THERE IS NONE
Look, I understand I beat the same drum over and over, so I’ll limit the discussion on the topic here. When someone is labeled as “good in their own zone” that is hockey BS for “not really that good, but his coach plays him often, and sometimes he throws a hit”. The ideal Defensive D-man is a guy who contributes well in both ends of the ice. His most important skill may not be scoring goals, but stopping shots (which is different than blocking). Hits and such do retain value if contact is made with a player in possession of the puck, or as always, in a net-front battle. The guys you’ll see on this list will not be Marc Methot, Karl Alzner, Brent Seabrook or any other players usually associated with the stereotype. Instead you’ll see guys like Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Drew Doughty, and others. I decided a compromise was necessary, so guys like Karlsson and Burns will get their own list on the next segment.
SHOT SUPPRESSION: NIKLAS HJALMARSSON
Perhaps the most underrated modern defensive player is Niklas Hjalmarsson. The man is an absolute gem at one of the most essential aspects of defence, shot suppression. Positioning, mobility and an ability to read the play are so essential to actual defending these days, and Hjalmarsson has these traits in spades, while also playing on his off side. Take a look at how he stacks up against the best of the best in that category alone.
Compared to a first pair defender, who on average is rated 6/10 for shot suppression, Niklas Hjalmarsson’s 9/10 is even more impressive. Clearly he isn’t an offensive juggernaut, but he actually has proven value defensively. Take for example the shot suppression rates of an average player that is labeled defensive:
People are quick to point to Seabrook as an outstanding defenceman, but upon seeing his actual impact, there is some room for concern and skepticism. Stan Bowman’s contract for Seabrook, and his decision to keep him over Hjalmarsson could prove costly.
FIRST PASS: DUNCAN KEITH
In my opinion the cornerstone of the Blackhawks dynasty (2010-2015) was Duncan Keith. His ability to make that intial break-out pass consistently and accurately caused the overpowered forward core to possess the puck as long as they wanted (sometimes too long Mr. Kane).
Watch this video to understand what I mean.
Instead of dumping the puck to his partner or throwing it off the glass and out of the zone, Keith opts to fight off a defender and pass the puck for a controlled exit and a scoring chance in the other end. Unless you are the Pittsburgh Penguins of 2015-2016, no one has the pace to collect all those loose pucks that your typical “defensive guy” is throwing up the ice. You might argue that dumping is the safe play, but picture this (given that the odds of your teammates collecting that loose puck are minimal): the other team will collect the puck and head right back at you. You can’t win any games dumping the puck out continuously without controlled exits. The problem with the NHL today (one of many): controlled exits are continuously slandered as dangerous 90% of the time, regardless of whether it is actually true or not. Guys like PK Subban, Jeff Petry, Erik Karlsson, Justin Schultz are so effective at this aspect of the game, but people refuse to accept that as a good quality.
Honorary Category: Stamina
Remember when this guy played more than 45 mins in a playoff game, and was the only guy still skating at full speed?
SKATING: DREW DOUGHTY
With the exception of that one time McDavid ruined the man, Drew Doughty is one of the most dominant skaters in the league. He’s such a gifted player, he’s an excellent passer, physical presence (guys WITH the puck get destroyed often), smart positionally, but unquestionably his second best asset is skating (his best OBVIOUSLY being chirping, this video highlighting most of that). Few guys can be the first to puck once its been dumped in behind them, or keep up with high flying forwards while skating backwards, but Doughty is one of those players. Having him move at that speed, along with everything else he brings to the table, gives his goaltender, Jonathan Quick, a much easier job.
CONTACT MANAGEMENT: OSCAR KLEFBOM
One of the strangest things in the hockey world is praise towards penalty minutes. It is somehow an important category in many fantasy leagues, on the back of any hockey card, and has a section in the Hockey Hall of Fame. My question is always the same: why do we praise something that objectively hurts your team? A penalty taken is a risk for a power play goal against, extra strain on your teammates (especially the goalie), and a cardiac arrest waiting to happen for the average NHL coach. An ideal defender would not take penalties. Luckily for the Oilers, Oscar Klefbom never does. I mean NEVER. By now you’re probably telling yourself that I’ve exaggerated, but hey I do my research.
Since he has been in the NHL, Oscar Klefbom has played 189 regular season games, many of which he was relied upon as a first pair guy. So in give or take 4100 mins as a first pair D, Oscar Kelfbom has amassed a grand total of 8 penalty minutes. That is correct, 4 penalties. Tell me what else could you possibly ask for in a defenceman?
To the average fan still enjoying hockey from 1975, he would be seen as “soft”, or not enough of a stand up locker room guy like Dan Girardi (who by the way I’ll write about at the end of this). The thing is, Klefbom positions himself, and skates so well, he doesn’t need to clutch, grab, trip, hook anyone to get the job done.
And just so it is clear to even the old school hockey fans. Oscar Klefbom remains elite compared to 1st pairing D-men.
Keep a look out for Jaccob Slavin in this category especially. Sneakily good.
BLUE LINE WALL: HAMPUS LINDHOLM
One of the most underappreciated skills for a defender is their ability to stop a play before it even enters their zone. No need to panic if the puck remains outside your zone, instead the team you are facing must rely on the good ol’ dump-n-chase method. This method is wildly less effective than a good carry in. If you do not believe me, just watch the Montreal Canadiens’ power play last year. GOD that was awful.
(Graph made by the amazing Dimitri Filipovich)
This graph shows the percentage against which a defender had the opposing team carry the puck over the defender’s blue line while in possession of the puck.
Fun side note: look how highly ranked Subban is on this list.
Back to Lindholm.
Not only does he defend that blue line like a dog protects a bone, but once the play is broken up, he finds a way to move the puck the other way real quick. Follow THIS LINK to see what I mean.
Like I said earlier, stop the play before the blue line, you’re unlikely to get pinned in your own end. If, on top of that, you can start the play going the other way quick, well you would be a rare and elite D-man that no one should ever trade away (cough, cough).
SHOT BLOCKING: KRIS RUSSELL
OH THE JOYS OF BEING A STATS GUY EH? I don’t think there is a more polarizing figure in the stats debate than Kris Russell. Everything he does screams: “I AM BAD AT DEFENDING IN THE MODERN NHL”. But he does one thing very well, take pucks to the body. He leads the league in shots blocked per game. There are question marks raised with that fact. The biggest of which is: “Why do you need to block so many shots?”. The answer being that he is unable to keep the puck out of his own zone. He is one of the worst and controlled exit percentages. However, with all his flaws, if I were to pay a man just to take bullets, this would be the guy. Apparently paying him means labelling him a top 4 defender and paying him like one (if you’re Peter Chiarelli). Thankfully I am not, so I can warn you of the obvious red flags associated with his game.
Interesting factoid: Erik Karlsson was asked to block shots by Guy Boucher this year, he did that a lot, and started transition play immediately afterwords at an incredible rate (something Kris Russell struggles with greatly).