The Nashville Predators are Ground Zero for defensemen development this season.
Not only is new assistant coach Phil Housley trying to take Ryan Ellis to take that final step to become an impact defenseman, he will grooming elite prospects Mattias Ekholm and Seth Jones as well.
Ekholm was outstanding for Milwaukee of the American Hockey League, scoring 10 goals, adding 22 assists and earning a plus-15 rating in 59 games. He scored nine goals in 41 games the season before for Brynas IF Gavle of Sweden’s Elitserien, earning 2012 Borje Salming Award as the league’s top defenseman.
He played just three NHL games the last two seasons, but Nashville’s patience is about to be rewarded. He has added some muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame and appears ready for at least a third-pairing role.
Many scouts regarded Jones as the too overall prospect in the 2013 NHL. But he fell to Nashville at No. 4 after scoring 14 goals, adding 42 assists and earning a plus-46 rating in 61 games for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.
General manager David Poile is thrilled to have him. “As a player, he brings so much to our organization, from size you can't teach to a skill set that every team hopes to add and a personality and maturity that will allow him to grow and develop with our veteran core and other young players,” he told reporters.
Here are some other young defensemen who could make their first major mark in the NHL this season:
Nathan Beaulieu, Montreal Canadiens: After scoring at a point-per-game pace during his final junior campaign with the Saint John Sea Dogs, he showed well for Hamilton of the AHL last season. He scored seven goals and added 22 assists during his final 51 games. Beaulieu, the No. 17 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, also earned two assists in six games for the Habs.
“I know what it takes now. I know I can play in that League,” Beaulieu he told reporters in July. “I just feel like getting those few games in made me mature and grow up a lot quicker and establish that I can be here.”
Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets: He lost a developmental year after suffering a shoulder injury playing for Everett of the WHL during the NHL lockout last season. He could have used that time to work under Everett coach Craig Hartsburg, a former NHL player and coach who moved up to join the Columbus staff this season.
“It's a big jump going from junior hockey to the NHL, especially missing the number of games and the time he missed last year because of his injury, so I don't know where he's going to be at,” Columbus coach Todd Richards told NHL.com. “But from everything I've heard, I think he's the real deal and it's only a question of when.”
Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets: He scored 12 goals and added 17 assists last season for the University of Michigan after spending two seasons in the U.S. developmental program. He signed with the Jets after his only collegiate season and practiced with the team last spring before heading off to play for Team USA at the World Championships.
“It was definitely an adjustment from where I was,” Trouba told the Winnipeg Sun. “I hadn’t played a game in a month and a half going into that, and I had never played at that level before. The first couple games were an adjustment, and then I got a little injured there for a little bit, and then when I came back I felt fine. I felt like I could keep up and I could play how I play at that level. So it went well.”
Indeed, Trouba was one of 48 players – mostly veterans -- invited to the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team orientation camp. He has a big slap shot to go with his hard-hitting style and his strong defensive zone play.
Ryan Murphy, Carolina Hurricanes: He has a chance to break into the NHL as a power-play specialist after scoring 220 points in 228 games during his junior career in the Ontario Hockey League. Murphy, the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, got into four NHL games last season as an emergency replacement.
“Certainly the area you want him to continue to improve on is the overall strength,” Carolina vice president for hockey operations Ron Francis told NHL.com. “He's not an imposing defenseman who's 6-4, but he does a lot of things very well. With his smarts and his skating ability he can compensate for that lack of size. The four games he played were a real positive step for him and real good for the organization and our fans to see him do so well in that trial basis.”
Danny DeKeyser, Detroit Red Wings: His hometown team won the free-agent bidding war for this Western Michigan University star after his third collegiate season. There is nothing flashy about his game, but his poise with the puck allowed him to step in and play a regular NHL shift last season until a broken thumb cut short his fun.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres: He scored 15 points for TPS Turku in Finland’s SM-Liiga last season, then excelled at the Sabres developmental camp. He has the size (6-foot-3, 207 pounds) and strong overall game to reach the NHL this season on the third Buffalo pairing. The Sabres selected him eighth overall in the most recent draft.
Would he play in the AHL if doesn’t make the Sabres squad out of camp? “I think no,” Ristolainen told the Buffalo News. “I’ve got a contract with my hometown (Finnish) team.”
Brandon Gormley, Phoenix Coyotes: He is developing right on schedule. Gormley, the 13th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, scored at a point-per-game pace during his last two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He earned a spot on the all-tourney team at the 2012 World Junior Championships. Last season he scored 29 points in 68 games for Portland of the AHL.
Griffin Reinhart, New York Islanders: Like Ristolainen, he has NHL size and a NHL pedigree. He should come to training camp confident after a strong season (eight goals, 21 assists, plus-20 rating at Edmonton of the WHL
“I'm going to do everything I can to make it and show the coaches that I deserve to be here, and try to prove that I can play here,” Reinhart told the Islanders website. “I'm looking forward to that opportunity. Last year was a little bit different with the shortened season, so I never got to come into a full camp. I'm looking at it two ways: I have to make an impression, but at the same time, I look to enjoy the process.”
Morgan Rielly. Toronto Maple Leafs: He figures to at least get a 10-game NHL trial this season after scoring 54 points in 60 games for Moose Jaw of the WHL. Then Rielly, the fifth-overall pick in 2011, moved up to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL for 14 regular season games and eight playoff battles. The Maple Leafs won’t want to keep him around in a part-time role, so he will need to take big step this fall.
Matthew Dumba, Minnesota Wild: He appears ready for the bump and grind of the NHL after moving up from Red Deer of the WHL (where he scored 42 points in 62 games) to Houston of the AHL for three regular season games and five more in the playoffs. He finished by skating with the extra Wild players during the playoffs.
“In the coming years, the NHL's where I want to be and I'll do whatever it takes to do that,” Dumba told NHL.com in July. “But at the same time, I know there's a process and that comes with time.”