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Rookie defensemen are key to the Komets' season

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Four first-year players are starting every night

Friday, December 7, 2012 - 5:22 am

There are probably plenty of times each game when Komets coach Al Sims wants to blow up at someone.

Instead, he tries to remind himself of the circumstances.

``We're playing with three, four rookies on the back end, and it's going to take a little time for them to get better,'' Sims said recently. ``A lot of things they are seeing for the first time. It's to be expected, and we have to live with it until they hopefully grow and get better and don't make the same mistakes.''

The defensemen's development will likely be the most-important key to this Komets' season. Daniel Maggio, Ryan Hegarty, Dan Nycholat and Scott Kishel are all rookies who play major minutes each game. The hope is they continue to improve month to month.

Partly because Sims was a defenseman and values a strong defensive team, it's been a long time since the Komets were this inexperienced on the blue line. Having patience is hard for everyone – fans, teammates and management. Defensemen seem to be the players who always take the longest to mature.

``I think the hardest transition to make is being a defensemen in pro hockey coming from college or junior hockey because you're not dealing with young men anymore, you're dealing with real men,'' veteran defenseman Tyler Butler said. ``They are smart, they are big, they are looking which way your stick is pointing and which way your feet are moving.''

Forwards are also paid to be aggressive, probing for weaknesses, while defensemen are paid to prevent, and the person being aggressive always has the advantage. Sometimes the only way a young defenseman can learn is by making the mistakes initially.

Also, usually when forwards make mistakes, the puck doesn't end up in their own net. Defensemen aren't often that lucky.

Most young defensemen are also not nearly as aggressive and are always reacting to what their opponent is doing. They usually have to learn to be more aggressive.

``I don't think that's a rookie-veteran thing, I think that's a personal aggressive thing,'' veteran defenseman Brent Henley said. ``I think a guy like Maggio doesn't play like a rookie because he's so aggressive. I don't think that's an age thing or an experience thing. I've played with guys where the light bulb went on in their fourth or fifth year.

``I don't think being a rookie is an excuse for lacking aggression. Being a rookie might be an excuse for lacking position, lacking little bits of the game, how to communicate with your partner, how to play situationally, but it's not an excuse for lack of aggression.''

But almost every player is always better after getting through a rookie season. There are very few players who peak as rookies.

``There are no slugs here,'' Butler said. ``These guys can all play.''

Sometimes it's like playing a rookie quarterback: The only way they can get better is by making mistakes and living through them. There are no shortcuts around the mistakes in the first place.

It's easy to forget that Maggio only played in the playoffs last year after finishing his junior eligibility. Nycholat did the same thing after completing his college career.

That also may mean the Komets will always be looking for more offensive production from the defensemen. A defenseman with offensive skills is the hardest player to find in the minors. Sometimes the best way to find those players is to just develop them.

``We're trying to minimize mistakes and let our forwards be the guys who do the work,'' Butler said. ``You'll see a couple of guys putting up some decent numbers, but as a whole I think you won't see one guy with 50 or 60 points. I don't think that's in our unit, but by committee I think it'll get going in the right way.''

Partly because of serious injuries to Chris Auger and Eric Giosa, the Komets are also not scoring nearly as much as expected this season, putting more pressure on the young defense. That's not an excuse, because the Komets can't afford any. They need these players to perform.

``It's professional hockey, so there's a limited amount of patience,'' Henley said. ``After five games or 10 games, you should be progressing. Who is to judge what patience is? You preach work ethic and decision making, and if players (make) that happen, then that's good. If he's not, then that's not good enough. You hope guys step up. I think that's a caliber of play thing, and a quality thing, not an experience thing.''