Southeast: Pair of defensemen, former first-rounder having breakout campaigns

By Cory Lavalette

Photo: Defenseman Jay Harrison has surprised with his offensive contributions this season for the Carolina Hurricanes (courtesy of

Michael Tureski/Icon SMI)

Harrison, Garrison and Wheeler may sound like a personal injury law firm, but in reality they are three of the Southeast Division’s emerging stars. Each of the trio has taken vastly different routes to full-time NHL roles, but in 2011-12 they are all playing a big part in helping their teams on a nightly basis.

Jay Harrison, D, Carolina Hurricanes:
Two seasons ago, Harrison looked like a reliable defensive fill-in. He could be relied on in his own zone and offer some physicality in the bottom pairing in a pinch, but little was expected offensively and more creative players could exploit his below-average foot speed. Fast forward to the present and Harrison is having one of the NHL’s more surprising seasons.

Harrison, a third-round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2001, is playing more than 21 minutes a night, second only to rookie partner Justin Faulk among those who have played in at least half of the Hurricanes’ games, and his 21 points this season are more than he had in his previous 130 NHL games combined. He’s earned a spot on the Hurricanes’ power play and penalty kill units, and he ranks second among the team’s defensemen in both hits (91) and blocked shots (127, also 21st in the NHL). He also has a surprising eight goals, which has Harrison tied for 17th among NHL defensemen.

Harrison, 29, spent the majority of his first six pro seasons with Toronto in the AHL, but was signed by Carolina prior to the 2009-10 campaign after he spent a season playing in the Swiss league. He was re-signed this offseason to a two-year, $1.4 million contract that looks like a huge bargain now given his contributions.

With several players in the fold who figure to factor in on the Hurricanes defense next season — Joni Pitkanen will return from an injury-plagued year, while highly touted neophytes Ryan Murphy and Brian Dumoulin could each battle for a roster spot — Harrison’s current spot as a top-four defenseman and place on the power play could be in jeopardy. But for a player who didn’t even earn a full-time NHL spot until last season, just being considered an everyday defenseman going forward is a huge success story.

Jason Garrison, D, Florida Panthers:
People began to take notice of the shutdown pairing of Garrison and Mike Weaver last season, but Garrison’s true emergence into the spotlight has occurred this year. The undrafted 27-year-old has 14 goals on the season, tied with the likes of Nashville’s Shea Weber and Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall for second in the league among defensemen. In addition, Garrison is the only Panthers’ blueliner to log an average of more than two minutes a night on both the power play and penalty kill.

Garrison’s offensive output is a bit of a surprise given that he hasn’t hit double digits in goals since he played Junior B hockey with the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL. But Garrison got off to a red-hot start in 2011-12, scoring eight goals in his first 21 games, and is one goal shy of matching the franchise mark of 15 goals by a defenseman, held by Jay Bouwmeester (twice) and Bryan McCabe. But even when he’s not scoring, Garrison is heavily relied on by coach Kevin Dineen.

Like Harrison, Garrison is a huge value for his contributions, earning just $700,000 in the final year of the two-year, $1.35 million contract he signed before the 2010-11 season. But Garrison is poised to cash in this offseason as an unrestricted free agent and could price himself out of Florida’s range.

Given that they already have more than $11 million in combined salary promised to Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski through 2014-15, Weaver signed for two more seasons, rookie Erik Gudbranson earning a top-six role, Dmitry Kulikov poised for a bigger contract as a restricted free agent, and 2011-12 fill-in Tyson Strachan signing a one-way contract for next season less than a month ago, one would think Garrison’s time in South Florida will come to an end and another team will pay him big bucks this summer.

Blake Wheeler, RW, Winnipeg Jets:
When Wheeler was the surprise fifth-overall pick by Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes at the 2004 Entry Draft, few could have predicted his path to NHL prominence by the age of 25.

Wheeler used a little-known loophole to become an unrestricted free agent after two seasons at the University of Minnesota, electing to sign with the Boston Bruins instead of the Coyotes prior to the 2008-09 campaign. The rule states that any player who goes unsigned for 30 days after leaving school can become a UFA as long as they are four years removed from their draft year.

From there, Wheeler made an immediate impact in Boston, registering 45 points his first pro season. But with the Bruins poised for a Cup run last season and Wheeler’s development pretty flat as a role player on a great team, Boston traded him to Atlanta in a four-player trade that included sending Rich Peverley to the eventual Cup champions.

Wheeler went from being on a team that would win a title, to Atlanta — where crowds were sparse and winning was a dream rather than a reality. Wheeler closed out the season with 17 points in 23 games for the Thrashers — but then was on the move again. This time he stayed with the same franchise, but it moved northward into a different country when the Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets, returning the NHL to Manitoba a decade and a half after it left for Phoenix.

In Winnipeg, Wheeler is again on a team looking to make the playoffs — and he is a big part of the reason why. He’s playing top six minutes for the first time in his career — logging a career-best 18:31 a night, third among Jets forwards — and is paying dividends by leading Winnipeg in scoring with 54 points through 65 games. His 39 assists are tied for 12th in the NHL and his six power play goals match his career total heading into this season.

One loophole, one missed Cup and four cities later, Wheeler is finally living up to being a top-five pick.