How a wave of fast, young defensemen is changing the NHL

    Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.

LAS VEGAS — Roman Josi was kind of joking. But he also kind of wasn’t upon assessing what the Norris Trophy landscape could look like over the next decade.

Josi, who won the Norris as the NHL’s top defenseman after the 2019-20 season, would know. The 31-year-old Nashville Predators captain appeared to be in position to capture a second Norris last season, when he scored 23 goals, amassed 96 points and averaged more than 25 minutes per game.

Then came Cale Makar. The 23-year-old Colorado Avalanche star dazzled throughout the season in scoring 28 goals, accruing 86 points and also averaging more than 25 minutes per game.

Josi had more first- and third-place votes, but Makar, in his third NHL season, came away with his first Norris by a difference of 25 points.

“He could have left me that one, right? Because he’s probably going to win 10 in the next 10 years,” Josi said. “Last year, there were so many guys who had unbelievable years and it is going to be the same going forward. There are more and more guys coming. It’s going to be a huge challenge. It’s also going to be a lot of fun.”

Josi has a point. The year before Makar won, New York Rangers star Adam Fox took home the Norris as a 23-year-old. The achievements of Fox and Makar add to a growing belief that the impact the young, puck-moving defensemen will have on the NHL is only beginning.

Think about the blue-line talent age 25 or younger. It started with the “older group” featuring Thomas Chabot, Jakob Chychrun, Charlie McAvoy, Mikhail Sergachev and Zach Werenski. They were soon followed by a second wave led by Evan Bouchard, Rasmus Dahlin, Noah Dobson, Miro Heiskanen, Quinn Hughes, Fox and Makar. Now a third group is starting to emerge with players such as Bowen Byram, Jamie Drysdale and reigning Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider at the vanguard, with others such as Luke Hughes, Owen Power and Jake Sanderson potentially on the verge of breaking through.

Many of them are not old enough to rent a car without signing a waiver, but they are playing a role in driving discussion about where this league is heading.

“Growing up, I felt like that was kind of the way the game was heading,” said Werenski, who was drafted eighth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2015. “A lot of defensemen were puck-moving. I played at the U.S National Team [Development Program] with Noah Hanifin and Charlie McAvoy, guys who play similar styles to me. Now you see Cale Makar and Roman Josi. Those guys are so talented, almost scoring 30 goals and 100 points and still playing great D.

“Nowadays to be successful, the game is so fast, you have to be a good skater. But you also have to be able to create offensively as well.”

PUCK-MOVING DEFENSEMEN have always existed in the NHL, but the influx seems to have picked up considerably over recent seasons.

Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams, who played 10 years in the NHL as a center, said he felt like the evolution was starting to happen around the time he retired in 2008. Early in his career, defensemen played a bigger and meaner style. Toward the end, that type was still around, but players like two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who could skate and take space away, had begun to emerge.

Adams said more defensemen over the years have developed into stronger skaters who could read plays, break up neutral zone activity and make life difficult for opposing forwards while also having the offensive skill to become a complete threat.

“I look at a player we drafted — Mats Lindgren — in the fourth round,” Adams said of one of the Sabres’ picks in 2022. “He has some elite skating tools at 18 years old. Those are the type of defensemen you are seeing more of. If you can have that, the feet, you can defend well and make a good first pass, those are valuable. The ones that are extremely intelligent who can process the game at a high level and sort out reads, those types of defensemen are becoming more valuable.”

The Sabres hired Adams in 2020, putting him in charge of a rebuild in Buffalo. Part of his strategy has centered around Dahlin and Power. Dahlin was drafted two years before Adams arrived, whereas Power was selected with the No. 1 pick of the 2021 draft.

Adams said Power’s ability to process the game in addition to his defending, skating, puck-moving ability and vision were all traits the organization believed would translate at a high level.

“You look at our team with Rasmus already in the group, there was a thought that if we get into a big game, they could both be on the ice for 30 minutes a game whether it is together or separately,” Adams said. “That is a really valuable thing to have.”

Dahlin, who was drafted with the first pick in 2018 by the Sabres, said growing up in Sweden shaped how he viewed the game. Countrymen Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson and Nicklas Lidstrom have combined to win 10 Norris Trophies since the start of the century.

That trio inspired a generation of Swedes. Dahlin said he grew up with Adam Boqvist, who plays for the Blue Jackets, and Rasmus Sandin, who plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He recalled how they all played the same style.

“I was able to realize at a young age that a defenseman can also have fun offensively,” Dahlin said. “I’m a little mixed. I have my own style. But I for sure looked at those guys.”

Makar, who was the second defenseman drafted after Heiskanen (No. 4 overall) in 2017, said he started playing defense in atom hockey (age 9-10). He said he liked being a forward but enjoyed being a defenseman more because it allowed him to be the first skater back and in a position to control the game.

He praised his youth coaches who helped him gradually get more comfortable being a puck-moving defenseman. Makar said those coaches showed him a lot of faith, to the point he admits to looking like “a little bit of a puck hog” when watching footage from his youth hockey days.

Even back then, Makar could use his agility, stickhandling, speed, timing and vision as a way of deceiving opponents to his advantage. But because he did not see defensemen at higher levels play that way, Makar thought it might not work as he went up the ranks.

“It might have been the first year in Canada they aired the NCAA championship with [Shayne] Gostisbehere and Union,” Makar recalled. “That was kind of the first guy where I was like, ‘Wow. He’s doing that. All the stuff that I am doing right now, but at a level that is way higher.’ In my mind, it was like, ‘Wow. There is some hope there.’

“It was the first moment I realized there was a change in style. That was definitely a defining moment for sure.”

Dahlin, Makar and Werenski were all top-10 draft picks who broke into the league at an early age. Dahlin played as an 18-year-old after spending two seasons with Frolunda, facing older competition back home in Sweden. Makar played at the University of Massachusetts prior to debuting in the Stanley Cup playoffs at 20, while Werenski, who starred at the University of Michigan, came to the league at 19.

By comparison, the 2008 draft had four defensemen — Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo and Luke Schenn — who were taken with the second, third, fourth and fifth picks, respectively. Doughty debuted at 19 and played 81 games his first season. Bogosian debuted at 18 and played 47 games. Pietrangelo broke into the league at 19, but his first full season came at 21, while Schenn played 70 games in his age-19 season. Karlsson, who was drafted 15th, played in 60 games as a 19-year-old.

So while playing young defensemen is nothing new, Pietrangelo said teams have changed their approach with them. The Vegas Golden Knights star said it feels like more teams are trying to find ways to take advantage of the salary cap, and one is by trusting young players on cheaper deals before they become too expensive. He also said the game has developed into requiring more skilled defensemen than in the past, when the focus was to have more physical blueliners.

“I think now the young players are just better skaters,” Pietrangelo said. “Some of these guys that come in now, obviously, you look at Makar and those guys are just exceptional. For the most part, every defenseman at our camp can skate and move the puck. That’s kind of where the game is going.”

Pietrangelo said he initially played third-pairing minutes in his first full season with the St. Louis Blues. He eventually gained more trust from the coaches and began working his way into a top-four role. Pietrangelo finished his rookie campaign with 11 goals and 43 points in 79 games while averaging 22 minutes.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said generating offense has become so difficult that teams need all five players on the ice to contribute. He said the previous philosophy was to pair a puck mover with a stay-at-home partner. There is still the expectation all defensemen know how to defend, but there is also an understanding they must be part of the offense.

Bednar, who is the third-longest tenured coach in the NHL, has gone through the experience of trusting a young puck-moving defenseman on three separate occasions. The process the Avs used to assimilate Samuel Girard, as well as Makar and Byram, required buy-in from the entire team.

“First and foremost, you have to be able to check to play in this league, whether you’re a forward or a defenseman,” Bednar said. “To help drive the offense out of them, we encourage our guys to push themselves up the ice and be part of it. There’s the decision-making process. Not only the defensemen who are up in the play, but for our forwards. It’s really team driven. If you want your defensemen to be up in the play, then your forwards have to know their responsibilities are filling in for them. So you’re working in that five-man unit all the time.”

WITH THE INCREASED responsibilities for this crop of young defenseman comes increased compensation. These players are now starting to get paid a lot of money by the time their entry-level contracts expire.

Getting to that point took time. ESPN interviewed four agents who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could speak freely. All four have negotiated deals for young puck-moving defensemen.

“The market has moved $2.5 million in the course of three years,” one agent said. “When we did a client’s bridge deal, I wanted eight years at $7 million to $7.5 million and that is what I was fighting for. When we did his second deal, the first thing my client said was, ‘Boy, aren’t you glad we did not sign that deal?’ because by that point, the numbers had shifted into the $9 million range.”

For example, both McAvoy and Werenski were among the first of the group who signed bridge deals after their ELCs ended. McAvoy signed a three-year deal worth $4.9 million annually while Werenski signed for three years at $5 million.

Werenski signed with the Blue Jackets on Sept. 9, 2019 while McAvoy re-signed with the Boston Bruins less than a week later.

“I’ve never been on that side of the table [as a general manager]. But the point of the bridge deal is to keep the cap [hit] low,” the agent said. “The bridge deal allows you to have a competitive team with a player that has no leverage.”

The same agent compared the Bruins’ situation with McAvoy to that of the Maple Leafs with Auston Mathews, who was also drafted in 2016. He said the Bruins signing McAvoy to a bridge deal before agreeing in October 2021 to an eight-year extension worth $9.5 million per year that starts in 2022-23 allows the Bruins to hypothetically have McAvoy on their roster for 14 seasons, including the three years from his entry-level deal. It’s a contrast with Mathews, who signed a five-year extension after his ELC, which means he’ll be under team control for only eight seasons.

“As long as the marketplace is what it is, you are happy to pay them,” the agent said. “That is another piece of this. If a guy is that good, why not give them the money? You can keep them for 14 years or possibly lose them after eight or nine years.”

Signing bridge deals is still a possibility. Every team’s situation is different. But the class that featured Fox, Heiskanen, Hughes and Makar saw a deviation from bridge deals, with those players signing long-term contracts after their initial deals.

“We had a guy who went to college and then had an immediate impact in the NHL,” another agent told ESPN. “To me, that first class was the one that sort of opened the door for young defensemen playing immediately, and that second elite class blew the doors off and basically said, ‘Hey, we need to be paid.'”

That same agent said that was his approach when it came to getting his client a new contract after his entry-level deal ended. The agent’s argument was that even though his client is a defenseman, the statistical projections for him were higher than forwards of a similar age who were given long-term deals.

“We never thought a bridge deal was a possibility,” the agent said. “He accomplished enough at the point where we felt we could get some term there. In fact, the team wanted to go longer term and they felt very confident in my client’s value. They wanted to lock him up for as long as they could.”

So why not go longer if the team is willing? The agent explained how signing a deal of at least six years means his client will be around 29 or 30 when it comes time for his next contract. He would be young enough to sign one more large deal before having to worry about age being used against him.

While signing a long-term contract yields life-changing wealth and security, there is another factor to consider. Over time, the market almost surely will go up.

“While we felt good about the total dollar number,” the agent said, “we did not want to chase every last dollar on this contract knowing the landscape will rise.”

Consider the contracts signed by that second wave of young defensemen. Heiskanen signed first on an eight-year deal worth $8.45 million annually on July 17, 2021. Makar signed a week later for six years at $9 million annually. Hughes signed Oct. 1, 2021 for six years at $7.85 million annually while Fox, who still had a year left on his entry-level contract, signed a month later for seven years at $9.5 million annually.

The fourth agent who spoke with ESPN alluded to how those deals would lay the foundation for the next group of defensemen, which includes Dahlin, Drysdale and Seider.

“Makar is at $9 million and teams will say, ‘Are you better than Makar?'” the agent said. “That is what teams will say in negotiations. A [young] defenseman can come along and make $10 million and not be better than Makar or Werenski or Josi. It’s not a function of that player being better, but more how the market is moving.”

Doughty and Karlson are proof that teams are willing to sign a defenseman to a contract worth at least $10 million annually. But Doughty started making $11 million in the 2019-20 season. By that point, he had already won a Norris, two Stanley Cups and was a four-time All-Star. Karlsson’s new deal went into effect that season, and it saw him earn $11.5 million after he won two Norris Trophies and was a five-time All-Star.

What is the likelihood that a team would be willing to give a player who is either 21 or 22 that kind of money? Especially if they do not have a Norris or a Stanley Cup?

“There will be a moment,” one of the agents said. “It’s going to be about the percentage of the cap by that point. I am really hopeful and bullish with where the NHL is. I am hoping in 10 years the cap has gone up significantly. In other sports, there are other young players who make $10 million a year and we don’t blink an eye. The way the game is played and the way offense has to be created from the back end, defensemen will continue to be more and more important.”

As the prominence of these players continues to rise, what does that mean for the Norris Trophy going forward? Pietrangelo said it has changed from the days of Chris Pronger, who won the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Norris in the 1999-2000 season. He said Pronger didn’t need to score 90 points to win the Norris because he had a physical style that made him impactful in every area of the game.

For the record, Pronger scored a career-high 14 goals and a career-high 62 points while averaging more than 30 minutes per game that season. He would have led the league in ice time by nearly four full minutes if he hit those numbers during the 2021-22 season. Pronger’s 14 goals would have been tied for seventh among defensemen while his 62 points would have been ninth.

Makar said it feels like the Norris balloting today leans more toward offensive defensemen. That, in turn, places those with fewer points but consistently strong defensive efforts at a disadvantage.

“It’s almost like you need an extra award for the most all-around guys,” Makar said. “For me, it’s rounding out that game and making sure I can be an option for my team and be up for those individual things. But at the end of the day, there has to be a ‘both sides of the game’ award. There has to be.”

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