"For a long time, especially in the early 2000s, the dominant defensemen were all approaching 40—guys like Chris Chelios, Al MacInnis," says Potvin, a Hall of Famer who won the Calder Trophy in 1974 and later four Stanley Cups. "Now there are some really impressive young guys like Doughty and Jack Johnson in L.A., Zach Bogosian in Atlanta and [the Blackhawks'] Duncan Keith, who's a little older [at 27]. If it's cyclical, this is a really strong cycle."
So give Generation D an A.
ALL RIGHT, quiz time. Jot down the NHL's best 15 defensemen. Now draw a line through the Red Wings' 40-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom and 37-year-old Brian Rafalski, and the Flyers' soon-to-be 36-year-old Chris Pronger. Who's left? Chances are most of the remaining players on your list, if sufficiently bribed or threatened, would be able to recall the lyrics to the theme song from Barney & Friends. Generation D men, who marry dexterity with temerity, dot the NHL landscape or, in the case of the Sabres' Tyler Myers, dominate it.
Myers is 6'8". This essentially makes the second-year defenseman the fourth tallest building in downtown Buffalo. Last June, at the tender age of 20, he became the sixth defenseman to win the Calder in the past three decades, which, in part, reflects the complexity of the position. Like many kids, Myers is still growing into his genes—he was 207 pounds at his first training camp, in 2008, and weighs 230 now—but his sideshow size has done nothing to hinder his smooth skating and nifty stickhandling, which is so deft that fellow Sabres defenseman Craig Rivet likens it to Mario Lemieux's. Like Doughty, the 20-year-old Bogosian, the Capitals' Mike Green (24) and revved-up Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban (21), Myers is hardly reticent about working all 200 feet. "That kid in Buffalo is in our end almost as much as their end," says Bruins senior adviser Harry Sinden, whose appreciation of precocious defensemen dates to Bobby Orr. "But he gets back, just like Orr did."
"The big change is this generation's skating," says Chelios, a three-time Norris Trophy winner who retired on Aug. 31 at the age of 48. "Twenty-five years ago some D skated so bad it was almost comical. These kids, they pretty much all can go."
They also all seem to possess Hammer of Thor shots from the point, even if the Blues' 22-year-old Erik Johnson has to be prodded into dropping the hammer. After home games MacInnis, now the St. Louis vice president of hockey operations, walks through the dressing room, glances at Johnson and sadly shakes his head in tacit disapproval if the kid has failed to unload enough strike-fear-in-the-goalie shots. Johnson already has been an Olympian—he played on Team USA's blue line in Vancouver along with the Kings' Johnson, 23, and the Predators' smooth-as-Sinatra Ryan Suter, 25—but his status as a savant has been downgraded since he had reconstructive surgery on his right knee following a cart accident at a team golf outing in 2008. The mishap, which happened when his foot got stuck between the accelerator and the brake and sidelined him for the entire '08--09 season, is etched in hockey's collective memory as surely as names are engraved annually on the Stanley Cup. "I know that's what people think of first," says Johnson, whom the Blues drafted first overall in 2006, "but if I'm a Norris Trophy winner, if I win a Cup, if I'm a model citizen ... those are the things that ultimately will stay with them."
Johnson's permanent record also includes an eight-foot pass he made in the gold medal game against Canada. He was wheeling around the net while trying to fend off Mike Richards and dished the puck to Rafalski's backhand, putting the veteran in a vulnerable position. Richards stripped the puck from Rafalski, and Jonathan Toews promptly gave Canada a 1--0 lead. Johnson remains unapologetic. "If it had been one of my defense partners in St. Louis, he probably would have been expecting that pass," Johnson says. "Really, I make that play a lot." The kids of Generation D occasionally might be wrong, but they aren't diffident.
They gambol in a salary-cap league where their age and experience level makes them relatively inexpensive. "They aren't on pins and needles worrying if they make a bad pass that they're going to be sat down or sent back [to the minors]," veteran Capitals right wing Mike Knuble notes. They wheel the net and start the rush because they won't be obstructed under the postlockout rules that cracked down on hooking and holding. And they shine because they have been schooled more thoroughly and thoughtfully than their predecessors, which shifts their stories from the thunderdomes of the NHL to smaller arenas in places like Kelowna, B.C., and Guelph, Ont. And even Ashburnham, Mass.
IN THE LATE afternoon of the wintry Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, a 17-year-old Tyler Myers was hustling to the rink. He was late coming from school. He wanted to work on his sticks before practice. When he reached the dressing room of the Kelowna Rockets, a Western Hockey League power of the past decade, he found written in green marker on the knob of each stick: