Apparently I'm now Copper & Blue's Resident Iffy Defenseman Correspondent.
At 21 years old, good Alberta boy Brandon Davidson is making his return to the Top 25 Under 25 proper. Those of you who are also fans of iffy defensemen will be leaning forward at this point. "Wait just a cotton-picking minute," you may say. "Brandon Davidson spent a third of last year in the ECHL, to the extent he played at all. This coming off a junior career that could most optimistically be called 'interesting'. And the whole being-a-sixth-round-pick 21-year-old ECHL-fodder lost-playing-time-to-Colten-Teubert thing traditionally excludes players from the hallowed top 25."
"I assume, therefore, Ben, that you are eating rubber cement, have ranked Davidson third, and that's why we're having this conversation." (You speak in complete paragraphs; how literary!) Actually, no. I'm not the crazy one this time. Davidson's got the writer's consensus behind him and he's here on merit.
Not that he's taken the easy road. Davidson has faced adversity in his career, the proper sort rather than crap used to fill second intermissions on TSN. But in 2013 Davidson didn't so much survive that adversity as render it irrelevant. He's ranked in the top 25 not for sentimental reasons but because, when he was able to return to the ice, he played some good hockey.
Previous Rank: 26
As you can see it's really the mainstream media's Bruce McCurdy who really had stars in his eyes (geddit?!) over Davidson. But as a team most of us were in the same range. Michael Parkatti was the cynic, and Alan, the Dereks, Jonathan, Ryan, Scott, and I all had him ranked 21-22-23. Such agreement in the twenties is pretty unusual, particularly when we consider the past two years of Davidson's career.
Davidson's first appearance on the Top 25 Under 25 was in July 2010 when he snuck in at 25th place. Not a few of the players ranked ahead of him are now headed to a Chrysler plant: Gilbert Brule, Zack Stortini, my god remember when we thought Chris Vande Velde was the answer to anything but a trivia question? A collective sanity attack bumped Davidson to #21 in January 2011, then #18 in July once again in the time-honoured role of "The One Guy We Could All Pretty Much Agree On." He was on his way.
No he wasn't. Davidson's overage season in the WHL wasn't as good as anyone hoped and he was down to #21 in the January 2012 rankings, with some asshole describing him as "the so-called 'late bloomer' [that] is just getting results because he's bigger and older than the opposition." Then he got #28 in July. Then he got cancer.
Following up a career-stalling last WHL campaign with a cancer diagnosis was... well, I'd call it a kick in the balls but that might be a bit too spot-on. Davidson's diagnosis was made public in November and he was out of hockey until February 2013, where he played a back-to-back series with the Oklahoma City Barons against Grand Rapids then went to the ECHL to get his legs back.
Normally, I frown on 21-year-old defensemen who spend extended periods in the ECHL. Davidson is an exception. First because, well, cancer, and second because he was obviously and immediately too good for the league. His debut for Stockton was against the Ontario Reign on February 15, where Davidson scored both Thunder goals including a magnificent slapshot of an overtime winner.
Davidson's final ECHL tally of seven goals, five assists, and 28 shots in eleven games speaks for itself. But in case you'd like more: four of those seven goals and two of his five assists were at even strength. While effective on the powerplay Davidson was by no means reliant upon it, and his 0.545 5v5 points per game was superior to the total points per game of any other Stockton defenseman save part-timer Nathan Deck. It was a small sample but it made Davidson look miles better than his so-called ECHL peers.
Yes, Davidson's scoring slowed down in the AHL, but he was in his first professional season, and even if he'd been healthy the whole way we'd expect a period of adjustment to the American league. Coming back in March, Davidson went six games without a point and was -2. He got three points in three games from March 29 to April 2 (two of which were empty-net goals and one 5v5 assist) and then went back on the schneide, going 0-for-his-last-9 games and -1.
For an offensive defenseman it wasn't a great close to the season, so I understand the skeptics. Davidson's final regular season total was two goals (both empty-netters) and three assists (all 5v5) in 26 games. This is not a fine haul and, again, Davidson's calling card has always been his offense. He's never been a shabby own-zone player and got good reviews from coach Todd Nelson, but if he's not generating points he's not getting to the show.
Luckily, Davidson came into his own during the playoffs. This isn't as ridiculous as it sounds: Davidson played 26 regular season AHL games and 17 in the playoffs. Two small samples but one not much worse than the other. Starting off with one assist (5v5) and -1 in five games against Charlotte, Davidson played a whale of a series against Texas. Another fine series against Grand Rapids left Davidson with a highly respectable six assists in 17 games, four at 5v5 and two at 5v4. He was on the first pairing with Garrett Stafford, one of the best AHL journeymen in recent history, veteran of seven NHL games, and someone who could tell Davidson a thing or two about busting your ass to get a chance in pro hockey.
Nobody was putting Davidson behind Teubert or Plante anymore. Sixth-round pick or not, by the end of last year he was rated a core defenseman on one of the AHL's better teams and he looks set to continue that role into 2013-14. We can't allow ourselves to get carried away: Davidson is still the nucleus of a potential NHL defenseman rather than someone the Oilers could call up tomorrow. But the development of his defensive game, as well as early indications his offense might be a factor professionally, is enough to get him over the line in the Top 25 Under 25.
Davidson is one of those players who everybody in hockey should be cheering for. First, because he's an alumnus of the AJHL's Olds Grizzlys and those guys need a break; they've been a below-.500 team for three years and their most accomplished graduate is Kevin Haller for chrissakes. Second, because the NHL needs more sleek shooting defensemen and fewer Coke machines and coin laundries. And third, because... well, come on, we're talking about a player whose family couldn't afford to get him out of AAA midget, who had to walk onto his WHL team, fight his way up the depth chart with nothing but hard work and confidence, become a late draft pick and count himself lucky for it, only to suffer through a disappointing season and cancer of the testicles. If someone pitched a movie like this they'd call it too maudlin. And incredibly, it looks like the best might be ahead.
Check out the complete Top 25 Under 25 List in our