USA Hockey Magazine

January 2018

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G r ow i n g u p i n V i r g i n i a , M i n n . , Matt Niskanen was attracted to the offensive side of the game a n d w a n t e d t o b e a f o r w a r d . Unfortunately for him, he was one of the few youngsters on his team that could skate backward, so his coaches positioned him on the team's blue line. The move has turned out to be a good one as Niskanen has become one of the most reliable two-way defenders in the game and part of a growing number of talented American blueliners who have taken the NHL by storm. A look at the top NHL defensemen in terms of scoring and total ice time played has a very distinctive red, white and blue hue to it. Perhaps even more impressive is that among the top scoring American defense- men, two-thirds are under the age of 30, including Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski and Noah Hanifin, who are still not old enough to legally enjoy a postgame beer with their NHL teammates. "To see some of the younger American defensemen come up and have the impact that they have, pushing offense and push- ing the pace of play, is exciting. You can see that the development things that they 're learning have prepared them to play at this level," said New Jersey Devils Head Coach John Hynes, who previously helped devel- op young American talent during his six years with USA Hockey 's National Team Development Program. This season, 25.7 percent of NHL ros- ters are occupied by homegrown talent. And with USA Hockey 's continued emphasis on skill development the number of Americans playing at the highest levels is all but certain to continue to rise. Those involved at the grassroots level point to several rule chang- es that emphasize important skills like skating and puck pos- session as putting youngsters on the right track moving for- ward. Among the changes that have changed the mindset of how the game is played and coached include the impact of cross-ice hockey at the youngest ages, the removal of tag-up offsides and icing the puck when shorthanded at 14 & Under, and no more body checking at the 12 & Under level and below. "Anytime you create an environment that encourages kids to play with the puck, it enhances the ability and possibility of younger athletes to experience things that they weren't able to in the past," said Roger Grillo, a longtime college coach who now s e r ve s a s a r e g i o n a l m a n a g e r w i t h U S A Hockey's American Development Model. "The hardest thing for a coach to do is to encourage creativity, puck skills and support of the puck in a practice setting. I think it's our responsibility to instill that mindset." Those changes have NHL coaches, like Hynes, excited about the future. "That's where the game is going," said Hynes, who has the Devils contending for a playoff spot in the competitive Metropolitan Division. "I think the U.S. is developing strong offensive defensemen and strong two-way defensemen. There's no such thing any more as a defensive defenseman, and it's nice to see these American kids come up and be able to play this way at the highest level." Many of today's players trace the change back to the lockout in 2005. In its aftermath, the league looked to open up the game and emphasize more offense to bring fans back to the game. "I think it started to change just about the time that I came into the league, proba- bly right after the lockout. Skating became more important with the rule changes that they implemented after the lockout," said Niskanen, who joined the league after two sea- sons at the University of Minnesota Duluth. JANUARY 2018 USAHOCKEYMAGAZINE.COM // 21 Increase In Number Of Top- End American Defensemen Has Its Roots In Renewed Emphasis In Skill Development Even before his 21st birthday, Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets has already established himself as one of the league's premier defensemen. Will Butcher's time playing college hockey at the University of Denver helped the 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner get ready for the NHL. PHOTOS BY Getty Images By Harry Thompson

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