Most Underrated Defensive Pair in the NHL

At six-foot six, Victor Hedman casts a long shadow. At 24 years of age, he has his best hockey in front of him. Many NHL observers took note during the recent playoff run by the Tampa Bay Lightning, that it was Hedman’s coming out party to a certain extent.

There is no argument here that Hedman is one of the league’s brightest young stars. A big part of the reason that last season was such a breakthrough for him is due in no small part to the fact that he lines up with Anton Stralman every night. For this, Stralman does not receive the credit he deserves, save from the wonky analytical types.

How Swede It Is

Stralman isn’t flashy or loud, on or off the ice. He is a prototypical lunch pail guy, a blue-collar player in a time when speed and offensive skills are a premium in the NHL. In the accompanying video, watch how Stralman, never giving up on a play, typifies this blue-collar reputation by saving a goal behind Lightning goalie, Ben Bishop.

Yet, somehow, someway, Stralman and his blue line mate consistently find ways to put a lock down on the opposing team’s best lines. Looking at the Stanley Cup Final, Tampa’s top defensive pairing of Hedman and Stralman saw the lion’s share of time against the top two lines of Chicago.

Looking at the production of the top six forwards for the Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad and Brad Richards combined, accounted for seven goals and 14 assists in the six games. Together, in six games!

This high-powered offense of arguably the best team in the last 10 years averaged 1.17 goals per game during the Stanley Cup Final. That is all six of their most potent offensive weapons averaging a hair over a goal a game combined. There was no doubt that Hedman and Stralman were giving players like Kane and Toews fits throughout the series.

Long Journey from the Seventh

As the number two pick in the 2009 NHL draft, many were certain that Hedman would one day be a star defenseman. Beginning in 2009, the then 18-year-old Hedman looked befuddled by the NHL game. There were glimpses of brilliance and buckets of frustration as Hedman, the team and the fans all practiced patience as he learned the game at the highest level.

As evidenced by his playoff run, Hedman’s time has arrived. He will now be in the conversation when people talk about Norris Trophy and the best defensemen in the NHL.

The road for his fellow Swede, Stralman, was much different. As the seventh-round pick for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2005 draft, Stralman had his share of ups and downs as seventh-round picks are wont to have.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

After a couple of seasons with the Leafs, Stralman was traded twice in the summer of 2009. First, in July from Toronto to Calgary, then about a week before the season started to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In his first season with Columbus, Stralman tallied six goals and added 28 helpers for 34 points in 73 games setting a career high up to that point.

His second year with the Blue Jackets saw a regression from the offensive numbers of the previous season as Stralman managed one goal and 17 assists in 51 games. After that season, Columbus did not sign Stralman who was a free agent.

New York, New York

Not only did Columbus not sign Stralman, but neither did any of the other 29 teams. Hanging on to his NHL career by a thread, Stralman took a try-out contract with the New Jersey Devils but was not on the opening day roster.

At this point, Stralman was a man without a team. For the first time since he was 18 years old, Stralman was not a member of a professional hockey team. The wait was not that long as the New York Rangers signed Stralman to a one-year contract on November 3, 2011.

Bringing his lunch pail to Madison Square Garden, Stralman proceeded to improve his game on both ends. You see, Stralman isn’t a massive behemoth, so he will not impress with his bone crushing checks. Stralman doesn’t possess rabbit-like speed so he isn’t likely to rush past any defenders in the league.

As far as offense goes, in his three seasons with the Rangers, Stralman scored a grand total of seven goals. He will never be confused with some of the great offensive defensemen in the league. After playing out his second contract with New York, Stralman, who played big in the Stanley Cup playoffs for New York, tested the free agent market.

Lightning Strikes

On the very first day of free agency in 2014, Stralman signed a five-year deal with the Lightning. The Tampa fan base knew they were getting a defensive stalwart but little did anyone expect the career offensive stats that Stralman put forth in his first year in Tampa. To his credit, coach Jon Cooper paired these two Swedes rather quickly and they seemed like they played their whole careers together.  Maybe they speak in Swedish on the ice to throw off the opponents. Maybe, they are just that good and together are becoming a great defensive duo.

Scoring career highs with nine goals and 30 assists as well as solidifying the team’s top defensive pairing with his fellow countryman Hedman, Stralman became a rock for the team. Watching him play every day is truly the best way to come to value Stralman’s game.

Perhaps, that’s why Stralman began to be noticed by those who dissect NHL games in the name of advanced metrics. After his final year in New York, Stralman was said to be better than the typical NHL stats of goals, assists and plus/minus.

To the followers of Corsi and Fenwick and PDO everywhere, Stralman was a possession god. His analytics were head and shoulders above the majority of NHL defensemen. It was the main reason that he was so sought after during his free agency last year.

It is most likely the reason that Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Lightning, didn’t waste any time in signing Stralman, and he hasn’t disappointed his advanced stats fans. Of all the defensemen in the NHL last season who played at least 50 games and averaged at least 15 minutes of ice time, Stralman is fifth in CorsiFor percentage with 56.24.

Dynamic Duo

An argument can be made that the top defensive pairing for the Lightning of Hedman and Stralman is the best in the NHL. Certainly, without argument they are considered in the top five D-man duos. Hedman has the blazing speed and tremendous size. Stralman has the eyes in the back of his head to avoid the hits and stay focused on getting the puck up the ice.

At 24 years old, Hedman should be a serious Norris Trophy contender for years to come. At 29, Stralman has a lot of great hockey left to play. Any reason these two can’t be together for say, the next five, six years?

The Lightning are an offensive-minded juggernaut, leading the league in scoring last year and with virtually the same team intact this year. But let’s not forget their Swedish defensive tandem. They get the offense going. Whether it’s by blocking a shot, delivering a hit or getting the puck into the neutral zone, Hedman and Stralman are the cream of the league. Not only can they shut down the opposing team’s scorers, but both Hedman and Stralman play on Tampa’s power play, showing the confidence that Cooper has with their offense abilities.

The upcoming season should show just how good this pair is among their NHL peers. The Lightning should be one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference and from a defensive standpoint, Heddy and Straly are leading the way. Take note, NHL fans, when Tampa comes to town, it is worth the price of admission to watch the best, most underrated defensive pair in the league.