For a young player, adjusting to the speed and skill of the NHL is very difficult and it usually takes years of development before they are ready to contribute full-time. This process is especially true with defensemen as most of them aren't ready until at least their early-20's. Young defensemen in the NHL are generally used in a more sheltered or offensive rule because they are still learning the game and are obviously going to have trouble facing pro-level forwards. This is the case with just about every young defensemen no matter how big or talented they are because a good majority of them are coming straight from either a junior level or college, which doesn't compare to what they will have to deal when they get to the NHL.
It takes a really special talent to make it in the NHL at a very young age and there have been only 16 defensemen since the lockout who have played more than 30 games in the big show before they turned 20. One of those 16 players is Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes. Faulk still has a ways to go before he is a top-tier defenseman but his pro career got off to a great start this year. He was playing over 20 minutes a night, was used in just about every situation and looked incredibly poised for someone his age. He was also arguably the team's best puck-mover last season with Joni Pitkanen on the shelf for most of the year.
The major concern with Faulk is his defensive game. He had trouble controlling possession at even strength and the Canes gave up a lot of scoring chances when he was on the ice. The ongoing explanation for this is that Faulk is still very young and most players his age playing his kind of minutes would fare no better. This got me thinking, how does Faulk compare to other defensemen his age? What situations were they playing in and how did they perform? Was Faulk better or worse than them and most importantly, what predictions can we make about Faulk's future based on it?
After the jump, we will look at the 16 defensemen who played at least 30 games in the NHL before their 20th birthday and see how Faulk's performance during his rookie season compares to them.
Originally, I was going to use one of Rob Vollman's Player Usage Chart's to compare these defensemen but that wouldn't be the best way to judge their performance. Instead, we're going to take a look at certain stats from each player's rookie season and use those means to compare them. Remember, to fully judge any player's performance, you have to look beyond goals and points. It is important to take each player's role into account, how much they were controlling possession and how much ice time they were getting. Those will be examined in the chart below.
|Player||GP||G||Pts||P/60||Corsi Rel QOC||ATOI||OZ%||Corsi Rel.|
|Marc Eduoard Vlasic||81||3||26||0.55||N/A||22:12||N/A||N/A|
|Michael Del Zotto||80||9||37||0.79||-0.582||18:58||58.6||3.9|
P/60 = even strength points per 60 minutes, Corsi Rel QoC = Corsi relative to quality of competition, ATOI = Average time on ice per game, OZ = Offensive zone start percentage, .Corsi Rel = Corsi relative
Faulk ranks third in minutes played and fourth in quality of competition. It shows that Faulk was used in tougher situations than most of the other 19 year olds who were in the NHL after the lockout. Only Drew Doughty and Tyler Myers played more minutes than Faulk did in their rookie seasons, and those two were also the only players, along with Luke Schenn, who faced tougher competition than Faulk. Considering that Doughty and Myers are currently the best defensemen on their respective teams, Faulk being behind them in both categories isn't a bad thing. Those are two top-tier defensemen and Faulk isn't at that level. What this does show is that Kirk Muller had a lot of confidence in Faulk's abilities to use him in these situations because those are some heavy minutes.
The two areas where Faulk ranks lower are even strength point production and shot prevention. Faulk accumulated 12 of his 22 points on the powerplay, which puts him behind most of the players on this list for even strength points. This is pretty interesting because Faulk was known to be more of an offensive defenseman when he was drafted. Not that Faulk having a strong powerplay performance is a bad thing, but it's a little troubling to see that Nick Leddy and Luke Schenn scored at a higher rate at even strength than Faulk during their rookie seasons. Faulk was also a negative player in corsi relative, which meant that he was giving up more shots than he was creating for most of the time. However, when you look at the players with the highest corsi relative ratings on this list, you'll notice a common trend. They all played soft minutes when they broke into the league.
Erik Johnson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Michael Del Zotto, Erik Karlsson and Dimitry Kulikov were all either protected territorially (High OZ Start%) or received easier matchups and it put them in more favorable situations than Fauk was in. Faulk most of the easier draws in the Hurricanes' defense corps but he was still being matched up against the seconds, which didn't happen with the five defensemen listed above. That definitely affected the amount of shots he was on ice for. The one exception in this group is Victor Hedman, who also faced the seconds and wasn't protected territorially. He has developed nicely and currently some of the toughest minutes in the league.
What does this all mean in terms of projecting Faulk's future? Well, not much honestly. He's in good company with a lot of the names on this list but we can't guarantee that Faulk will become a top-tier defenseman based on one season's worth of data. He was used in tougher situations and carried a bigger workload than most of these players but that doesn't mean he will automatically become a stud. What it does show is that he is ahead of the game compared to other 19 year old defensemen and his future looks very bright if he can continue to improve.
Stats courtesy of Hockey Reference & Behind The Net.