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Red, White and Blue Blue Line

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators
Young talent from across the United States are making their presence felt in this series, both among the teams’ defensive corps, and beyond

USA Hockey has come a long way in just one generation. The Preds/Ducks series brings that front and center. Beyond the geography – a team from SoCal facing off against a team from Tennessee in one of the more entertaining match-ups of the Conference Quarterfinals round – the young U.S. talent on display is eye-opening.

Predators President of Hockey Operations/General Manager David Poile is an integral part of USA Hockey’s management group for international competitions – including the World Championships and Olympics tournaments. This series has given him a great chance to do some in-depth scouting for Team USA, and he’s been specifically impressed with how three young U.S.-born defensemen have performed. The thoughts of building international teams around them has Poile very bullish on Team USA’s future.

“As part of our USA Hockey meetings and conference calls, we do ghost rosters; we talk about up-and-coming players and players who played in the 2010 Olympics who might be too old for next time,” Poile said. “So for, Jonathon Blum, this is his first taste of the NHL these last 20 games and into the playoffs, he’s going to get good recognition by other people around the League and by others on the U.S. Committee. Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler is in the same situation.”

The trio of Ryan Suter (Madison, Wis.) – just turned 26-years old – and rookies Blum (Long Beach, Calif.) – 22-years old – and Fowler (Farmington Hills, Mich.) – 19-years old – could be the backbone to Team USA’s defense for the next decade of Olympic competitions. Suter was arguably USA’s best defenseman in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, wearing an “A” as an alternate captain during the tournament as a 25-year old. He’s continued to blossom to higher levels in the 14 months since.

Fowler is in his first pro season and scored 10 goals and 40 points this year while averaging more than 22 minutes a night. Fowler’s play this season could earn him a spot on the NHL’s All-Rookie Team, and has definitely earned him the respect of veteran players across the League.

“He's a very underrated defenseman, very mobile,” Predators forward Steve Sullivan said of Fowler. “I haven't seen a defenseman skate like him in a long time. When they called him the next Scott Niedermayer they probably weren't far off. His speed is very fast out there. He cut through the one time in Game Three to get a breakaway. He's got a lot of skill. He was definitely the steal of that draft at 12th overall last summer."

Young US Defensemen Across The League
Blum, Fowler, and Suter are part of a strong group of young U.S.-born defensemen starring in the NHL right now – and capable of playing a leading role on the international stage for the next decade-plus. The impressive list includes 2011 All-Stars Keith Yandle (Phoenix, 24-years old) and Dustin Byfuglien (Atlanta, 26), 2010 Olympians Erik Johnson (Colorado, 23) and Jack Johnson (Los Angeles, 24) and 2010 NHL Rookie of the Year Tyler Myers (Buffalo, 21). Alex Goligoski (Dallas, 25) was one of the last defensemen cut from the 2010 Olympic squad and John Carlson (Washington, 21) was mentioned heavily for Rookie of the Year honors this season.
-Jay Levin,
Blum, a second-year pro, was a star for Milwaukee in the American Hockey League before making his NHL debut a month ago. Blum has instantly become an impact player for the Predators both at even strength and especially on the power-play – where he and Cody Franson have become a formidable set of point men for the second man-advantage unit. His play down the backstretch of the season has him on the watch list for NHL rookie honors next season. He will still be considered a rookie in 2011-12 after playing less than 25 regular season games this season.

“Suter is an NHL All-Star and he’s unbelievable; I’ve been able to learn a lot from watching him in games and practice these last two months,” Blum said. “Fowler is in his first year in the League, but he’s put up great numbers; he’s a good player and should be a great NHL player for years to come. I’m just trying to make my way in the NHL, showcase what I can do and help this team win.”

While the young American defensemen are turning heads, the series also features some impressive young offensive talent. Bobby Ryan (Cherry Hill, N.J.) has scored at least 30 goals in three consecutive seasons, and at 24 years old, still has his best years ahead of him. Teammate Kyle Palmieri (Smithtown, N.Y.) – 20-years old – made his pro debut this year, appearing in 10 games during the regular season and making his playoff debut in Game Three of this series. The 26th overall selection in the 2009 Entry Draft, Palmieri added 29 goals and 51 points in 62 AHL games with Syracuse to lead the American League in goals by a rookie. For Nashville, Blake Geoffrion (Brentwood, Tenn.) – just 23-years old – was the team’s first pick in the 2006 Draft (56th overall) and Colin Wilson (Greenwich, Conn.) – just 21-years old – was the seventh overall selection in 2008. Wilson, in just his second pro season, scored 16 goals during the regular season to go along with a +9 plus/minus rating. Geoffrion, just one year removed from leading University of Wisconsin to the NCAA Championship Game, made his NHL debut on Feb. 26 and scored six goals and eight points in 20 games during the regular season while playing primarily on an energy line in checking situations.

Geoffrion, Palmieri and Wilson have all skated for Team USA in World Junior tournaments and each could well be on the radar for future tournaments.

“When they created the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., it was a great idea, and it turns out it’s been a great development tool for players heading to college and beyond. Now we’re seeing those same guys in the pros,” Poile said. “I think we’ve seen that in how competitive the U.S. has been in all the tournaments, whether they be the Under-16, Under-18, the World Juniors or the Olympics. Teams, like ourselves, who have some American players, are certainly benefiting from that. It’s great to see whether it’s a Blum from California or a Geoffrion from right here in Nashville, not only play in the NHL, but contribute and add a lot to a winning team.“

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