Drew Doughty Is Not the Best Defender in the NHL

There are many that would argue that the Norris Trophy belongs to Drew Doughty. But, not only is Dewey not the best defenseman in the league, he isn’t even the best blue liner in the Pacific Division. That honor belongs to the oft-overlooked Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

Best defenseman
The Beast of San Jose’s blue line is nicknamed Pickles (Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports)

Let’s make something clear. I am not talking about the Norris Trophy winner. That award is more about offense than it is defense, ironically. This discussion is about shutting down the best shooters in the league. This is the best defensive defensemen.

Overlooked and Underestimated

I have moaned about how unappreciated Marc-Edouard is in the past. Vlasic is often overlooked for what many call the East coast bias. Maybe if he didn’t play half of his games at 10 Eastern Standard Time, Vlasic might get the press coverage of Zdeno Chara and Duncan Keith.

Best defender
Will he wear a letter on his chest this season? (Ivan Makarov/Wikipedia)

He did, however, earn all the press he could handle during the Sharks shocking playoff run. Once the Sharks top d-man went down, the Sharks quickly followed suit. And with Dan Boyle leaving the Silicon Valley for the East Coast, Pickles has all the interviews to himself now. Especially with the growing fascination with hockey’s boom in California, Marc-Edouard Vlasic might see more of the microphones this season.

Take a few of these stats from Vlasic’s season:

  • 5 goals, 19 assists for 24 points
  • A penalty differential (penalties drawn vs those taken) of zero
  • +7.1% Corsi For relative
  • +10.8% Goals For relative
  • A plus/minus of +31
  • 150 blocked shots

Competition for Best Defender: Doughty and Keith

Now let’s look at two opponents of Pickles for the best defender title. The shut down man in LA and the Norris Trophy winner from Chicago. Drew Doughty is the blue liner many would claim as the defensive elite and Duncan Keith has the hardware to support it.

The Norris Trophy Winner

First, let’s take the award winner. Duncan Keith has won the Norris Trophy twice, won the Stanley Cup twice, and even a gold medal from the Olympics… yeah, twice. There is no denying Keith’s value to the Chicago Blackhawks. His 55 assists led all defensemen in the NHL. And only 18 of those assists came on a power play he consistently quarterbacked. Keith was also strong in the advanced stats category. His Corsi For sat at 56.6% for the 2013-14 season.

top defender
Duncan Keith won his second Norris Trophy this season (Andy Martin Jr)

However, those same advanced stats can betray him when compared to Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Keith’s quality of teammates is higher than Pickles’. He also had a negative penalty differential for the season (-6). Vlasic managed to draw as many penalties as he took. Another eye opener, Keith had a goals for percentage ten points lower than Vlasic. With less than half of the points that Keith has, it shows that Vlasic was a force that focused more on keeping opponents out of his net.

In short, Keith was a force to be reckoned with on the offensive side. The Norris Trophy does tend to go to the more offensive defensemen. So, it’s no surprise that he won it. But, by no means does that make Duncan Keith the guy I would put in front of my goalie. Defense isn’t the first thing on his mind.

The Reigning Stanley Cup Champ

Unlike Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty is a more defensive-minded blue liner. He does top Vlasic in points. Doughty has an incredible hockey sense and knack for disrupting offenses. He is also a horse for the Los Angeles Kings. With over 25 minutes on the ice per game, Dewey eats up the minutes. Doughty excels on the offensive side when he is needed up top where Vlasic currently lacks. There is no doubt he is a crucial part of Stanley Cup winning teams.

best defender
Not a Conn Smythe winner, but a Stanley Cup is just as good (Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE)

Enter Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Take a look at the team around Pickles and the team around Dewey. Drew Doughty played for the best defense in the league. The Kings netminder is a freak of nature that makes my lower body hurt every time I see him do the splits. Antti Niemi… well, he’s okay.The Kings were the top Fenwick for team as well, 2 full points better than the Sharks. The Kings also possess an embarrassment of riches in terms of possession players. Half of the top ten Corsi For players are from LA. And number 11? That’s where Drew Doughty falls. This is not to say the Sharks were terrible, but compared to the Kings, the Sharks were guppies.

Doughty’s advanced stats are strong, but they don’t match up to Vlasic’s. The only things he outranks Pickles on can be attributed to a much more complete defensive unit around him. Goalie save percentage definitely gets a boost from a few eye popping saves from Jonathan Quick. And while Doughty has positive advanced statistics (2.9% relative Corsi and 4.5% goals for against 29.0% quality of competition) they aren’t enough to usurp Vlasic’s numbers in those categories.

Why Pickles Takes the Top Spot

best defender
A shut down defenseman is a thankless job without all the glory (Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)

Drew Doughty is over four points lower than Vlasic on Corsi For. His goals for percentage is also dwarfed by more than six points. Vlasic’s dizzying +31 is almost double Doughty’s. Don’t even get me started on the differentials to Duncan Keith.

I can go on and on about stats, but the intangibles are also there. He blocks shots as if his life depends on it. Nearly half of the time that the Sharks are on the penalty kill, Vlasic is out there. Sharks goaltenders rarely see breakaways while he is out there because Vlasic is well-positioned. The best defender can’t be caught out of position that often can he? He is trusted by his coaches and leading by example. He doesn’t need the points and the flash. Marc-Edouard would prefer to see a goose egg on the scoreboard more than anything.

The biggest piece of evidence to Vlasic’s case is the crippling loss he was when injured. As soon as Vlasic went down in the playoffs, the Kings (especially Anze Kopitar) were unleashed. He made almost all of his teammates better. Only Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan have lower Corsi For percentages with Vlasic. Pickles may never get the Norris Trophy because he doesn’t score that often, but he will be one of the most valuable players in teal for years to come.

9 thoughts on “Drew Doughty Is Not the Best Defender in the NHL”

  1. It was a joy to watch Vlasic and Doughty as a pairing for team Canada. Vlasic may have an edge on the defensive side, which is the point of this article but the better overall defenseman is Doughty. Also, I believe the Kings would have come back to beat the Sharks even with a healthy Vlasic. It was just their year.

  2. I think if you’re going to knock Doughty’s defensive stats because he’s bolstered by the best defensive team in the league, then you might not want to dismiss his offensive contributions on a team that ranked near the bottom of the league in goals for per game. Teams have to convert when they’re in the offensive zone, and SJ did that at a much higher rate than Los Angeles, to the tune of about .5 goals more per game.

    I do think Vlasic is overlooked though, as was Doughty until recently. Success tends to have that effect.

    • Thanks for the read and feedback.
      I only knock the offensive numbers because I’m focusing more on the defensive side of the game. I understand that Doughty has an impact on both sides of the puck. I give him the credit for winning that category, but I wanted to focus more on how they keep opponents out of their net.
      And if Stanley Cups are the best thing to get you noticed, Vlasic might be an underdog for a long time

  3. Mr. Laws, Nice stuff but your splitting hairs. Any of the guys you mentioned would be on my list if I was starting a team along with about six or eight others you didnt mention. All super talented and bring their own thing to the rink each night. Pickles may turn out to be more of a threat on the offensive end if it was needed. I watched Lidstrom for his entire career and it evolved as he got older he adapted and tweeked his game. So will Pickles.
    The NHL is so full of super talented, young athelic guys now. It has to be the most exciting time in the history of the league to be a fan and watch all the amazing play. Cant wait for the season to start again

    • Thanks for the read and the feedback. I do agree that there are plenty of mega-talented guys out there. I am interested to see how Vlasic adjusts every year he gets older. For now, he seems only interested in shutdown play. And just like you, I can’t wait for the season either

  4. Interesting. On the one hand Mr. Laws bubbles over talking about Vlasic’s statistics, yet he quickly dismisses any stats advantage for Doughty by claiming that the Kings are the better team, and concludes that Vlasic MUST be the better defenseman because when he went out the Kings ran roughshod over the Sharks.

    But how does Mr. Laws know that if things were reversed and Doughty was the one who went down that the Sharks (or the Ducks, or the Hawks, or the Rags) wouldn’t have just had their way with the Kings? Further, this idea that somehow the Sharks were a bad team seems kind of silly given their regular season results.

    Look, Vlasic may well be the better defenseman, but this argument was about as solid as the Toronto back line.

    Try again, Mr. Laws.

    • First off, thanks for the read and the feedback.
      While I do quote Vlasic’s numbers, I do give credit where Doughty outclasses him. His offensive numbers and save percentage most importantly. And when I dismiss his stats, I give the reason that the Kings are built better around him than the Sharks. This is not to be blown out of proportion to say the Sharks are awful, but when stacked against LA, they pale in comparison.
      Yes, had the Kings lost Doughty, it would have really hurt. But the Kings are better staffed to absorb that blow. The Sharks defense was exposed for how shallow it really was. At least the Kings have guys like Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez. Heck, even Willie Mitchell isn’t bad.
      I appreciate the criticism. Thanks for the read again. I look forward to a new season

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