Who's the best young defenseman?

Of all the positions within a hockey team, common sense dictates that playing defense takes the most amount of time to master. That's why defenseman, who tend to be the game's more intelligent players and, every so often, redefine the position like Bobby Orr, right, can also take the longest to blossom.

To me, a solid defenseman is a true multi-tasker.

From a defensive standpoint, he must help clear the crease, block shots while not screening his goalie, be an intimidating physical presence who's willing to drop his mitts and, through a lethal combination of speed and a mile-wide mean streak, convince opposing forwards that any dump-and-chase play is futile.

Playing offense, too, is expected. Making crisp outlet passes is a given. So, too, are joining a rush without abandoning his defensive responsibilities and using an array of shots that either cause a rebound, be easily tipped or rip into the net.

Oh, yeah, they need to stay healthy, too. All season long.

That's not to say, though, that there aren't some younger players, defined as less than 25 years old at the time of this writing, who have stepped up in today's game and have mastered their on-ice crafts. There are so many, in my opinion, that my final five should generate healthy debate over some omissions, named and unnamed.

Again, in classic countdown fashion, here are my top five young defensemen in the NHL:

No. 5: Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks, 21 years old (4.20.85)
Everything I've read about this kid praises his poise and mentions his leadership abilities, something that will come in handy in the Windy City. His plus-5 was first among Chicago defenseman and second overall on the team. Uses his brain more than brawn. While others, including Phoenix's Keith Ballard and Los Angeles' Tim Gleason made this the hardest choice, this kid puts together a better total package at a younger age.

No. 4: Andrej Meszaros, Ottawa Senators, 20 years old (10.13.85)
Let's see, where do I begin. A plus-34 (good for second on the Senators), 128 hits and 124 blocked shots. That's not including his 39 points (10 goals, 29 assists), something easily lost within the offensive numbers put up by such talented teammates as Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. A repeat of last season's unbelievable performance this upcoming season means a giant leap up the rankings next year.

No. 3: Dan Hamhuis, Nashville Predators, 23 years old (12.23.82)
In just his second season, he averaged more than 22 minutes a game, scored 38 points (7g-31a), was second on the team with a plus-11 (a 23-point difference from his rookie year) and, most telling, was a plus-5 in takeaways/giveaways. A very smart player who isn't afraid to bang or sacrifice his body to block a shot. Older teammates Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky may have more name recognition, but not for long. This kid is a real sleeper.

No. 2: Dion Phaneuf, Calgary Flames, 21 years old (4.10.85)
Compared to all-world bruiser and future Hall of Famer Scott Stevens, this heavy hitter (203) lived up to the hype. Not only led all rookie defenseman in scoring with 20 goals, 29 assists for 49 points (a surprising offensive output to most, myself included), but was third among the Flames for assists and scoring. If Calder voters looked at the big picture, including what a player means, and not just brings, to his team, that contest would've been a little closer. I can't wait either to watch Phaneuf play against Washington's Alexander Ovechkin or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. We know they have the skill, but do they have the heart?

No. 1: Jay Bouwmeester, Florida Panthers, 23 years old (9.27.83)
With three full seasons now under his belt, the league will soon learn that there's still one gem left in South Florida. The former third-overall pick of the 2002 draft uses his intelligence, defensive awareness (plus-1 while playing for inept Panthers) and deceptive offensive skills (5g-41a-46) to warrant big minutes (25:29) every night. It's a shame Jay-Bo, as he's known, isn't surrounded by better talent or playing in a bigger market.



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