Each Friday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be bringing you his Friday Four in his Weekes on the Web blog. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, trends or really four of whatever in the NHL that have caught his eye.
This week's Friday Four is dedicated to four improving, underrated defensemen who are must watch players in the middle of the Stanley Cup Playoff race in the Western Conference.
1. Kris Russell, Calgary Flames
This guy is blocking shots like crazy. He's making as many saves as some goalies.
OK, I'm exaggerating, but Wednesday he had 10 blocks. Who blocks 10 shots in a game without goalie gear? That's unreal. That's amazing.
It speaks to his courage, but let's not forget he's an unreal skater. I remember when he was coming in with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ken Hitchcock was his coach, Hitch loved his skating because he's a really gifted skater.
But it's almost like he's kind of reinvented himself. Instead of being a skating, puck-moving guy, he's become a little bit of a stay-at-home 'D.' He's not the biggest guy either, but he's added this ‘meat and potatoes’ style to his game. Now look at where he is in shots blocked in the NHL and you see something that he's doing really well.
Defense - CGY
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 27 | PTS: 30
SOG: 102 | +/-: 13
Russell leads the League with 259 blocked shots entering play Thursday; the next closest to him is Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi, who has 201. That's an amazing statistic for a guy like Russell. That's even beyond amazing.
Obviously you try to play the best role you can for your team and clearly he's doing that. I don't know if it's just something that he figured is a style he has to play to be successful, or at least to be more well-rounded so he can be counted on more. I'm not certain of that, but what I do know is it's been amazing.
The one negative to this is that with 259 blocked shots it means he doesn't have the puck a lot. His possession numbers show that.
But I'll counter that by looking at how often the Flames' defense scores, how much offense they generate. You'll take the low possession numbers and high blocked shot numbers if your 'D' is producing. I'll take a guy who produces over a puck possession guy who brings nothing on the offensive side. I'll take that tradeoff.
Russell also has 30 points and he's a plus-13 and is playing almost 23:48 time on ice per game, so he's doing something right other than the blocked shots.
2. Yannick Weber, Vancouver Canucks
Quietly, Weber is having a really nice season. He's finally getting a chance to showcase what he can do and he's answering with strong play and some production. Sure it's because of some injuries on the back end, but he has eight goals. He's become a strong player for the Canucks.
Let's not forget that Weber has a strong shot from the point. There was a time when he was in Montreal, when Andrei Markov was out with knee problems, when Weber and P.K. Subban were manning the points on the Canadiens power play.
Defense - VAN
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 18
SOG: 93 | +/-: 5
I noticed that Weber is back there now, they have a couple different formations they can run when he's on the point, and he's got that big shot. I heard the Henrik and Daniel Sedin talking about it the other day after that comeback win they had Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
Weber has been a nice pickup for Vancouver. He's quietly reliable, a good pro, well respected in the room, the guys like him, he comes to play and always prepares, and oh by the way, he has eight goals. He only had 11 goals in 164 games prior to this season.
He's being used more. He's better than a No. 7 on the blue line. Injuries have given him a chance, and he's played very well. Vancouver needed more offense from its blue line and Weber has provided some of it.
3. Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild
He has played so well in the past two or three weeks.
There is a lot expected of Dumba considering he was the seventh overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. He was a really good player for Brent Sutter with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. He was even better with Mike Johnston with the Portland Winterhawks before Johnston went to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
When I think of Dumba, I think of a player in great shape, who comes to play, who is very competitive and who has a high skill set. He's getting more ice time and he's stepped up. He's playing extremely well. He's producing too.
Defense - MIN
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 12
SOG: 77 | +/-: 14
Yes, this is what was projected of Dumba, but in a sense it's happening sooner because of the injuries the Wild have had on the blue line. He's 20 years old and he's producing as an NHL defenseman.
I like the fact that he has a little Subban and a little Drew Doughty in him. He can skate. He can be nasty. He's got skills, a heavy shot, and he's unafraid to make a play. Those type of defensemen, Subban moreso than Doughty, get killed because people think they are too risky, too pretty with the puck. I mean, those guys are two of the best defensemen in the world. You don't just get guys like that. Guys like that don't just come around all the time.
It's high praise, or at least a high comparison, but I see a lot of those guys in Dumba. Yes it's lofty, but I see a lot of Doughty and Subban and their skill and demeanor in Dumba. He wants the puck. He wants to make a play. He's not just putting the puck off the glass all the time. He's not dumbing the game down.
Hey, you've got to take some risk to make some plays. You can't play safe and expect to make some plays. Credit to him, he's taking some risks and he's making some plays. He's only going to get better.
4. Christopher Tanev, Vancouver Canucks
Here's a guy from Toronto who was too small to play elite level Triple-A hockey, so he played high school hockey. He was late to grow, a late bloomer. He goes the NCAA route, but credit Dave Gagner, who was with the Canucks at the time and who knew him because his son played minor hockey with Tanev.
Vancouver signed him and this guy is a player. He just signed a five-year contract extension.
Tanev is a great example of perseverance and what happens if you just stick to it and believe in yourself. The NHL is a long way from playing high school hockey in Toronto, that's for sure.
Tanev is a good human interest story and a great story for a lot of young players who give up on themselves or see the walls closing in on what they believe can or should be an NHL career.