Hockey Week Across America, a weeklong celebration of the game’s growth in the United States hosted by USA Hockey, starts Monday with a celebration of the American player. During the week, USA Hockey will dedicate days to the celebration of coaches, local rinks and hockey heroes among other activations.
A total of 231 United States-born players have played at least NHL one game this season but the class of elite young United States-born NHL defensemen is the most interesting development during the past few years. Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks was the runner-up last season for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the best rookie in the NHL, a continuation of a pipeline flooding into the NHL.
Which United States-born defensemen, 25 or younger, will be the best in three seasons? Here are the candidates, listed in alphabetical order, according to a panel of NHL.com writers.
Mikey Anderson, Los Angeles Kings
The 21-year-old rookie was promoted to the top defense pair with Drew Doughty, a five-time NHL All-Star and two-time Stanley Cup champion, four games into this season because of his poise and maturity. Selected in the fourth round (No. 103) of the 2017 NHL Draft, Anderson won back-to-back NCAA championships with the University of Minnesota Duluth (2018-19). He’s second among Kings defensemen in average ice time (21:24), which leads all NHL rookies at the position. He has 20 blocked shots, second on the Kings. He has two assists in 13 games, averages 2:19 on penalty kill, and begins 52.5 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. — Mike G. Morreale, staff writer
Jakob Chychrun, Arizona Coyotes
A good defenseman who is bringing offense to a team hungry for goals? Yes, please. Chychrun, a first-round pick (No. 16) pick for the Coyotes in the 2016 NHL Draft, is looking more confident in his game each season. The 22-year-old has scored 91 points (31 goals, 60 assists) in 248 games, all for the Coyotes, and leads them this season in ice time per game (22:31). He has scored 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 13 games and should top the NHL career-high 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) he scored in 63 games last season. With No. 1 defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson out from Jan. 17 until Feb. 12 because of a lower-body injury, the Coyotes needed other defensemen to step up. Chychrun’s play rose to that level and is showing signs of taking off even further. — Tracey Myers, staff writer
Adam Fox, New York Rangers
Fourth in the voting for the Calder Trophy last season, Fox, who turns 23 on Wednesday, scored 42 points (eight goals, 34 assists) in 70 games. Of the 131 votes he received for the Calder, one was for first place, one for second and 45 were for third. At the very least, it’s was a sign that Fox was being recognized for his strong, two-way play on a national scale. By next season, he might receive some votes for the Norris Trophy, which is awarded annually to the best defenseman in the NHL. He has inherited the No. 1 defenseman role with the Rangers, playing 24:53 minutes per game, putting him in the elite class with the likes of the past two Norris Trophy winners, Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators (25:35) and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning (25:01). The better the Rangers get the more recognition Fox will get. — Dan Rosen, senior writer
Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
Second in 2020 Calder voting to Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, Hughes has set a high bar. But consider the early statement he’s made this season. In 18 games, Hughes is averaging one point per game and leads the Canucks in scoring with 18 points (two goals, 16 assists). It’s an indication of the heights to be reached for the 21-year-old who was selected No. 7 in the 2018 NHL Draft. Since the start of last season, Hughes is third among NHL defensemen in scoring with 71 points (10 goals, 61 assists) in 86 games, trailing John Carlson (86) of the Washington Capitals and Josi (73). Hughes could be a Norris Trophy candidate with the way he is playing. He’ll be 22 at the start of the 2022-23 season, so the best could be yet to come. — Mike Zeisberger, staff writer
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
Thrust into the Eastern Conference First Round against the Ottawa Senators in 2017, McAvoy was a revelation, even to himself. He was 20 years old, not long removed from Boston University, with four American Hockey League games of experience, and he was competing at the highest level and standing out. McAvoy has emerged as a No. 1 defenseman, overtaking a likely Hockey Hall of Famer in Zdeno Chara, and playing a true 200-foot game. He has scored 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in 14 games this season. Now 23, he’s scored 103 points (20 goals, 83 assists) in 198 NHL games. He has toughness, vision and helped lead a team to a Stanley Cup Final in 2019. My guess is the Norris Trophy is not far away. — Amalie Benjamin, staff writer
K’Andre Miller, New York Rangers
The No. 22 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Miller has become a fixture in the Rangers lineup, playing against some of the top lines in the NHL with countryman Jacob Trouba as his partner. Miller is the Rangers’ second-leading scorer among defensemen with four points (one goal, three assists) in 13 games. The 21-year-old is plus-5, best among Rangers defensemen and second behind forward Kevin Rooney (plus-6). Miller has the pedigree to succeed. He scored 47 points (12 goals, 35 assists) in 113 games for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program from 2016-18 and 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists) in 62 games at the University of Wisconsin from 2018-20. — William Douglas, staff writer
Jake Sanderson, Ottawa Senators
Don’t sleep on Sanderson, a first-round pick (No. 5) of the Senators in the 2020 NHL Draft. He’s not in the NHL yet, playing for the University of North Dakota at age 18, but could be as soon as next season. Among the United States-born defensemen in this group, he could blossom into the best by 2022-23. The son of Geoff Sanderson, a forward who played 1,104 games in the NHL from 1990-2008, Jake has the pedigree. He scored 29 points (seven goals, 22 assists) in 47 games for the NTDP in 2019-20. In Ottawa, he’ll be playing on an up-and-coming team with talents like the player selected two spots in front of him, forward Tim Stutzle. — Nicholas J. Cotsonika, columnist
Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Werenski was off to a slow start this season before he was placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, but the 23-year-old returned to the lineup Saturday and played 22:26, is established as a top-pair defenseman in the NHL and is going to continue to improve with experience. With 59 goals in 313 games since entering the NHL in 2016-17, Werenski is tied for third with Hedman, Josi and Alex Pietrangelo of the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL among defensemen during that span. His 174 points during his first five NHL seasons are 18th at the position. Werenski scored a 20 goals last season to lead NHL defensemen and was fourth among United States-born defensemen in averaging 23:59 in ice time behind Blue Jackets teammate Seth Jones (25:17), Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild (24:38) and John Carlson of the Washington Capitals (24:38). — Tom Gulitti, staff writer