Canes rookies among NHL's upcoming group of young defensemen

calexander@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2013 

A week ago, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz was asked about the learning curve of his rookie defenseman.

“Which one?” Trotz said, smiling.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller, and others, could say the same.

While the question to Trotz was about Seth Jones, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft, and his adjustment to the league, the Preds also had rookie defensemen Victor Bartley and Mattias Ekholm in the lineup.

Canes rookies Brett Bellemore and Ryan Murphy have gotten a lot of minutes this season. Around the NHL, defensemen such as Hampus Lindholm of Anaheim, Olli Maatta of Pittsburgh and Torey Krug of Boston are making their marks as rookies.

Jones, 19, is the most high-profile of the group and was one of the most talked-about and coveted prospects going into the draft. Tall at 6 feet 4, agile and aggressive, Jones has been a regular for the Predators, averaging 23 minutes a game and playing almost 31 minutes in the Nov. 30 game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

“There are times when he looks like he’s 29 and times when he looks like he’s 19,” Trotz said. “He’s still learning the game and there’s times when he wants to take the foot off the gas pedal, if you will, and the league eats him up. This league is a very good league and if you’re not going at full rpm, it can humble you very quickly.

“He’s done a great job but I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d play him 30 minutes as a 19-year-old. Not many get that opportunity.”

Jones was quick to say 30 minutes of NHL hockey isn’t nearly the same as 30 for the Portland Winterhawks, his junior team in the Western Hockey League.

“The biggest challenge is the speed and physicality,” Jones said of the NHL. “There’s never really a night off. There’s so much speed and skill around the league and obviously the increased physicality, playing against grown men.

“There have been ups and downs. I’ve had good games and I’ve had bad games, and I’m sure there’s going to be more.”

The same is true for Murphy and Bellemore. Murphy, with his speed, shiftiness and puckhandling skills, can appear dazzling at “full rpm.” But there are times when the 20-year-old makes hasty passes, gets knocked off the puck or is caught out of position defensively.

“There are still things he needs to work on, but when he simplifies his game and uses his skill he’s effective,” Muller said. “But when he tries to do too much and stays out too long and different things that most guys in junior do, we’ve still got to break him of that. It’s harder for an offensive defenseman that’s young to step in and play and produce at a certain rate that you’re hoping for.”

Shift lengths can be problematic at times, Murphy said. While playing for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, he said he had some shifts that were three or four minutes long.

“My longest in junior was six minutes,” he said, smiling. “There was a power play, then another power play, then …”

That doesn’t happen at the NHL level.

“It’s impossible. It’s too tiring,” he said. “Once you go 45 seconds, hard, you’ve got nothing left in the tank.”

Bellemore, 25, has missed the past four games with a concussion but had put together an impressive streak before the injury – 17 consecutive games with an even or better plus/minus rating. It was the longest active streak among NHL defensemen.

A banger at 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, Bellemore has 82 hits. Despite missing games, he ranks eighth among NHL defensemen.

“He did all things in the summer to get lighter, get quicker, things that were holding him back a little bit and has been consistent,” said Muller, whose Canes lost 5-4 in overtime in Calgary on Thursday. “He’s a battler.”

In the NHL, all rookies have to be.

Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip

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