Evolution of top defensemen on display in NHL playoffs

EDMONTON, Alberta — Victor Hedman put the Tampa Bay Lightning on his back and carried them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.

Five years later, the 6-foot-6 monster of a man can shoulder even more of a load.

Hedman is perhaps the best defenseman in the world and headlines an NHL playoffs showcasing the present and future stars at hockey’s most complicated position.

If the big Swede represents the pinnacle of blue line play, teammate Mikhail Sergachev, Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars and Shea Theodore of the Vegas Golden Knights show ascent to the summit, and others such as Colorado’s Cale Makar and Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes display the potential to make that climb.

Hedman has almost 800 games of experience, Klingberg over 400, Theodore over 300, Sergachev over 200 and Heiskanen over 100, while Makar and Hughes are still in double digits.

The path to the Stanley Cup this year looks like a road map in the evolution of a defenseman and how it sometimes takes hundreds of games to get it right.

”There’s a process to get to that point,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s about knowing your opponents. It’s about the big thing about knowing how much time and space you have, because when players get in the league, everything is happening lightning fast.”

Hedman’s progression was slow from being thrown into the pros as the second pick in the 2009 draft through a few rocky adjustment years. It took until his fourth or fifth NHL season at age 23 or 24 to find his way on the ice.

That’s a common path being followed by Klingberg, Theodore and even Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov, who was one of the Flyers’ best players through two rounds.

Heiskanen is ahead of that curve at 21 and leads not only the Stars but the entire playoffs in scoring while also providing a calming presence for a veteran team.

Rick Bowness, the oldest coach in the playoffs, has a strategy: ”When things aren’t going well, put Miro on the ice and he’ll settle it down.” After coaching now 42-year-old Zdeno Chara‘s first few NHL games and being behind Tampa Bay’s bench for Hedman’s emergence, that’s about as big an endorsement a hockey lifer can give a young defenseman.

”Miro, he’s different than those two, but he’s going to be just as dominant as those two,” Bowness said. ”We’re throwing him out there against the best players in the league at 21 years old, and it does take a little time. It took both Z and Victor a couple of years to get to where they were comfortable being a dominant player. Miro, he will get there. He’s just going to keep getting better, but it does take some time.”

Teammates laud Heiskanen for his humility and opponents see the smooth skating and rapid puck movement that sets the Finn apart. He credits being ahead of schedule on his development to playing professionally back home and representing Finland internationally in the world juniors and 2018 Olympics.

”There’s different situations I’ve been in, so it’s probably easier to play here now,” Heiskanen said.

Theodore learned – sometimes the hard way – in the Stanley Cup playoffs in his early 20s. He struggled when the Golden Knights got to the Cup Final two years ago and lost in five games, but now he’s among their best players.

Vegas forward Mark Stone, who played with two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in Ottawa, thinks Theodore has reached that caliber of play.

”I’m just trying to do my job,” said Theodore, now 25. ”I’m trying to jump into the offense but at the same time not really give up anything defensively. I feel like when I can do that, I can be most effective out there.”

Peter DeBoer knows a thing or two about Norris-caliber defensemen after coaching Karlsson and Brent Burns in San Jose and believes the praise former Sharks captain Joe Pavelski heaps on Heiskanen. Sounds familiar to how he feels about his top guy.

”(Pavelski) says this kid’s a superstar, and you can see that on the ice and a lot like Shea Theodore on our end, you can see him growing and getting better every time he steps out there,” Vegas’ coach said. ”I think the philosophy behind that is it just takes longer for a defenseman to grow into themselves at this level, and you have to have some patience with them.”

Patience is being practiced with Hughes and Makar, who are finalists to be rookie of the year. Each one made mistakes leading to goals against earlier in these playoffs, and his coach put him right back on the ice next shift – often rewarded sooner or later by helping to produce a goal.

”You see his maturity level and his will to improve and get better,” veteran Colorado defenseman Ian Cole said of Makar. ”His ability to make a mistake or read the play and then learn from it almost immediately is pretty unparalleled. He very rarely makes the same mistake twice, which I think is a crucial first step to being a polished defenseman.”

Vancouver forward Jay Beagle knows those steps well after seeing Washington’s John Carlson develop from a rookie to a Norris finalist. He points out Hughes and Carlson are different but sees his 20-year-old Canucks teammate on the same trajectory.

”I almost saw that immediately,” Beagle said. ”It wasn’t one of those things where you kind of see over time. It was one of those things where a month in, you knew obviously that he was a special player. … It’s going to be real fun to see the way Huggy grows.”

Cooper sees a little bit of Hedman’s evolution in Sergachev, who was admittedly more of a raw prospect when he got to Tampa Bay. Sergachev is only 24 now, but as Cooper told him in a recent conversation at the end of practice, he’s no longer protecting him or afraid to

”You just watch the game slow down for them, and I’m watching it slow down for Sergy,” Cooper said. ”They want, want, want but you have to do what’s best for them. Sometimes you have to protect them from themselves. Me and Sergy were joking about it today where we wouldn’t put him out against certain matchups, and now we just throw him over the boards as much as possible.”

That’s happening more now with even seasoned coaches trusting young defensemen to play crucial roles. Eleven of the top 25 defensemen in total ice time this postseason are 25 or younger and show the direction hockey is going.

”It’s a faster game than it’s ever been, you need your D to be very mobile, skate it out, move it out, get out of your zone as quickly as you can,” Bowness said. ”Young kids coming into our league, they’re more composed and less intimidated by playing in our league.”

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.