The Not-So Usual Suspects

By Jake Dole

Just a year ago, it would be complex to speculate about the future of certain young blueliners. In fact, young defensemen have it the worst; it is, arguably, the hardest position to learn and, more often than not, it requires physical prowess as well as skill to master. Ask any hockey enthusiast, and he or she will probably tell you that defensemen take longer to develop, unlike forwards. Very seldom does one see a 19-year old OHL star quarterback an NHL team the very next year. More often that not, it takes a blueliner several years in the big leagues to truly achieve expected potential. Take Chris Pronger, for example; he stumbled at first, and was losing confidence. After several years of development, Chris found his niche as a tough, big-hitting, physical force and eventually built up a further offensive flavour to his game.

Keeping that in mind, it is never easy to foresee success of young hockey players, especially blueliners. This season’s crop of young defensemen, features a pack of hopefuls of different ages, styles and expectations. However, it might seem shocking just how much NHL teams will rely on talented defensively-capable youngsters today. This year, it seems like the story of “out with the old, and in with the new”, as younger, gifted players will be given the chance to take on major roles with their respective teams.

Last year, a group of young blueliners had undergone breakthrough years. Notably, Ed Jovanovski achieved all-star status with a 47-point effort. Ossi Vaananen looked like Scott Stevens at times, at the tender age of 21. Slightly older Colin White emerged as a physical force for the Stanley Cup runner-ups New Jersey Devils. Eric Brewer has earned a Team Canada tryout after a solid year with the Oilers (that is ironic enough, considering that he was thrown to the dogs by Mike Milbury after a slow start in the Long Island). Among others, Wade Redden and Pavel Kubina showcased long awaited offensive abilities, as well.

Fantasy enthusiasts may not even bother putting together a team, if it doesn’t have a young blueliner on it. Several of such players are capable of noteworthy, breakthrough years, and I will point out those 10 that I think could make the most impact.

Jonathan Girard. 5’11, 192. 1980-05-27. Boston Bruins.

Outlook: A smooth skating offensive dynamo, Girard is one of the most underrated young players in the NHL. One reason: His size. Jonathan is mainly offensively aware, underscored by his quickness and precise passing ability. The lack of a big frame and a lot of strength means that Girard will not intimidate many in terms of physical prowess. However, his excellent on-ice instincts and an accurate point shot prognosticate Girard as Boston’s future top-2 defenseman.
Fearless Forecast: After a solid split year in Boston and Providence, Girard has proven that he can handle the rigours of the pro game. With increased playing time, even strength and powerplay, Girard could easily collect anywhere between 40 to 50 points, if healthy. Being the only true offensively gifted Boston defenseman, it is foreseeable that Jonathan will be a key powerplay contributor along with Allison and Guerin.
2000/2001 Stats: 31 3 13 16 +2 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 80 7 38 45 —

Derek Morris. 5’11, 200. 1978–08-24. Calgary Flames.

Outlook: A great all-around player Morris is due for a breakout year. Holding out for a part of last season, Derek never got into a groove once he returned. However, when Morris is on his game, he is one of the league’s top two-way defensemen. Great puckhandling skills, smooth skating ability and a nasty disposition are his greatest assets.
Fearless Forecast: In shape and healthy, Morris will handle the powerplay duties with the Flames. He is capable of producing at a pace of 0.6 points-a-game, which could translate into a 50-point campaign.
2000/2001 Stats: 51 5 23 28 -15 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 75 12 45 47

Martin Skoula. 6’3, 214. 1979-10-28. Colorado Avalanche.

Outlook: Skoula is gradually improving both offensively and defensively. Playing behind the likes of Blake, Bourque and Foote for the past two years, Martin did an excellent job despite getting marginal playing time. A solid two-way defenseman, Skoula is a solid puck distributor and is not afraid to use his size. With improved consistency, expect his numbers to skyrocket.
Fearless Forecast: Ray Bourque has retired and Adam Foote starts off the year on the injured reserve. To say the least, this is the perfect opportunity to Skoula to shine. Even if Martin shows just borderline offensive improvement, his numbers will go up simply because of increased power play duty.
2000/2001 Stats: 82 8 17 25 +8 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 80 11 30 41

Rostislav Klesla. 6’2, 200. 1982-03-21. Columbus Blue Jackets.

Outlook: A top candidate for the Calder Trophy this year, the 19-year old Klesla will benefit from a lot of playing time with the Jackets. There does not appear to be one single deficiency with Klesla; he excels as a puck moving quarterback, a bodychecker and a team leader. He has a powerful blast from the point and immense physical strength. Rostislav won the gold medal at the 2001 World Juniors as a member of the Czech Republic squad.
Fearless Forecast: Klesla will share the puck moving duties with Deron Quint of the Jackets. Virtually guaranteed to make the Columbus roster, his offensive instincts herald up to 35 points next year. Playing with Jeff Sanderson and Ray Whitney could be a major plus, as well.
2000/2001 Stats: 45 18 36 54 22 (OHL) (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 72 8 22 30

Steve McCarthy. 6’0, 200. 1981-02-03. Chicago Blackhawks.

Outlook: An agile skater with sound hockey sense, McCarthy left a good NHL impression last year, playing in 44 games. Although he isn’t big nor overly physical, Steve has excellent on-ice vision and great confidence as a puck carrier. With a lot of travel time under his belt from last year, McCarthy was a key defensive contributor for team Canada, which delivered a bronze-winning performance at the World Juniors.
Fearless Forecast: With the Hawks’ depth of offensively gifted defensemen, McCarthy will spend a bulk of the time working to improve his strength and aggressiveness. His work ethic will applauded by Brian Sutter, who will reward him with enough playing time to total roughly 20 points.
2000/2001 Stats: 44 0 5 5 -7 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 74 3 18 21

Rick Berry. 6’2, 200. 1978-11-04. Colorado Avalanche.

Outlook: Here is another member of the Avalanche who will benefit from the retirement of Ray Bourque and the temporary absence of Adam Foote. Berry is a tough, aggressive blueliner, who has improved his shot and passing abilities over the past two pro seasons. Rick is a hard worker and is willing to drop the gloves at any time. Berry has the capability of eventually turning into a consistent two-way defenseman.
Fearless Forecast: Berry will never be an offensive point man, but he should easily become a mainstay in the Colorado lineup this year. 100+ penalty minutes are easily within reach.
2000/2001 Stats: 19 0 4 4 +5 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 70 2 14 16 — (110 PIM)

Eric Brewer. 6’3, 220. 1979-04-17. Edmonton Oilers.

Outlook: It is pretty hard to believe just how much Brewer has improved over the course of one season. A year ago, Brewer’s potential was questioned, as his confidence was at an extreme low
point with the New York Islanders. The move to the Oilers proved to be crucial, as Eric turned out to be Edmonton’s most consistent blueliner last year. Besides that, Eric is starting to figure it out offensively as well.
Fearless Forecast: Don’t be fooled by the 6 points in 6 games in the playoffs last year, Eric is still mainly a defensive player. With Poti and Niinimaa controlling the flow of the puck next year, Brewer’s main assignment will be to take care of the duties in his own end. For now…
2000/2001 Stats: 77 7 14 21 +15 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 75 9 21 30

Filip Kuba. 6’3, 205. 1976-12-29. Minnesota Wild.

Outlook: Kuba enjoyed an excellent rookie campaign with the Wild last season. However at this point Filip remains a raw talent and needs to improve on his consistency and defensive instincts. He is big and physical with a hard shot from the point. He plays a steady game and rarely makes glaring mistakes.
Fearless Forecast: I think that Kuba is on a path to a great career. He has found a home in Minnesota and will be given enough playing time to gradually improve his offensive production over the years.
2000/2001 Stats: 75 9 21 30 -6 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 78 9 27 36

Branislav Mezei. 6’5, 240. 1980-10-08. New York Islanders.

Outlook: Mezei is an agressive defenseman, who thrives as a big hitter. He towers over the opposition with his frame and plays an intellgent stay-at-home game. With 127 hits in 42 games last year, Branislav had an impressive debut. In a full season, he could collect as many as 200 hits.
Fearless Forecast: Mezei will never thrive as an offensive defenseman. His fantasy value is low, but he should do a good job of replacing Zdeno Chara on the Islanders. Hopefully, he’ll minimize on the turnovers, as well.
2000/2001 Stats: 42 1 4 5 -5 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 65 2 7 9

Andrew Ference. 5’10, 190. 1979-03-17. Pittsburgh Penguins.

Outlook: Andrew has questionable size, but no one can question his heart. Ference is an excellent puck distributor and plays an intelligent game at both ends of the ice. He likes to play in traffic and is an effective body checker. After an exceptional development year, Ference has earned the job as Pittsburgh’s #1 offensive defenseman.

Fearless Forecast: Andrew’s superb post-season showing with 10 points in 18 games has pretty much erased all the doubts surrounding him. Plenty of powerplay duty will result in as many as 45 points next year.
2000/2001 Stats: 36 4 11 14 +6 (Games, Goals, Assists, Points, +/-)
Projected Stats: 78 9 32 41