IT'S NOT that he necessarily stands out. It's that he does not. Alone that makes 18-year-old Flyer Luca Sbisa intriguing already, makes his advent from 2008 draft pick to leaned-on defenseman a story that is borderline remarkable.

It's borderline only because it's happening in too many NHL cities this season. Five 18-year-old defensemen made opening-day rosters this season, a byproduct, at least partly, to the restrictions teams face by the NHL salary cap, now in its third year.

According to NHL.com, only nine 18-year-old defensemen debuted as NHL rookies in the last 15 seasons.

"It's a very high level of hockey," Sbisa was saying after last night's 3-2 overtime loss to New Jersey. "Big guys, big bodies, big hits. You have to be ready every night. If you're just 99 percent ready to come out, you take one shift off, they will be ready to take advantage."

He was riding breathlessly on an exercise bike, a big mouse visible under his left eye, the byproduct of a deflected puck. "The visor probably saved my eye," Sbisa said, but there was little drama in his voice.

This is the National Hockey League, after all, the reason he left Switzerland as a 17-year-old to play a season in Canada's rough-and-tumble Western Hockey League. "It's a tough league like this one," he said. "The difference is a 220-pounder runs at you instead of a 190-pounder. It makes a difference."

Sbisa was going to make the Flyers' roster even before early injuries to Randy Jones and Ryan Parent mandated it. But playing second line, playing power plays?

"We certainly didn't envision this," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said last night. "But he was already outplaying a lot of guys."

Picked 19th overall last June with the draft pick acquired in the R.J. Umberger trade, Sbisa has played heady and steady, has played well ahead of his years. Behind his net he makes simple plays. He has good puck skills and is strong on the puck. His stick is active and erases some of his mistakes almost instantly. He can take a hit and he can give one. And at 6-2, 190 pounds, he is only going to get bigger, stronger, tougher.

Last night, despite taking that puck to the face, he logged 34 shifts and 25 minutes, 8 seconds of ice time, more than any other player but Braydon Coburn. Again injuries dictated some of it. Kimmo Timonen suffered a shoulder bruise late in the third period and did not return, requiring Coburn and the kid to play the first 2 1/2 minutes of overtime.

"He's an old 18," said former Flyers defenseman Eric Desjardins, watching from the press box last night. Just seconds before, when asked if Sbisa reminded him of anyone, Holmgren said: "He has a little bit of Eric Desjardins in him. He's smart and strong with the puck."

"Maybe, but I was still in juniors at 18," Desjardins said. "I didn't have the poise he has or the confidence he has at that age. He has some things better than me, too. He can throw bigger hits."

Like Desjardins, Sbisa's weight is down in his legs. Like Desjardins, he rarely seems flustered out there, even at 18, even as he becomes a target.

Last night, New Jersey's David Clarkson went at him early, found himself in a few fights with Flyers elders by period's end. "I got hit a couple of times hard this game," Sbisa said. "But as long as I get up, I'm used to that."

Later, though, he said: "I have to make an adjustment. It takes a toll on your body." The Flyers played their 23rd game last night, and the kid's minutes were through the roof. Holmgren said the Flyers will continue to monitor him closely, to look for lulls, maybe give him a night or 2 or 3 off. But the truth is, he has become too leaned on, too needed right now for any of that to even be considered.

And so he soldiers on, working the lactic acid out on the bike well after last night's overtime ended, the ice going on and off the swelling under his eye.

"Physically he's kept up," Holmgren said. "Mentally he's stayed strong. Emotionally, when you talk to him, he doesn't sound 18."

Then again, he can't afford to. Not in the NHL. *

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