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Cullen: Learning on the job can be tough for young defencemen

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Scott Cullen
11/10/2010 12:58:21 PM
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Playing defence in the National Hockey League is not an easy task.  Doing that job well when young and inexperienced is all the more challenging.

It doesn't mean that a young blueliner can't be a positive factor, as Washington's John Carlson, Montreal's P.K. Subban and others are getting the job done for their teams, but even good young defencemen can go through some challenging times.

Look no further than towering Sabres second-year defenceman Tyler Myers, last year's  Calder Trophy winner who is saddled with an ugly minus-12 through the first 15 games of his sophomore season.

Even as a rookie, Myers led the league with 94 giveaways -- a function of playing a lot (23:44 per game) and handling the puck a lot as Buffalo's best offensive defenceman.  With 94 giveaways in 82 games, Myers was averaging 1.15 per game.

This year, Myers has upped the ante, turning the puck over 24 times in 15 games (1.60 per game), the highest rate in the league.  When combined with Buffalo's decline in goaltending (before getting hurt, Ryan Miller had a .903 save percentage, down from .929 last year), the result has been a difficult stretch for one of the league's most promising blueliners.

Myers should take heart, though, plenty of young defencemen hit some speed bumps along the way.

He missed some time due to a concussion, but 20-year-old Kings blueliner Drew Doughty has managed just one point in seven games.  As a Norris Trophy finalist last year, Doughty had 59 points and was averaging 1.73 shots on goal per game.

Since getting five shots on net in the opener, Doughty has five shots on goal in six games (.83 per game).  Hardly the end of the world, and he ought to be cut some slack since he's played only two games since returning from a concussion, but there are growing pains for the best of them.

Look no further than the No. 3 pick, just behind Doughty, in the 2008 draft.  20-year-old Thrashers defenceman Zach Bogosian was injured early in his rookie season, but finished with a flourish (9 G, 10 A, plus-14 in his last 36 GP) adn appeared to be on his way to being a franchise defenceman.

Bogosian managed 23 points and a minus-18 rating as a sophomore last season and has but two points and a minus-6 rating in the first nine games this year.  With Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien on board, Bogosian has also been relegated to second-unit power play duty.

Sometimes, it's a defenceman who shows something positive in a brief trial that raises expectations, only to shrink from them.

Chicago's Niklas Hjalmarsson, for example, was a standout on the run to the Stanley Cup, putting up eight points and a plus-9 rating while logging better than 21 minutes per game in the 22-game playoff season. 

Hjalmarsson was so impressive that the San Jose Sharks signed him, as a restricted free agent, to a four-year, $14-million offer sheet, which was immediately matched by the Blackhawks.

In 15 games this season, 23-year-old Hjalmarsson has yet to record a point and is minus-8, worst among Blackhawks defencemen.

After a strong finish in 2009-2010 (3 G, 12 A, plus-8 in 43 GP), 24-year-old Carl Gunnarsson was expected to build on what he showed while playing more than 21 minutes a night on a bad Leafs team.

Gunnarsson struggled immediately and has been battling just to stay in the lineup, playing 14:26 per game as a spare part.

Carolina's Jamie McBain was dominant down the stretch last season (3 G, 7 A, plus-6 in 14 GP), while playing nearly 26 minutes a night for the Hurricanes. 

He's still a rookie, and it's not like he's been terrible, but 22-year-old McBain has been placed behind veterans Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason on the depth  chart, so the opportunities haven't quite been there for major production and that may not change until the time comes for the Hurricanes to push McBain ahead of Corvo and Pitkanen.

Florida's Dmitry Kulikov, 20, had 62 points in 57 QMJHL games before he was drafted 14th overall in 2009, so it's fair to expect some offensive contributions, even if he finished his rookie season with a modest 16 points in 68 games.

Despite ranking third among Panthers defencemen in power play ice time, behind Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman, Kulikov is still searching for his first point after a dozen games this season.

McCabe might be a fine illustration for these young blueliners, as McCabe didn't reach 30 points until his seventh NHL season, when he was 26 and he was a minus in four of his first five seasons.

Also consider that the league's pre-eminent offensive defenceman, Mike Green, had 15 points and a minus-18 rating in 92 games through his first couple of NHL campaigns. 

The numbers have been decidedly better since, as Green has averaged better than a point-per-game since the start of the 2008-2009 season.

One of the elite power play performers in the game, Sergei Gonchar stumbled as well when he was 22 and 23, his third and fourth seasons in the league.  His five goals and 21 points in 1997-1998 remain low marks for his career.

Even Nicklas Lidstrom, the standard-bearer for defencemen in this generation, went through a bit of a sophomore slump.  Everything is relative, so 41 points and a plus-7 rating for a defenceman is nothing to dismiss lightly but, as a 21-year-old rookie, Lidstrom had 60 points with a plus-36 and rebounded to 56 points and a plus-43 in his third season, so it wasn't just a straight upward arc on his career.

Looking at a couple of young defencemen that are continuing their ascent, Ottawa's Erik Karlsson was a hot sleeper candidate in drafts this year after he finished the 2009-2010 season with four goals, nine assists and a plus-7 rating in the last ten games of the regular season before adding six points in six games against the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.

Then, he started this season slowly with one points and a minus-4 rating in six games before hitting his stride.  In the last nine games, Karlsson has two goals, seven assists and is plus-5, so the 20-year-old continues his career ascent.
 
20-year-old Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo has been forced to handle big minutes (23-minutes-plus in the last six) due to injuries on the St. Louis blueline and he's acquitted himself well. 

Pietrangelo had a couple of stints in the league already, but had just two points and a minus-9 rating in 17 games.  He's obviously much better prepared to handle his role now.

So, when a young defenceman struggles through a bad month, or even a bad season, it doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't much bigger and better things ahead. 

Sometimes, it just takes patience.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.  For more, check out TSN Fantasy Sports on Facebook.

Tyler Myers (Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
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