The 2013-14 NHL season has served as quite the launching pad for several young defensemen. 2012 first round draft choices Ryan Murray, Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Jacob Trouba, Cody Ceci, and Olli Maatta have all logged major minutes with their respective teams, while 2013 fourth overall pick Seth Jones has played in all 61 of the Nashville Predators games as a 19-year old rookie.
It’s a talented crop of young defenders, but their collective emergence is still somewhat surprising given the prominent roles each has assumed with his team. Murray has paired with James Wisniewski in Columbus and the latter is a dark horse Norris Trophy candidate, Trouba and Jones average over 20 minutes of ice-time per night, Lindholm has helped form what is arguably the Ducks most effective pairing with Francois Beauchemin, Morgan Rielly is blossoming as a great two-way defender, Cody Ceci is settling into his role with Ottawa, and Olli Maatta is currently in second in scoring among rookie defensemen.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be looking at defensemen who played in the NHL this season in their age 19 year. Six of the seven aforementioned players entered the season as 19-year olds. Murray debuted as a 20-year old, due to a shoulder injury that caused him to sit out six months last year. So Murray will is excluded from this discussion.
Here’s a chart displaying point production, Corsi for %, and average time on ice for our group of young defensemen:
|Player||Team||GP||G – A||CF%||TOI/G|
|Jacob Trouba||Winnipeg Jets||49||7 – 16||47.2||22:13:00|
|Seth Jones||Nashville Predators||65||6 – 17||49.2||20:28:00|
|Hampus Lindholm||Anaheim Ducks||62||5 – 17||50.7||19:25:00|
|Olli Maatta||Pittsburgh Penguins||63||9 – 19||50.9||18:06:00|
|Morgan Rielly||Toronto Maple Leafs||57||2 – 19||45.2||17:39:00|
|Cody Ceci||Ottawa Senators||33||2 – 5||49.9||17:03:00|
Trouba leads the pack in average TOI with the Winnipeg Jets, where he’s paired with Mark Stuart. He’s fared well on the scoresheet, but the Trouba-Stuart pairing has worked like a one-way door for pucks heading towards their own net. Trouba has had more success in terms of puck possession in limited looks with both Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian, and he’s sporting an on-ice save percentage of 90.5%, which isn’t necessarily a fault of his own with Ondrej Pavelec in the crease. There’s a ton of offensive upside with Trouba and he’s shown ability to play a tough physical game in his rookie season. He’s getting pounded out there with Stuart at times, but there’s not a whole lot to dislike about where he’s going.
Jones, like Trouba, entered a situation in Nashville where he was asked to play a significant role out of the gate. The 6-foot-4, 205 pound Predators defender has showcased some highlight reel type plays that put him in the discussion as a potential first overall pick last summer, while handling a workload that’s uncommon for a 19-year old. Jones may have been in over his head in top-pairing duty with Shea Weber, but his on-ice totals take a trip upwards when he’s paired up with Mattias Ekholm and Michael Del Zotto and not being matched up against opponent’s top lines. A future filled with shutdown assignments and blow your hair back displays of offensive ability on the power play appear to be in order.
Lindholm is perhaps the most intriguing case, because like the Anaheim Ducks as a team in 2013-14, it’s still not clear as to what’s real and what’s an illusion. A PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) north of 100 (regression to the mean is inevitable) is the standard on the Ducks blue line this season. Lindholm and Beauchemin have made quite the defensive pairing in the former’s rookie campaign, but there’s still something of a mystery at work here. Lindholm appears to have earned his place, but it remains to be seen if the Ducks are the NHL’s top team or heading for another disappointing first round playoff loss like 2013 after they steamrolled through the regular season. In the meantime, Lindholm is contributing as one of the Ducks top even strength defensemen and drawing a regular turn on the power play.
Maatta’s 2012 Entry Draft aforementioned contemporaries were all selected ahead of him, yet he’s made a pretty strong case as the best rookie of the bunch. Maatta has paired well with Matt Niskanen, who is a severely underrated possession defenseman. As much as Niskanen helps drive the bus for Maatta, the latter shades well with everyone he’s played with this season. The Penguins score more and shoot more with Maatta on the ice and he’s looked impressive in limited duty on the power play. We could revisit this group of defensemen in five years and Maatta might not be considered the best of the bunch, but he’s currently enjoying what could be the most impressive season of them all.
There might not be a guy we’ve mentioned here with more upside than Rielly, if only because he’s playing a bit less than Trouba, Jones, Lindholm, and Maatta, and because of a number of question marks currently circling around Toronto’s defense. Rielly’s been good, but he hasn’t exactly been set free under Randy Carlyle’s lead at this point. The Leafs give up a lot of shots, and Rielly sees quite a few coming his way when he’s on the ice. His fancy stat numbers are favorable when he’s paired with Jake Gardiner, but he craters in pairings with the likes of Paul Ranger and Cody Franson. The Maple Leafs lack depth and they tend to get severely outshot as a result, and they’ve been saved by fantastic goaltending on many nights. The defense needs to improve, and Rielly looks like the kind of guy that makes those he plays with better.
Ceci doesn’t have the offensive totals of his peers whom we’ve highlighted, but he compares well in terms of puck possession and deployment. Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean hasn’t been afraid to throw Ceci on the ice in shorthanded situations either. The 20-year old Senators rookie took a Shea Weber slap shot to the head on Monday night, and survived. Here’s to a quick recovery and a return to regular duty on the Senators blue line.
That’s six defensemen who played in the NHL this season at the age of 19 and have enjoyed some success. It’s hard to ignore what Lindholm and Maatta have accomplished as rookies on two of the top teams in the league. Maatta, for my money, has been the most impressive of the bunch as he’s earned significant playing time in all situations. It will be interesting to see where Jones, Rielly, and Trouba go as they continue to develop and as their teams improve. For now, though, it’s a toss-up between Lindholm and Maatta as to who’s had the best season as a 19-year old.
Statistical data via ExtraSkater.com
Feature photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports/Charles LeClaire