guy.

“(Pavelski) says this kid’s a superstar, and you can see that on the ice and a lot like Shea Theodore on our end, you can see him growing and getting better every time he steps out there,” Vegas’ coach said. “I think the philosophy behind that is it just takes longer for a defenseman to grow into themselves at this level, and you have to have some patience with them.”

Patience is being practiced with Hughes and Makar, who are finalists to be rookie of the year. Each one made mistakes leading to goals against earlier in these playoffs, and his coach put him right back on the ice next shift — often rewarded sooner or later by helping to produce a goal.

“You see his maturity level and his will to improve and get better,” veteran Colorado defenseman Ian Cole said of Makar. “His ability to make a mistake or read the play and then learn from it almost immediately is pretty unparalleled. He very rarely makes the same mistake twice, which I think is a crucial first step to being a polished defenseman.”

Vancouver forward Jay Beagle knows those steps well after seeing Washington’s John Carlson develop from a rookie to a Norris finalist. He points out Hughes and Carlson are different but sees his 20-year-old Canucks teammate on the same trajectory.

“I almost saw that immediately,” Beagle said. “It wasn’t one of those things where you kind of see over time. It was one of those things where a month in, you knew obviously that he was a special player. … It’s going to be real fun to see the way Huggy grows.”

Cooper sees a little bit of Hedman’s evolution in Sergachev, who was admittedly more of a raw prospect when he got to Tampa Bay. Sergachev is only 24 now, but as Cooper told him in a recent conversation at the end of practice, he’s no longer protecting him or afraid to

“You just watch the game slow down for them, and I’m watching it slow down for Sergy,” Cooper said. “They want, want, want but you have to do what’s best for them. Sometimes you have to protect them from themselves. Me and Sergy were joking about it today where we wouldn’t put him out against certain matchups, and now we just throw him over the boards as much as possible.”

That’s happening more now with even seasoned coaches trusting young defensemen to play crucial roles. Eleven of the top 25 defensemen in total ice time this postseason are 25 or younger and show the direction hockey is going.

“It’s a faster game than it’s ever been, you need your D to be very mobile, skate it out, move it out, get out of your zone as quickly as you can,” Bowness said. “Young kids coming into our league, they’re more composed and less intimidated by playing in our league.”

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