If never trust anyone over 30 was the motto of an earlier generation, never trust a defenseman under 30 has been the rule of thumb in the NHL. The league wouldn't know the Chicago Seven from the Original Six, but it has known that the defensemen it wants on the ice for 35 minutes a game are guys like Chris Chelios of the Chicago Black-hawks and Raymond Bourque of the Boston Bruins, players who have been around so long they are eligible for the 10% seniors' discount at the drugstore.
This season the changing of the rear guard takes place. After almost a decade during which most of the touted young blueliners never reached their potential, there is a crop of defensemen 24 years or younger who are capable of elbowing—and checking and scoring—their way into the elite group.
"Right now," Florida Panthers president Bill Torrey says, "we are on the brink of another era of first-rate defensemen."
While there might not be an all-timer in the group, there are at least four who have arrived at the chasm that separates the greats in their mid-30s (and 28-year-old pup Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers) from the mediocre players on the blue line in recent years.
Ed Jovanovski of Florida has received the biggest headlines because last spring he took on the NHL's biggest force, Philadelphia Flyers' center Eric Lindros, that 6'4", 229-pound bundle of bad attitude. Jovanovski, 20, engaged Lindros in a six-game series of seismic hits in the Eastern Conference semifinals that caught the attention not only of the Flyers but also of the entire hockey world. Of course, the 6'2", 205-pound Jovanovski must smooth out some rough edges, but his ability to hit, carry the puck and shoot makes him special. "A throwback to the old days," says former NHL defenseman Ted Green, who is in the Oilers' front office. "He can make the plays offensively and is a great open-ice hitter. He has the ability to attain the level of a player like [Hall of Earner] Denis Potvin."
If Jovanovski is the total package, two other defensemen might be missing only the bows and the ribbons. Chris Pronger and the St. Louis Blues were ousted after two playoff rounds last season, but the 21-year-old imposed himself on the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals. Pronger combines ranginess (he's 6'5", 210 pounds) with confidence and puck sense.
The Dallas Stars' 24-year-old Derian Hatcher didn't have the Stanley Cup showcase, though he distinguished himself last month in the World Cup, scoring two goals for the U.S. in the first game of the best-of-three finals. Hatcher displayed a combination of toughness, surprising offensive instincts and decent speed. "He looks like he's lumbering out there at times," Flyers coach Terry Murray says of the 6'5", 225-pounder, "but he's tough and makes good decisions with the puck."
If Jovanovski, Pronger and Hatcher are the next two-way defensive stars, Sandis Ozolinsh of the Colorado Avalanche is a natural heir to the Red Wings' 35-year-old Paul Coffey as the king of offensive blueliners. "The fact that Ozolinsh played so well in the Stanley Cup finals last year is indicative of his potential," Anaheim Mighty Ducks assistant coach Tim Army says. The 24-year-old Ozolinsh, who had been spinning his wheels most of the year, finally found fourth gear in the postseason as he played with brio over 200 feet of ice.
After the collective groans concerning the dismal defensemen drafted in the late 1980s, the optimism over the young group is refreshing. The question is, What took so long? The NHL, bless its introspective soul, might not have answers, but it does have theories.
Theory No. 1: The tag-up offsides rule impeded the development of defensemen. The NHL introduced the tag-up rule in 1986 in an effort to reduce the number of offsides and to speed play. Before the rule change, offsides was whistled immediately if attacking players were in the offensive zone when the puck crossed the blue line. Back then a defenseman had to stickhandle, pass, yo-yo the puck to his partner, do something until his teammates got back onside. Only then would he shoot the puck back into the zone.