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Five 18-year-old defensemen make NHL rosters

by Adam Kimelman
For all young players, there's an adjustment period in the climb from the junior level to the NHL. The speed at which those adjustments are made, however, seem tied the player's position.

In other words, it's easier for a young forward to make a team than it is a young defenseman.

"The position is one of the toughest to play as an 18-year-old," said Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell. "Learning the system, the speed of the game, getting used to the pace. A forward you can tuck in there, there's someone who can cover his mistakes. If a defenseman makes a mistake, it's going to be a scoring chance against. The biggest thing is the pace of the game, adjusting to the NHL speed."

Some players picked up the pace far faster than anyone thought possible. Five 18-year-old defensemen started this season in the NHL; in the previous 15 seasons, there were only nine 18-year-old blueliners on opening-night rosters.

Drew Doughty (No. 2, Kings), Zach Bogosian (No. 3, Thrashers), Alex Pietrangelo (No. 4, Blues), Luke Schenn (No. 5, Maple Leafs) and Luca Sbisa (No. 19, Flyers) were 2008 first-round picks that have stepped right from the draft stage onto an NHL roster.
Doughty (22:31), Schenn (21:28) and Sbisa (18:58) rank first, second and fourth, respectively, among all rookies in average ice time per game. Sbisa is tied for fourth among all rookies with 6 assists. Doughty's 2 goals and 6 points rank second among rookie defensemen. And Schenn leads all rookies with 43 hits and 27 blocked shots.

Injuries have limited Bogosian and Pietrangelo to just eight games, and Pietrangelo recently was returned to his junior team.

Keeping their top defense prospects on the NHL roster stands in stark contrast to what the Washington Capitals did with their top young blueliner, Karl Alzner. The fifth pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, the 20-year-old Alzner was sent to the Hershey Bears, the club's American Hockey League affiliate, right before the season started.

Rather than let Alzner learn the game slowly at the NHL level, Washington General Manager George McPhee decided Alzner would gain more from being a top defenseman in the minor leagues. In 15 AHL games, Alzner has 2 goals, 7 points and a plus-8 rating.

"He needs a little more experience, and we've tried to do this with all of our defensemen, whether it be Mike Green or Jeff Schultz," McPhee said. "Rather than sit here and be the seventh defenseman, play every other game, play 12-14 minutes, play (in Hershey) every game and play 25 minutes for two weeks, a month or two months whatever it may take."

Keeping a teenage defenseman on an NHL roster isn't an easy decision. It takes a coach and management team assured that their personnel judgment won't negatively affect the player or the team, either in the short term or long term.

"I think it's a combination of things," Waddell said. "This is a very unique (draft) class. It was a very strong draft for defenseman, especially early on. These guys all bring different elements and every one of them … from a physical standpoint they're all ready for the NHL game. The other part is the game has changed ever since the lockout. I think we're all looking for these young players to take a step quicker. Maybe it's because of the CBA. The game has allowed us to play these players younger because the skill level for defensemen … these guys all have good skill. The position has become much more skilled. There's more pressure for defensemen to move the puck, chip in on the offense."

McPhee looked at Alzner and saw a player not ready for starting his pro career in the NHL. Other teams, though, thought differently of their young defensemen.

"It wasn't anything that was pre-determined prior to the start of camp, because if there is one position on our team that we have a little depth and a little talent, it's defense," said Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher. "We went in there with the idea that Luke would have to really show us that he belonged and he warranted at least starting the year with us. The coach played him in all sorts of difficult situations, didn't try to hide him during games, played him against the best players, put him in situations that are as critical as you can get in preseason games and he passed the test. He played with the maturity of a much older player.

"We feel that he made the decision easy for us."

A decision that was easy for some teams and GMs wasn't as easy for McPhee.

"If (Alzner) was ready to play right now we'd make room for him," McPhee said.

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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