Elite young de­fense­men adapt­ing faster than ever

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

Zach Weren­ski and Ivan Provorov are the lat­est to put cracks in the time-tested the­ory that de­fense­men need a long time to de­velop.

The 19-year-old rook­ies quickly fol­lowed the lead of Seth Jones and 2015 Calder Tro­phy win­ner Aaron Ek­blad in adapt­ing more quickly to the NHL than elite de­fense­men of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. Weren­ski plays on the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets’ top pair­ing along­side Jones and Provorov is al­ready a No. 1 de­fense­man af­ter mak­ing the Philadel­phia Fly­ers out of train­ing camp.

“In that po­si­tion of de­fense, it’s the tough­est to play and a lot is ex­pected of them to step right into the top level of their game in their sport,” Blue Jack­ets coach John Tor­torella said. Weren­ski has “a men­tal ap­ti­tude about him that he can han­dle a lot of things — not only phys­i­cally but more im­por­tantly men­tally. It’s re­ally im­pres­sive to see such a young man be able to do that.”

Weren­ski and Provorov are in the Calder race for the top NHL rookie with for­wards Aus­ton Matthews and Pa­trik Laine, while Jakob Chy­chrun of the Ari­zona Coy­otes is han­dling the NHL well at 18. Twen­tysome­things like Ras­mus Ris­to­lainen of the Buf­falo Sabres, Colton Parayko of the St. Louis Blues, John Kling­berg of the Dal­las Stars, Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Provorov team­mate Shayne Gostis­be­here also didn’t need much time to ad­just to the North Amer­i­can pro game.

“You’re see­ing a lot more young de­fense­men put in big­ger roles,” Jones said. “Teams and or­ga­ni­za­tions are go­ing to be putting them (in) ear­lier so that they can see for them­selves what it feels like at a young age so that when they do kind of de­velop, it’ll go a lit­tle quicker.”

Some of it is the ne­ces­sity of the salary cap and the trend to­ward teams lean­ing on younger, cheaper play­ers. But the best of the best de­fense­men are now much more like the prodi­gious Drew Doughty, who was a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor

for the Los An­ge­les Kings as a rookie, than Vic­tor Hed­man, who needed a few years to de­velop into the star he is to­day.

“I think it’s op­por­tu­nity more than any­thing,” said Ryan El­lis of the Nashville Preda­tors, who played with Jones for his first two-plus sea­sons. “When you’re given the op­por­tu­nity, you’re go­ing to make mis­takes, you’re go­ing to turn over the puck or do this, do that. It’s the op­por­tu­nity, and if you keep get­ting that op­por­tu­nity even­tu­ally you’re go­ing to be more ex­pe­ri­enced and have more con­fi­dence.”

The Fly­ers gave Gostis­be­here an op­por­tu­nity last sea­son af­ter a longterm in­jury to vet­eran Mark Streit, and Provorov earned it this fall with his play. While a lot of young de­fense­men are fur­ther ahead of­fen­sively than de­fen­sively, Provorov has earned matchups against Con­nor McDavid, Tyler Seguin and other top scor­ers and lived up to those lofty ex­pec­ta­tions.

“His con­sis­tency has prob­a­bly been one el­e­ment that’s taken a nice step for­ward,” coach Dave Hak­stol said. “The bulk of (the credit) goes to Ivan and his men­tal readi­ness and phys­i­cal readi­ness maybe be­ing able to play re­gard­less of what the era is.”

Tor­torella handed Weren­ski pow­er­play quar­ter­back du­ties and watched him put up 12 of his 22 points on the power play. High ex­pec­ta­tions with no safety net suit the Michi­gan product.

“I like be­ing out there in all sit­u­a­tions,” Weren­ski said. “When­ever some­one gives you a role like that, the only pres­sure is the pres­sure you put on your­self.”

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma called Ris­to­lainen, who had 41 points last sea­son, a “horse” whose of­fen­sive game is still devel­op­ing. Chy­chrun has han­dled the pros the way he ex­pected even af­ter slip­ping from the dis­cus­sion as a top-two pick to 16th over­all and been a main­stay in the Coy­otes’ lineup as the youngest de­fense­man in the NHL.

But Jones and Ek­blad, who has strug­gled in his third sea­son, are cau­tion­ary ex­am­ples of the de­cline that can hap­pen with time.

Jones “started with high min­utes and then he sort of came down to earth a lit­tle bit, and then he sort of worked his way up — now he’s a top de­fense­man in the league,” said Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals coach Barry Trotz, who had Jones as a rookie. “I think with the young de­fense­men, it’s a hard po­si­tion. When you start spi­ral­ing a lit­tle bit, it’s hard to sort of straighten the ship out a lit­tle bit. It takes a lit­tle longer. It’s more like a tanker than a speed boat.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets rookie de­fense­man Zach Weren­ski has scored 12 of his 22 points on the power play this sea­son.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rookie Ivan Provorov made the Philadel­phia Fly­ers out of train­ing camp and has fared well in matchups against Con­nor McDavid and other top scor­ers.

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