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Home Sport Carolina Hurricanes top ranking of all 31 NHL defenseman groups for 2019-20

Carolina Hurricanes top ranking of all 31 NHL defenseman groups for 2019-20

In the final installment of our position group rankings, we’re going to take a look at the best and worst defense groups in the NHL. You can open up a couple new tabs for our goalie tandem rankings, and forward group rankings.

Evaluating the contributions of defensemen can be tricky because of how many different responsibilities they have, how many different hats they need to wear depending on their circumstances, and how many different ways it’s possible to be effective even if it doesn’t immediately look like it to the naked eye.

It’s worth noting that this list is focusing on individual defensemen and not the concept of team defense itself. Thank goodness that’s the case, because between the players themselves, the coach’s system, and the goaltending behind them, there’s way too many variables to consider when it comes to trying to figure out how the credit should be divvied up for a team’s ability to keep the puck out of its own net.

Jump to a team:


The main reason the Red Wings found themselves in the 29th spot of our Watchability Rankings was because of their weak blue line, which looks like it’ll be the worst in the league barring some monumental leaps from a couple of young defenders. Niklas Kronwall may finally be off the books after retiring this summer, but with Mike Green, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley all still around one more season — and making roughly $12.5 million combined — this group’s outlook remains bleak in the present day.

It’s funny how quickly things can change in this sport. Despite the team taking Dennis Cholowski 33 picks ahead of Filip Hronek in the 2016 draft, Hronek has since leaped Cholowski on the pecking order. Hopefully he will get as many minutes as he can handle in lieu of all of those aforementioned veterans, because his offensive ceiling looks quite promising. He’s one of those players that’s produced every single step of the way, which makes it far more plausible that he’ll continue to do so at this level when given the chance. With 23 points in 46 games despite averaging south of 20 minutes per game, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be playing more as this franchise continues to rebuild and take stock of what it has in its young players.

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Poor Drew Doughty. Here’s a list of every defensive partner he played with last season and how much time he spent with each of them at five-on-five:

I’d promise I didn’t make any of those names up, but even I can’t be totally sure of that at this point. Fantenberg and Muzzin were traded, Phaneuf was bought out, and Martinez seems like a good candidate to be dealt at some point this season.

It’s quite a bleak list, and as good as Doughty has been over the years, even he wasn’t able to squeeze much juice out of his situation last season. The Kings were hammered with him on the ice, getting outscored 67-47 and managing shot and high-danger chance rates south of 47%. I wonder if either party is starting to have any regrets about that eight-year, $88 million extension that kicks in this season.

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A printout of the Senators Cap Friendly page deserves to be hung in some sort of museum, with the section for “defensemen under contract” needing to be prominently featured front and center.

Before Thomas Chabot‘s well-earned extension kicks in next summer, they’ve committed under $12 million total in cap space to their top six defenders. It gets better — only three of those defensemen are making over a million dollars this season, and they’re Nikita Zaitsev ($4.5 million), Ron Hainsey ($3.5 million), and Mark Borowiecki ($1.2 million). The last two are expiring after this year, and Zaitsev is only actually getting paid one-third of that figure by the Senators after the Leafs picked up the tab on the rest.

It seems their plan this summer was to look at their Ontario counterpart’s depth chart, identify their worst defensemen, and then go and get them. It’s a bold strategy after what happened with Dion Phaneuf last time, so let’s see if it pays off.

All is not lost, however. With Chabot and Erik Brannstrom, they have their next cornerstones in place, which is the toughest step in a rebuild. They’ve also shown mercy to their fans by avoiding another “will they or won’t they?” with Chabot for the foreseeable future after locking him up for eight additional seasons following this one. He was a monster offensively last season, finishing in the top 10 for goals and points among all defensemen at both even strength and all situations.

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The Blackhawks were an absolute tire fire in their own zone defensively last season. Part of that can be attributed to a lack of baseline talent, but in extreme cases like this one, a lot of it has to do with a fundamentally flawed game strategy. It was so bad that you almost can’t even say that it was a bad game plan because that would imply that there actually was one in the first place, which didn’t seem to be the case last season in Chicago. They were constantly scrambling around the defensive zone, chasing the puck, leaving passing and shooting lanes wide open and throwing their goaltenders to the wolves.

It’ll be interesting to see how different things are in that regard this season. Head coach Jeremy Colliton finally gets the benefit of a full offseason and training camp to install his system, a much-needed development after the unenviable position he was put in by having to take over in-season for a coach of Joel Quenneville’s legendary status.

They also went out and added Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan to the blue line, which should significantly improve their ability to defend in their own zone. While neither guy looks pretty doing it — and in Maatta’s case he looks particularly bad when having to defend against attackers on the rush — both are quite adept at doing the dirty work on the defensive end when it comes to breaking plays up with active sticks. The bar to clear here for the Blackhawks is quite low.

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There are no two ways about it: The Oilers desperately need a healthy and productive Oscar Klefbom this season. After a tremendous 2016-17 season in which he played all 82 games, scoring 12 goals and 38 points, and helping eat up a ton of minutes on the team’s top pairing, it’s been a grind since then. He missed 16 games and 21 games in the past two seasons, and hasn’t looked quite right even when he’s managed to be on the ice.

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It’s hard to remember an individual position group’s outlook plummeting more rapidly than the one for Winnipeg’s blue line has over the course of just one summer. To contextualize the losses the Jets are facing, here are their five most heavily relied upon defensemen last season:

  1. Jacob Trouba: 1,434:13 five-on-five minutes, 1,876:00 total minutes

  2. Tyler Myers: 1,304:24 five-on-five minutes, 1,627:45 total minutes

  3. Ben Chiarot: 1,281:25 five-on-five minutes, 1,452:04 total minutes

  4. Josh Morrissey: 989:51 five-on-five minutes, 1,321:54 total minutes

  5. Dustin Byfuglien: 767:19 five-on-five minutes, 1,023:04 total minutes

They’ve definitely lost the top three on this list and have to at least prepare for the realistic possibility of life without Byfuglien as well. It’s worth noting that after getting Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor signed the Jets have managed to leave the exact amount of cap space open to slide his salary back into the mix should he decide that he’d like to return to playing hockey this season. Let’s just say that I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

As for the others, there’s only so much they could’ve ultimately done. It’s perfectly understandable that they let Myers and Chiarot walk in free agency given what they received, and they were never going to get fair value for Trouba given how little leverage they had. But the issue is that they haven’t really done anything to address these losses, and instead look to be hoping that Sami Niku can take a step in his development and Neal Pionk is better at hockey than he’s shown at any point thus far in his career.

The result is going to be a whole lot of Josh Morrissey. His ice time and production have steadily increased every season since he came into the league in 2016-17, and the only reason he was fourth in total usage among Jets defenders was last season was because of the 23 regular season games he missed with injury. While he handled going from 20:27 per game to a career high 22:24 minutes per game, that figure is going to pale in comparison to how much he’ll presumably need to play this season.

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Everyone is excited about the Rangers this season, and justifiably so. They have a ton of shiny new toys, and it’ll be fun to see how all of the pieces fit together. There’s no doubt they’ll be incredibly entertaining to watch, but I do have my questions about how good they’ll actually be. A large part of that is because of the defense, which is still a work in progress despite the additions of Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox.

It’s not a huge issue because of all the pieces they have coming in the pipeline at the position — whether it be K’Andre Miller or Nils Lundkvist or Matthew Robertson — but for the present day, this group still leaves a lot to be desired. Especially since I have no confidence that Marc Staal won’t be overused for seemingly the millionth consecutive season.

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Let’s play a blind résumé guessing game:

  • Player A: 16 five-on-five points, -3.4 goals above replacement, 48.7% on-ice shot share, 46.7% on-ice goal share, 47.5% on-ice expected goal share

  • Player B: 20 five-on-five points, +10.7 goals above replacement, 54.7% on-ice shot share, 53.8% on-ice goal share, 55.6% on-ice expected goal share

Both players are defensemen. Both players were unrestricted free agents this past summer. Both players signed with the Canucks. Player A signed for six years and $36 million. Player B signed for two years at $2 million per season. Player A is Tyler Myers, while Player B is Jordie Benn.

If I have one wish for the Canucks’ blue line this season, it’s for common sense to prevail and Quinn Hughes to be used on the top power play unit. It’s far more likely that those honors go to either Alex Edler (the incumbent, who has been there since forever) or Myers (because he just got paid a lot of money and they’ll want to justify it), but Hughes is their best option for the role by a mile.

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When you’ve enjoyed the kind of success the Penguins have, it becomes easy to develop a certain level of hubris that leads you to believe you can take someone else’s garbage and turn it into gold by bringing it into your house. They salvaged Justin Schultz as a reclamation project when it looked like he was a lost cause, but they didn’t stop there … and the results haven’t been quite as glowing since.

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