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Top Shelf: D-men make all the difference

The 20th overall pick in 2008, Michael Del Zotto has started his NHL career with nine points in nine games. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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The 20th overall pick in 2008, Michael Del Zotto has started his NHL career with nine points in nine games. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

An upcoming issue of The Hockey News will focus solely on defensemen and there’s plenty of fodder – so much so that we can get a jump on things with a column centered around the impact D-men everywhere are having right now, good and bad.

Start at the top of the blueliner scoring charts, where you’ll find 19-year-old New York rearguard Michael Del Zotto in the Manhattan-based penthouse with four goals and nine points after nine games.

The Rangers’ hot start is directly linked to Del Zotto’s play as that of Henrik Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik.

Tied for second in defensemen scoring with three other eight-point men is Philadelphia’s Matt Carle. I’ve already weighed in on what his strong play means for the Flyers, so we’ll move right along.

A pair of young American blueliners are rebounding nicely from injury-forced absences last year.

Erik Johnson, the most anonymous post-lockout first overall pick by a mile, has seven assists through seven games with the St. Louis Blues this season. He missed all of last year with a knee injury that resulted from a pre-season golf carting accident, an equally unfortunate and suspicious event.

This guy has a drool-inducing package of assets, starting with the 6-foot-4, 236-pound frame that houses them. He goes side-to-side like a windshield wiper, no small skill when you’re as big as the 21-year-old Minnesota boy.

His impact may not yet be Johnson-esque, but Atlanta’s Zach Bogosian is quickly quelling fears about who will keep the NHL’s iron fist of justice (OK, it’s more aluminum) busy once Chris Pronger eventually retires.

All right, that’s taking it a bit far, but the 19-year-old Yank is one enticing mix of nasty and nice. Drafted third overall in 2008, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Bogosian is averaging 21:32 of ice time per game – third most among Thrashers ‘D’ – after a broken leg limited him to 47 games as a rookie last year. By the way, he notched nine goals and 19 points in that shortened campaign, numbers that translate to a highly respectable freshman sum of 33 points over a full slate.

Of course, there’s literally no bigger story amongst young defensemen than that of Tyler Myers, who’s blended incredibly well in Buffalo.

Not that everything is rosy on the back end.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, a team pretty much immune to bad news for a nice little stretch there, finally got some Tuesday night when Sergei Gonchar was lost for what the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is calling a “significant” amount of time. This from Rob Rossi’s story in that publication:

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“Teammates were told Gonchar has a broken bone near his hand or wrist, and he will be re-evaluated today to find its precise location. He is expected to miss at least a month.”

Also from Rossi’s piece comes this little gem, underscoring Gonchar’s immense importance to the Pens:

“Gonchar missed the Penguins' first 56 games last season because of an injured left shoulder. The Penguins were 27-24-5 and on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff bubble before his return on Feb. 14.

“With Gonchar playing in 25 of their final 26 regular-season games, the Penguins went 18-4-4 and surged into a No. 4 playoff seed.”

The emergence of Alex Goligoski, whose seven points puts him right up among the league leaders in blueline scoring, coupled with continued development from Kris Letang should help take the sting out of Gonchar’s loss.

Still, no matter what kind of high the Igloo folks have been on lately, those are some pretty chilling numbers from last year.

Pens fans will get no sympathy from Montreal supporters, who’ve been cheering (but more often, booing) for a team minus Andrei Markov since two-thirds of the way through Game 1 of the season. Markov – whose game virtually mirrors that of Gonchar’s, at least offensively – was lost when the skate of goalie Carey Price cut a tendon in his left ankle during a goalmouth scramble.

About four minutes after Markov was felled, the Habs used a power play goal to pull even with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They’ve gone 2-for-27 on the man advantage since then.

Even on a smaller scale, the Anaheim Ducks have been outscored 10-3 in three games since losing James Wisniewski, whose surprising play since coming over in a deadline deal last March looked to be making for a smoother transition to the post-Pronger era.

Now, Wisniewski is on the injured reserve with a damaged shoulder, while his team gets yet another painful reminder of just how valuable good defensemen are.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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