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DREW DOUGHTY KINGS
ZACH BOGOSIAN THRASHERS
TYLER MYERS SABRES
ERIK JOHNSON BLUES
HE MIGHT as well have been whining, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" from the backseat. As the Kings shuffled out of their dressing room to start a third-period power play in their 2008 season opener, at San Jose, a fidgety Drew Doughty, restive after an NHL career that was all of 40 minutes old, grumbled to fellow Los Angeles rookie Wayne Simmonds, "I've been out there, but I haven't been doing anything. I want to do something."
"Man," Simmonds whispered, "don't try anything risky."
So naturally Doughty played it as safe as a kid with a new skateboard in an empty swimming pool. He veered wide entering the offensive zone—into the midst of four Sharks—lost the puck to a pokecheck and watched helplessly as his giveaway turned into a two-on-one break and an easy San Jose goal.
"I'm lucky," Doughty recalled last month, "that it wasn't my first shift."
Look at him now, all grown up. Almost. A sage 20, he was a key member of Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics and a Norris Trophy finalist last season. He is the Norris favorite for 2010--11. Doughty is "a prodigy," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson says, which spiritually links Doughty to such blueliners as Ray Bourque and Denis Potvin, the rare defensemen who burst into the NHL as nearly finished products, making the most taxing position on the ice look like child's play. But Doughty merely is the most conspicuous example of the greening of the blue line. Since the league expanded from its Original Six more than four decades ago, there never have been so many defensemen who have been this good, this young.
The NHL, of course, has skewed young since the postlockout era began in 2005, when the debut seasons of 18-year-old Sidney Crosby and 20-year-old Alex Ovechkin coincided with a series of rules changes meant to boost offense—including the elimination of the red line. Most of the attention since has gone to those distinguished forwards, as well as to the Lightning's Steven Stamkos, 20, whose 51 goals last year made him the third-youngest player to reach the 50-goal mark. These puck prodigies put their hockey pants on one leg at a time. The difference is that callow defensemen can have their hockey pants taken off, undressed in front of 18,000 fans if they bite on a deke or blow a coverage. The subtleties of the blue line are exponentially greater, the reads trickier and the results potentially more humiliating than for their peers, who are not often required to skate backward. Becoming a superb NHL defenseman once involved a lengthy apprenticeship. Now draft 'em high, add ice and ... voilà! Generation D.