Scott Niedermayer was 19 years old when he appeared in his first NHL playoff game with the New Jersey Devils in 1993, staring at an arena of rabid Pittsburgh Penguins fans and hockey royalty across the ice.
“You’re really naïve at that stage, which is probably a really good thing. When I was in that situation playing Pittsburgh, I probably had to pinch myself a little bit because you’re in the Stanley Cup playoffs against [Mario] Lemieux and [Jaromir] Jagr and the rest of the guys on that team,” Niedermayer told ESPN this week.
That was two years after he was selected third in the NHL draft by the Devils. It was 14 years before he’d lift the Conn Smythe Trophy over his salt-and-pepper beard with the Anaheim Ducks. It was 20 years before he would enter the Hockey Hall of Fame as one of the game’s greatest defensemen.
In 1993, he was a novice, about to get an education about the not-so-subtle differences between regular-season hockey and playoff hockey.
Back then, it wasn’t typical to have defensemen that young playing prominent roles on playoff teams, but Niedermayer wasn’t a typical defenseman. He would, in fact, become a prototypical defenseman: Niedermayer is the point of comparison for a generation of speedy, puck-moving defensemen, ones who have game-changing offensive abilities and play a 200-foot game.
The Western Conference playoffs are blessed with three of these Sons of Niedermayer: Miro Heiskanen, 21, of the Dallas Stars; Quinn Hughes, 20, of the Vancouver Canucks; and Cale Makar, 21, of the Colorado Avalanche.
“There are some great young ones out there playing big roles at an early age. Those three are fun to watch,” Niedermayer said. “The game is absolutely a game now where you have to move. It’s as simple as that. That includes the defense. If you’re trying to defend against forwards that are moving around the ice at high speeds — and their agility is amazing — you’re going to have to be able to match that.”
These three match those forwards and frequently surpass them. Heiskanen was second in the playoffs in scoring through 11 games, with 14 points. Hughes was second among defensemen with 10 points in 11 games. Makar was fourth with eight points in 10 games, skating to a plus-9. All of them have had star-making moments in the playoffs. All of them are handling assignments well beyond the expectations of their experience levels.
“They’re better prepared for it,” Niedermayer said. “They’ve gone through more coaching and video and instruction in their young life than we did back in the day.”
All of them are going to benefit from the harsh education of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Dallas Stars analyst Brent Severyn played with Niedermayer in Utica of the AHL before the phenom made his leap to the Devils. He has watched Heiskanen the past two seasons, and he has seen this movie before.
“I was watching Miro’s third [NHL] game, and I said, ‘That’s Scott Niedermayer right there,'” Severyn told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “The calmness on the ice. The competitiveness. He knows exactly where the puck is supposed to go. It’s scary that he’s that good at that age.”
Like Niedermayer, the Finnish defenseman was the No. 3 overall pick in the NHL draft — in a 2017 class that saw Makar go right behind him at No. 4 to the Avalanche. Heiskanen made his debut for Dallas in 2018-19, with 33 points in 82 games, placing fourth in the Calder Trophy voting. Rasmus Dahlin, the 18-year-old defenseman for the Buffalo Sabres (and the No. 1 pick in that draft), finished just ahead of him.
Heiskanen’s point production jumped in his second season to 35 points in 68 games. He wasn’t “sheltered” — given favorable starts in the attacking zone — in either season, perhaps as a product of the two professional years he had with HIFK in the Finnish Liiga before he made the NHL leap.
“For a guy who’s so young, he plays like he’s been in the league for a while,” defense partner Jamie Oleksiak said. “He’s so good in all three zones.”
Heiskanen is listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, though his training has paid off year over year. “I think I’m more confident right now than when I got here,” he said. “Maybe a little bit stronger, too. I can hold on to the puck more, try to make plays. Getting stronger was a big help for me.”
In the postseason, Heiskanen has been dominant in both ends of the rink, averaging 25 minutes, 56 seconds of ice time, more than that of any other defenseman left in the postseason.
“I think you just let Miro be Miro, and he’ll just take over games,” said Stars defenseman John Klingberg, who has eight points in 10 playoff games. “I think he’s probably our best player every night.”
The Stars have made a concerted effort to get more scoring from their back end in the playoffs. “We’ve had lots of offense,” Heiskanen said. “It’s a lot better than what it was in the regular season. We just have to keep doing it.”
That tenacity was never more evident than in Game 6 of the conference quarterfinals against the Calgary Flames, which was Heiskanen’s finest playoff moment to date. The Flames, facing elimination, jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first period. The Stars took a timeout, and the message was clear: They needed a goal before the end of the period to climb back into the game. Heiskanen scored on the power play moments later. He added three assists in the Stars’ 7-3 rout to oust Calgary.
“It takes a special player like Miro to step up. He says, ‘You need a goal? OK,'” Dallas coach Rick Bowness said after the game. “Tonight, as a coach, you need someone on your bench to step up and say ‘OK, jump on my back. I’m going to get this thing turned around.’ Miro did that.”
There are moments, he said, when the Stars can look hapless and rudderless. Yet one or two plays by their 21-year-old defenseman can set them right.
“You could see early in the game, we couldn’t make a pass, couldn’t make a 5-foot pass. All of a sudden, Miro just took the game over,” Bowness said. “He’s an exceptional player. He’s an exceptional person. Tonight exemplifies how good he is and how calm he is in a pressure situation.”
“This kid has Norris Trophy written all over him.”
But excelling on this stage is not what’s motivating Heiskanen. “Oh, I don’t really think about that. I just do my job and play my game. Just try to do everything I can on the ice there and help my team to win,” he said. “So I don’t think about that too much.”
Bowness, however, sees this as a chance for the rest of the NHL to catch up with Heiskanen’s greatness.
“He wants to be out there. Every crucial situation, he wants to be on the ice. He wants to calm things down and take charge of the game. That’s how good he is,” Bowness said. “A lot of people haven’t see him play much. They’re saying, ‘Wow, what a great player.’ We’ve been seeing it for two years now.”
Without travel and stuck inside a bubble, NHL players have been faced with copious amounts of downtime during the postseason.
Cale Makar of the Avalanche brought two books with him to Edmonton: an autobiography of Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom that he has been paging through for months and a book called “You Are Awesome” by New York Times best-selling author Neil Pasricha, which is subtitled “How To Navigate Change, Wrestle With Failure And Live An Intentional Life.”
How would such a book help a 21-year-old defenseman in a playoff bubble?
“I was super flattered to hear Cale’s been reading ‘You Are Awesome,'” Pasricha said. “It’s all about resilience. It’s a guidebook offering nine simple steps to building mental toughness when you need it most. Competing in the NHL playoffs is high pressure. Add in a pandemic, and we’ve got a recipe for very unique acute stress. I am grateful if my book can be helpful.”
Makar got his first taste of the acute stress of the postseason in 2019, with one of the most accelerated timelines imaginable for a rookie:
On April 12, he won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, becoming the first UMass player to capture it.
On April 13, his team lost to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA national championship game.
On April 14, he signed an entry-level contract with the Avalanche.
On April 15, he made his NHL debut in Game 3 of Colorado’s playoff series against the Flames.
Makar played 10 postseason games with the Avalanche in 2019, skating 17:22 per game and amassing six points. He had nine points through 10 games this postseason, with his average ice time increasing to 22:53.
“Getting a taste of the postseason last year was pretty special. I thought it was going to help me a lot coming into this year, being able to know the guys and know the systems,” he said. “I think this playoff is just a completely different atmosphere, being in this bubble here. The tempo’s very high. That’s something I took out of the last playoffs. Everyone ups their game. You can’t take a shift off.”
Makar fulfilled the promise of his playoff stint with an outstanding rookie regular season, with 12 goals and 38 assists for 50 points in 57 games. That earned him a Calder Trophy nomination as Colorado’s second-leading scorer. He was an offensive force and was used as such by coach Jared Bednar, with 64.9% of his starts coming in the attacking zone.
Niedermayer said that’s something that hasn’t changed since he was an offensively gifted rookie. “I would have started in the offensive zone more than the defensive zone,” he said. “Mind you, Herb Brooks was our coach that year. And he would have loved the game right now.”
Makar’s offensive flourish was never more evident than in Colorado’s 7-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes in Game 4 of their conference quarterfinal series. In that game, Makar sliced through the defense for a highlight-reel goal:
— Ryan Greene 📷 (@RyanCBS4) August 17, 2020
“We stretch passed it into the neutral zone, their D pinched. Cale just happened to be coming up to tighten his gap and picked it up at full speed. We know how guys like him and [Nathan] MacKinnon can skate,” Bednar said. “You get caught flat-footed, and you got a guy like Cale coming at you, it’s almost an impossible play for the defense — and the goalie, for that matter. Really nice job by Cale attacking.”
Makar attacks but is occasionally attacked, too. In the third period of Game 4, he was crushed along the boards face-first by a Lawson Crouse cross-check. That led to MacKinnon playing the role of enforcer, tackling Arizona’s Christian Fischer during an ensuing scrum.
For Makar, it was a teachable moment.
“I put myself in that position. I don’t want to put anybody on my team at a point where they have to stand up for anybody else,” he said. “It makes me feel a little bit guilty because I know I put myself in that scenario.”
A young defenseman lives and learns, dusting off the ice shavings after a dangerous hit and grinding away in the playoffs.
As Pasricha said: “Resilience is a skill we all have in short supply.”
Retired and living in his native British Columbia, Niedermayer doesn’t watch the NHL much in his leisure time. But he makes one exception.
“Whenever I see the Canucks are going into overtime, I’ll find a TV nearby. That’s a good five minutes worth watching,” he said.
Quinn Hughes is a primary reason for that. The 20-year-old defenseman, selected No. 7 overall in 2018, has blazing speed and an offensive game that earned him 53 points — eight goals and 45 assists — in 68 games as a rookie for Vancouver this season. He joined Makar as a Calder Trophy finalist. Hughes scored 28 points at even strength and 25 on the power play, where he ran the point for an explosive group of skilled forwards.
The playoffs have been more of the same for Hughes: Of his 10 points, seven have come on the power play, most among defensemen.
“Coming into this, I didn’t really know what to expect, especially with the circumstances and guys being off four-to-five months. It’s hard to tell what the speed of the game is going to be like,” Hughes said. “But I feel like the competitiveness and the speed has been really high, and everyone is here to win. Nobody wants to waste their time. It’s been really good.”
Coach Travis Green has been more judicious in his deployment of the rookie in the postseason: Hughes started 66.9% of his shifts in the attacking zone in the regular season, and in the postseason, that has been 71.9% at 5-on-5.
“He’s a pretty good offensive player, I think, so we’re going to try to get him out in the offensive zone as much as we can. I think he also plays against top lines. We’re not hiding him by any means,” Green said. “It’s hard to hide a guy that plays 22-26 minutes. We’re pretty confident with him in any area of the game, but if there’s an offensive zone faceoff, there’s a good chance you’re going to see him out there.”
“He looks very good out there,” Canucks defenseman Alex Edler said. “Relies a lot on his skating, which is elite-class. I think he’s a smart player, too. Very humble. Wants to get better. Wants to learn. So it’s great to have him on the team and have his first playoff taste.”
That taste turned sour in Game 1 of the conference semifinals, when Hughes was greeted harshly by the Vegas Golden Knights, targeted by hits and playing to a minus-3 in the 5-0 loss. Green was seen patting the defenseman on the back of his sweater and offering words of encouragement as he sat on the bench.
“They’re a pressure hockey team. They’re going to try and get the puck out of one of our best player’s hands. I talked to Quinn briefly. But good players adapt and adjust in different series, especially a young guy that hasn’t been in this situation before,” Green said. “Quinn’s a great player. He’s going to be a great player in this league for a long time. The one thing about good, young, great players is that they usually adjust to different situations, and I expect him to adjust as well.”
It has been a season of adaptation for Hughes. He got a five-game taste of the NHL last season after jumping over from the University of Michigan. This season has seen the growth of his game and his personality.
The Canucks released a video this season showing a typically reserved Hughes surrounded by his teammates and tasked with reading the night’s lineup.
“Let’s see it, Huggy,” said one of the players, referring to Hughes’s nickname, “Huggy Bear.”
Hughes read each player by his nickname, including “The Kid on D” for himself. Each name got an exaggerated cheer from the room and encouraging slaps on the knee pad from defenseman Troy Stecher.
Hughes has appreciated the camaraderie. “This is a real good opportunity to be with your team,” he said. “You’re not on the road for three or four weeks at a time. And everyone has family. To see some of the older guys and hang with those guys has been great.”
Hughes, Makar and Heiskanen all have veteran teammates they are playing with and learning from on this journey, which is something Niedermayer remembers from his early years with the Devils.
“No matter what we’re doing, I think we learn by watching, by trial and error and by just doing,” he said. “That was most of what I was doing with a veteran defense. They all had different styles, different personalities. It was mostly watch and learn and taking little bits from each one.”
Niedermayer had three points in five games against the potent Pittsburgh team in 1993. The following season, he skated 20 games with the Devils before they lost in the conference finals to the eventual champion New York Rangers. The season after that? In 1995, Niedermayer lifted the Stanley Cup for the first of four times in his career.
“There was still a lot more to learn,” he said. “To hang around the playoffs until the end, it’s a long journey.”
As the Western Conference playoffs continue, three great young defensemen hope to hang around, learn as much as they can and potentially lift the Cup themselves. Then, years later, perhaps they’ll be the new prototypes for the next generation of defensemen.