An army of young puck-rushing defensemen energized the NHL during the past few seasons, led by Ottawa Senators star Erik Karlsson.
He broke into the NHL with 26 points in 60 games back in 2009-10, then surged to 45 and 78 points the last two seasons. His shots on goal jumped from 182 to 261. He made historic improvements on the plus-minus front, too, improving from minus-30 to plus-16 last season.
All that earned him a seven-year contract that reaffirmed his standing as one of the game’s elite young stars.
“It's going to be higher expectations from everyone,” Karlsson told reporters at the NHL Awards ceremony. “That's the way it is. It's something that comes with this work, something that I know about. It's not something that's kind of snuck up on me. I know how it works. I'm going to try to play my best every night.
“It's all I can do. I'm not happy with where I am today. I'm still trying to be a better hockey player. I'm becoming a better person, as well. I know Ottawa has all the capacity to help me be that guy. It's going to be an exciting thing and something to look forward to.”
Here are the NHL’s other young cornerstone defensemen:
Alex Pietrangelo, Blues: He developed into a elite defenseman in all facets of the game – power play, penalty killing and defending against top lines. He boosted his offense from 43 to 51 points last season while earning a plus-16 rating in 24 minutes, 43 seconds of playing time per game. He earned 24 power play points. He and Zdeno Chara were the only top five scoring defensemen who also killed penalties.
Kris Letang, Penguins: He has developed into one of the NHL’s elite offensive defensemen, as evidenced by his 10 goals and 32 assists in just 51 games last season. He has 92 points and a plus-36 rating during his last two seasons in Pittsburgh. His only real negative is durability; he has suited up for more than 74 games only once in his five-year NHL career.
P.K. Subban, Canadiens: After scoring 74 points (including 32 on the power play) in his first two full NHL seasons, he could really take off if the Canadiens get their offensive act together. Subban was a big point producer at Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League (76 points in 56 games) and Hamilton of the American Hockey League (53 points in 77 games.) He made defensive strides in Montreal last season, improving his plus-minus rating last season from minus-8 to plus-9. He finished well, scoring 12 points in his last 18 games last season.
Michael Del Zotto, Rangers: After splitting the previous season between Hartford and New Yorkd during his classic sophomore slump, Del Zotto broke out last season with 41 points. He showed his full potential last December, scoring 14 points with a plus-17 rating during 15 games. Overall he finished plus-20 after finishing minus-25 during his first two NHL seasons. He could take another step still with the addition of Rick Nash to the Rangers power play.
Tyler Myers, Sabres: A hand injury and Buffalo’s general malaise caused him to suffer serious statistical regression. But Myers scored 85 points during his first two NHL seasons and has the ability to score 45 to 50 points while adding a physical presence to the blue line. He finished well last season, earning a plus-14 rating during his last two months.
Kevin Shattenkirk, Blues: Moving from Colorado to St. Louis allowed him to full develop his offensive game and become one of the league’s better power-play operators. In 107 games for the Blues, he has 60 points and a plus-27 rating. He finished well last season, scoring 20 points in 33 games after the All-Star break. If St. Louis can stay healthier this season and enjoy more offensive continuity, Shattenkirk could post career numbers.
Drew Doughty, Kings: He pulled out of a baffling funk and helped Los Angeles roll to the Stanley Cup last spring. His scoring declined from 59 to 40 to 36 points overall the last three seasons, but Doughty finished fast with nine points in 15 March games. He can play a robust game and help in all game situations when he is one top of his game.
Jack Johnson, Blue Jackets: He is a go-go offensive defenseman that Columbus plans to build around. After arriving from Los Angeles in the Jeff Carter deal, Johnson excelled in 21 games. He scored 14 points with a plus-five rating, 35 hits, 45 blocked shots and 56 shots on goal. In 143 games with the Kings, he had a minus-33 rating.
Zach Bogosian, Jets: Winnipeg will miss him during the next few months as he recovers from surgery to repair a “chronic tear” of a wrist ligament. He is a forceful defender with big offensive potential. Last season he scored five goals and added 25 assists in 65 games, a big increase from 17 points in 71 games the season before. He improved his plus-minus rating from minus-27 to minus-3. He finished well, scoring nine points in his last 12 games.