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Young defencemen like Maatta, Rielly making surprise impact on NHL

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (44) and winger Phil Kessel (81) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during third period NHL hockey action in Edmonton on Tuesday, October 29, 2013. Young defencemen like Pittsburgh's Olli Maatta and Rielly are making a surprise impact on the NHL. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (44) and winger Phil Kessel (81) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during third period NHL hockey action in Edmonton on Tuesday, October 29, 2013. Young defencemen like Pittsburgh's Olli Maatta and Rielly are making a surprise impact on the NHL. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Defencemen take longer to develop than forwards, or so the theory goes.

"We joke, defencemen joke, that you can turn your brain off and go play forward," Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

Playing on the blue-line in the NHL is challenging at times even for established veterans. But this season a handful of defencemen who haven't even turned 20 have made their debuts and are sticking around for the long term.

In some cases, like fourth-overall pick Seth Jones of the Nashville Predators, it was expected. But many others, like the Toronto Maple Leafs' Morgan Rielly, the Penguins' Olli Maatta and Anaheim Ducks' Hampus Lindholm, have done enough to show that they belong in the pros.

"There's quite a good group of us," Rielly said. "It's tough to make that jump, but we've all been able to do it. That's pretty cool."

Cool, and not a coincidence. Counting the Minnesota Wild's Mathew Dumba, the Winnipeg Jets' Jacob Trouba and the Buffalo Sabres' Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, six teenage defencemen have played in at least five games.

Predators coach Barry Trotz has a theory on the influx of youth on blue-lines around the league.

"There's a number of young defencemen in the league because they can skate. That's No. 1," Trotz said in a phone interview. "And the good ones have really good instincts, they have good hockey IQ. That's what's needed. There's a lot of kids that skate, but they don't have the hockey IQ to go along with all the physical attributes."

Perhaps it's that hockey IQ that made a lot of decisions tough for these teams. Jones was considered NHL-ready coming out of June's draft, and Trouba (who's now injured) figured into the Jets' plans out of training camp.

But Rielly and Maatta have already earned a spot beyond the magic nine-game mark at which teams burn the first year of a player's entry-level contract. Penguins general manager Ray Shero said the organization believes Maatta's development is best served continuing to play there rather than returning to the London Knights of the OHL.

"He's given us the best chance to win hockey games," Bylsma said.

Same goes for Rielly, who had a good enough camp to make the Leafs and took advantage of a knee injury to Mark Fraser to stick in the lineup ever since. Goaltender James Reimer saw the 19-year-old's potential early in training camp and, after playing behind him, described his game as "mature."

"He doesn't really look like a rookie to me," Reimer said. "He makes mistakes, obviously, but it feels like he never gets panicky or really unsure of himself. I think there's times where he does a little bit, but just as much as anybody else would.

"To me, he just thinks the game well. It looks like he's been there. He's not overconfident, he's not cocky. He's not anything like that. But when he's on the ice he's confident in his own ability and he just makes smart plays."

At the core, that's what it takes for young defencemen to succeed at such a high level. It's no surprise that Trotz cited Jones' personal and professional maturity, as well.

But it's still uncommon to see so many of these players eating up minutes at this age. Trotz sees the trend continuing because of the head-start they get before getting to the minors or the NHL.

"I just think it's the evolution of the young player. They have more access to what the pros do," he said. "I think they're more advanced in a lot of areas in terms of training. It's evolution: You've got better athletes playing the game than ever before because you have more. You have more American players, you have more Canadians, you have more Europeans playing the game. The game continues to grow."

Not everyone is an immediate success story. The New York Islanders figured Griffin Reinhart needed another year of seasoning, and the Washington Capitals sent Connor Carrick to the AHL after a brief cameo at the start of the season.

The Wild still have yet to decide whether to keep Dumba around or send him back to Red Deer of the WHL. With nine games down, decision time is approaching, but coach Mike Yeo has wanted to be patient with Dumba.

"Every game you're under the spotlight," Yeo said. "There's going to be ups and downs for young players and we're not going to overreact when he plays really well and we're not going to overreact if he has a shift or two where things aren't great, too."

Those are the same kind of "youthful mistakes" that Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards sees in 2012 No. 2 pick Ryan Murray, who turned 20 last month and is playing his first NHL season.

"There's lots of things I like about Ryan Murray and his adjustment in the NHL. It's been really smooth," Richards said. "I think when you come from really dominating the league that he played in, having lots of success in a league that you play in, you come in and some of those (things) are habit and you just do that."

Ryan Murphy of the Carolina Hurricanes isn't a teenager anymore, either, and like Murray and some of these slightly younger defencemen he's "progressing every shift," according to coach Kirk Muller.

"It's a big step," Muller said. "We've put him in there to run the power play back there, a quarterback at a young age. And he's got great skill, he sees the game well. It's growing pains. You're learning every game you play in."

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