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Off the Post: The NHL defenseman status quo is changing

There’s no denying it: every National Hockey League team needs at least a few burly, big defensemen on the blueline whose forte is blocking shots and making hits. However, as the professional level becomes more dependent on speed and skill, smaller and more offensive-minded d-men have been given a stage to shine. You see it at the collegiate level as well — a prime example being Boston University freshman Lane Hutson. 

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

Ten, or even five, years ago, the NHL focused more on hard-hitting defense. The chip-and-chase game still produced strong results, and the versatility of defensemen was not crucial for individual success. Now, the traditional blueliner build and style are beginning to shift, a fact supported by the last two Norris Trophy winners. 

Adam Fox and Cale Makar are two recent breakout star defensemen in the league. Both entered the NHL at the start of the 2019-20 campaign and quickly made names for themselves with their skating ability and scoring mentality. Makar logged 28 goals last season for the Colorado Avalanche, and Fox ranks second in assists for the New York Rangers this year with 53. 

Beyond scoring, there are key differences in the way they see the ice compared to tried-and-true guys like Dan Girardi and Zdeno Chára. Smaller players like Fox and Makar — who both stand at 5-foot-11 — can use shifty, explosive skating to create space and contribute to the offensive attack.  

This has also changed the structure of the transition game. All of a sudden, the point guard can be a defenseman. Fox specifically takes over zone entries with confidence and effectiveness  while maintaining his responsibilities on the backend. He’s multifaceted, and it has boosted the success of those around him.

The very same can be said locally, here on Comm Ave. Hutson headlined Hockey East throughout his rookie season. Recently, he recorded a clutch two-goal performance — including the overtime game-winner — to secure the conference title for BU. Despite being 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, Hutson has been the most effective player in the league, and arguably, the country this year. 

Hutson is a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker award and the only defenseman still in the mix. He leads the Terriers with 47 points (14 goals, 33 assists) thus far, earning him the Hockey East Rookie of the Year honor. 

He also does it all so nonchalantly. The 19 year old controls the tempo and complexion of contests with many of the same traits Fox and Makar have in the NHL. 

There are some competitive teams in Hockey East — Merrimack College and Northeastern University, to give two examples — but Hutson doesn’t have a problem weaving through and spinning around guys twice his size. He also isn’t afraid to take or dish out a hit.

Hutson’s patience with the puck and vision of the ice helps him find pockets that, as a viewer, you didn’t even know were there. He’s one of the NHL’s top prospects, and his game lends itself to the shift in defensive style the league doesn’t only want, but needs. 

The Brent Burns’ and Charlie McAvoy’s of the sport will always be important. You can’t have a team with six small offensive defensemen — a mix of both styles is required for real backend depth. However, if the achievements Hutson has reached at the collegiate level and Fox and Makar have reached at the pro level say anything, it’s that the NHL d-man status quo is changing. And it’s fun to watch. 

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