Defensemen Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Michael Matheson of the Florida Panthers credit college hockey for their sudden impact in the NHL.
The fact each played for a legendary NCAA coach doesn't hurt; Matheson played three seasons under Jerry York at Boston College. Werenski played two season for Red Berenson at the University of Michigan.
"Being able to listen to [Berenson] for two years was unbelievable because he's seen so much in the game and knows individual players and what they can do and what they need to work on," Werenski said. "He was spot on with what I needed to work on at Michigan, and he gave me the green light to go whenever I wanted.
"That was huge for me to play my game."
Werenski, 19, occasionally gets the green light under Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella.
"[Tortorella] lets us young guys go out there and play our game and lets us be offensive," Werenski told Sports Illustrated. "He just wants to make sure we're playing hard."
Video: CBJ@OTT: Werenski pots PPG off fortunate deflection
Werenski's play 5-on-5 and on the power play has put him in the discussion for the Calder Trophy. He leads all rookie defensemen with seven goals, 27 points, and 116 shots on goal, and tops all rookies with 17 power-play points in 46 games.
The biggest adjustment has been the number of games, particularly this season because of more back-to-backs and stretches of three games in four days. Werenski has persevered, so far, averaging 17:14 in even-strength ice time per game.
The Blue Jackets have been responsible for 52.25 percent of all shot attempts whenever Werenski has been on the ice, which ranks fifth out of rookie defensemen to play at least 15 games this season.
Werenski has been given more offensive freedom than Matheson, with a 2.7 Offense Point Share (an estimate of the number of points contributed by Werenski due to his offense), according to Hockey-reference.com. Matheson has a 0.5 Offense Point Share.
Werenski has had greater opportunity in the offensive zone, with 56.1 percent offensive zone starts at even strength. Matheson has 51.2 percent offensive zone starts at even strength.
Video: CBJ@CGY: Werenski finds twine for PPG early in 2nd
But Matheson, whose strength has been puck control, ranks seventh among rookie defenseman with a 51.28 SAT%, 0.97 behind Werenski.
"For such a young guy in his first year in the League, the way he can skate, make plays and shoot, the sky's the limit for [Matheson]," Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said. "He's going to play a long time in this League and become a name that everyone is going to know."
Said Panthers coach Tom Rowe: "[Matheson] has always been a real good guy to keep himself in great shape, but what he's done this year with development is a year ahead of time. He's controlling the puck for us an awful lot, which has been great."
Video: FLA@COL: Matheson nets long wrist shot to extend lead
Matheson, 22, is seventh in rookie scoring among defensemen with 12 points, first with 31 takeaways, second with 104 shots on goal, and sixth with 67 blocked shots in 47 games. He averages 17:33 in ice time at even strength.
Matheson said there are times when he can still hear York's voice when on the ice in big moments.
"I can hear him say, 'Get the puck deep' or, 'Don't try to make that move'," Matheson said. "Coach was just so excited to be at the rink and doing what he was doing every day. It's been my dream to play in the NHL, so every single time I step on the ice or walk into the dressing room, I hear him coming up to me as he did all those years at school where he'd always say to us, 'Isn't it great to be a hockey player?' And it really is."
Florida has a 723-687 edge in shot attempts when Matheson is on the ice; his SAT of plus-36 is sixth-best among rookie defensemen. Werenski ranks fourth among rookie defensemen with a plus-62.
Video: WSH@FLA: Matheson beats Holtby from side boards
"I think the level college hockey has gotten to has been great, especially for defensemen that maybe take a couple extra years to be able to transition to the NHL," Matheson said. "I think for many years it was hard to get established in the League as a young defenseman. I think it's a testament to the direction the League is headed. Young players are coming up and being given the opportunity to play, but I think the one thing that all of the young defenders have in common is that we're all good skaters and like to play a fast-paced game."
Werenski and Matheson aren't the only two college hockey alums in the top 10 in scoring among NHL rookie defensemen; there's also Brady Skjei (University of Minnesota) of the New York Rangers, Derek Forbort (University of North Dakota) of the Los Angeles Kings, Troy Stecher (University of North Dakota) of the Vancouver Canucks, and Matt Benning (Northeastern University) of the Edmonton Oilers.
Head to Head comparison
(Games through Jan. 22)
Shots on goal: 116
Avg. ice time (all situations): 21:08
Blocked shots: 56
*Team On-Ice Save Percentage with Werenski on the ice (even strength): .922
Points per 60 minutes (all situations): 1.67
Shots on goal: 108
Avg. ice time (all situations): 20:37
Blocked shots: 67
*Team On-Ice Save Percentage with Matheson on the ice (even strength): .918
Points per 60 minutes (all situations): 0.74
* - information courtesy Hockey-reference.com