The strength of top-pair defensemen is an indispensable advantage in the Stanley Cup playoffs each season, and the eight teams competing for their respective division championships in the second round all feature high-caliber defensemen that log key minutes in the game’s most crucial situations. The top point producers and star goaltenders often get the majority of the attention in terms of individual success in the NHL. However, virtually every recent Stanley Cup winner has featured a bonafide, No. 1 defenseman that played an invaluable role in his team’s postseason run.
Victor Hedman, the top defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning, was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player during the 2020 playoffs after recording 22 points in 25 games. Duncan Keith also received the award after averaging over 31 minutes of ice time on the blue line for the 2015 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Top-tier defensemen who played irreplaceable roles on Cup-winning teams also include Drew Doughty for both the 2012 and 2014 Los Angeles Kings, and Kris Letang for the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Each team’s top defensive pairing will impact the playoffs immensely moving forward. However, Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche, Hedman of the Lightning, Shea Theodore of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Jeff Petry of the Montreal Canadiens will be relied on most heavily to impact key elements of the game with dominant performances that could determine the fate of their respective teams.
Makar is the anchor on the back end for Colorado’s seemingly unstoppable offensive attack. The 22-year-old has already recorded seven points in six postseason games in which the unbeaten Avalanche have outscored their opponents 30-10. His contributions to the power-play unit have helped the team to an astonishing 43.5% conversion rate.
Colorado faces a tough second-round test in the Vegas Golden Knights. While they should not expect to sustain the outrageous scoring pace of their first six postseason games, Makar’s role as the distributor will be critical in helping forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog to avoid major drops in production. Makar possesses the speed, vision, and confidence with the puck that gives him the potential to lead an offensive juggernaut like the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup.
The Lightning will again ask Hedman to carry the load on defense in their efforts to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. He is currently second on the team in scoring during the postseason with 10 points, outdoing star forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point and sitting only two points behind winger Nikita Kucherov. He is currently averaging over 24 minutes of ice time per game, and the number is likely to increase if the Lightning play additional overtime games in the coming rounds.
Hedman is arguably the best all-around defenseman in the NHL. His size, speed, and athleticism often make the game look easy, and he is expected to be a finalist for the Norris Trophy when the list of names is announced on June 9. As a star player who has already fulfilled the desired role of a top-pair workhorse, Hedman is poised to be among the highest impact players for the remainder of the 2021 playoffs.
The Golden Knights face a tall task in containing the red-hot Avalanche. They will have to count on strong efforts from their top defensemen against potent offensive skill players, and the 25-year-old Theodore has blossomed into the type of player that can accept that responsibility. He led all Vegas blueliners in scoring during the regular season with 42 points, and he has quietly developed into one of the best young defensemen in the NHL.
Theodore played a contributor role for Vegas during their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. His continued progression led him into an expanded role during Vegas’ playoff run in 2020, during which he scored 19 points in 20 games and helped the team reach the Western Conference Final. He and teammate Alex Pietrangelo will be asked to help right the ship for Vegas’s struggling power-play unit, which has converted at just 15.0% this postseason. Strong two-way efforts from both defensemen will be needed if the Golden Knights expect to defeat the hottest team in the league.
The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 to complete a shocking first-round upset on Monday. The Canadiens advanced largely thanks to the efforts of their goaltender Carey Price. Toronto’s offensive stars, particularly forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, were held in check the entire series. Petry and 35-year-old captain Shea Weber were integral in the efforts. However, the Canadiens averaged just two goals per game during the series.
Petry finished second on the team in points during the regular season with 42. More consistent production from him offensively could jump-start a Montreal offense that started to gain momentum towards the end of their first-round series. An increased offensive role from the blueliners could be a major advantage in their second-round series against the Winnipeg Jets, a team that doesn’t feature one of the league’s deeper defensive corps.
Impact Players on Defense
The Carolina Hurricanes will try to counter Hedman and the Lightning with Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin, arguably the best top-pair duo in the playoffs. The Boston Bruins will need a strong performance from Charlie McAvoy as their workhorse in the MassMutual East Division series against the New York Islanders, who concentrate less on star power but still rely on major roles from players like Ryan Pulock and Nick Leddy at the point.
The second round features some of the NHL’s best competition, and no teams will advance without strong efforts from their top blueliners. Each of the defensemen highlighted will play a crucial role in determining whether or not their teams move on, and the defensemen that advance will be among the most integral players in determining the Stanley Cup Final in July.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the Legion of Doom and Claude Giroux to no-namers like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin also writes fictional sports stories and covers the Philadelphia Eagles.