Adam Fox won the Norris Trophy in the 2020-21 NHL regular season awards with a great season as the top defenseman for the New York Rangers. Fox put together a season where he helped a Rangers defense allow only 2.77 goals per game with 4.1 defensive point shares and 102 blocked shots in the defensive zone while also adding 42 assists to the offense, most among defensemen. The style of play, in particular, stands out as the 22-year-old defenseman provides insight on how the young defensemen play in the evolving game.
The list of young defensemen impacting the game seems endless, but more importantly, it’s a talented group that is adapting to the quick changes seen on the ice. Charlie McAvoy, Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, Mikhail Sergachev, and many more who are 23 years old or even younger are not only playing like established veterans but are setting the trend for how defensive play and play from the point will be in the future of the NHL. The skillset required for the position has changed rapidly in the past decade and will only continue with the game faster than ever before.
The game has progressed from a hard-hitting, physical game to a smaller, speed-based, and quicker puck movement type of game for decades. In recent years, the shift has been more than ever before, particularly with forwards skating through the neutral zone more effectively and navigating the opponents in their path to the net. As a result, teams are taking advantage of their speed and quick passing in the offensive zone, making defensemen that can skate through the zone and create from the point all the more valuable. Front offices have seen what Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman provides to his team from the point in the offensive zone, and while Hedman is an established veteran at 30 years old, the younger generation has followed suit from the current Conn Smythe winner’s style of play.
With forwards being more effective with the puck, defensemen must continue to improve on the defensive end of the ice as the value on the defensive end will only continue to rise. The young defensemen have proven to be some of the best in the game at two-way hockey, with Fox leading the way in the ability to create turnovers and block shots in the defensive zone while being a force on the offensive end of the ice. Defensive liabilities will be exposed and phased out of the game more than ever before, and the complete player will be a requirement from the position, something the young skaters are proving and leading their teams to successful seasons.
Combatting the Speed of the Forwards
For all the impact that defensemen require at the point and on the offensive end of the ice, they are the resistance and response to the faster game and the explosive offense. The three Norris Trophy finalists in Fox, Hedman, and Makar have been at the forefront of the changes, possessing the speed and blue line skating to combat the skill of the opposing forwards while limiting goal-scoring opportunities following a turnover.
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Moreover, the ability to combat the offensive game will require defensemen with the endurance and energy to play at a high level for the entirety of a game, making a skater that can accumulate ice time not only valuable but with stamina, as the game progresses, vital to a team’s success.
Leading Transitions and Odd-Man Rushes
A unique part of the defensive game moving forward will be turning defense into offense, specifically, creating a turnover and instantly starting up the attack. The Norris Trophy-winning Fox excelled particularly in this regard, distributing many of his assists over the course of the season because of his ability to send passes from the defensive zone to the opponent’s blue line for Rangers forwards like Mika Zibanejad or Artemi Panarin for an immediate odd-man rush following a turnover and an easy goal. Likewise, the 22-year-old defenseman would often carry the puck into the offensive zone himself and dismantle the defense in the process.
Play from the point will continue to be pivotal in the success of a defensive player. Similarly, the ability to retreat back into the neutral zone to retrieve the puck and keep the play in the offensive zone will be greatly valued as the game becomes faster. This is something the Lightning’s defensive unit has done exceptionally in the playoffs, helping them advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Creating instant offense will only continue to be more vital to the game with the skill only improving on the offensive end of the ice, and a defenseman that can lead those transitions is going to become a top priority for any team looking for a young blueliner.
How Future Defensemen Will Impact the Game
Looking at the upcoming draft, a prospect like Owen Power is an intriguing young defenseman, projected as one of the top players in the draft because of his mobility, skating, and ability to create on the offensive end of the ice while also being a bigger defenseman at 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds. Defensive prospects are expected to open up a team’s offense, but looking into the future, the ability to eliminate along the boards and remove skaters from the puck with a strong check will become an additional factor in their skillset.
The position has become faster and smaller, requiring defensemen to possess more skill than ever before. But the value of a powerful player who can deliver a game-changing hit will become necessary as well. Ultimately, the young talent at the position has proven that the league is going to value versatility but also the ability to possess a wide range of skills to help a team win regardless of the situation.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November but has been a journalist for multiple blogs since the end of the 2019-2020 NHL season. While not following any specific team, Mike covers the New York Islanders for The Hockey Writers, a team that has turned themselves into legitimate cup contenders with Barry Trotz as the head coach.