NHL’s New Central Division Has Toughest Defensive Corps

The new divisions for the 2020-21 NHL season will each feature their own “personality.” It’s easy to think of the North Division as “The Canadian Division,” but one could also call it the “Division of really long road trips.” The West Division might be called the “Division with only three good teams.” The East? Perhaps the “Division of scoring.” And the Central Division, which includes the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, is my “Division with a really tough defensive corps.” 

Gary Bettman Conn Smythe Trophy Victor Hedman Tampa Bay Lightning
Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is a top defenseman in the top defensive division. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 2020-21 season will also feature a new schedule and a new playoff format. For the playoffs, the top four teams in each division will battle it out through the first two rounds. The champion of each of the four divisions will then battle it out for the Stanley Cup. In the Central Division, five sets of defensemen will dominate both the team and individual rankings.

The NHL’s Central Division Is Really Strong Defensively

In October, my THW colleague Eugene Helfrick named the NHL’s top five defenses. He ranked three Central Division teams in the top five, the Predators at #2, the Stars at #3, and the Hurricanes at #4 – he didn’t include the Blue Jackets or the Lightning! 

Another colleague, Matthew Zator, ranked all NHL 31 teams by the quality of their defensemen. Five of his top eight are Central Division teams. The other divisions had only one team in the top eight. Matthew’s article has Tampa Bay at #1, followed by Carolina (#3), Nashville (#5), Columbus (#7), and Dallas (#8).

Related: Blue Jackets Will Benefit From Division Realignment

The website Covers.com looked at the 2019-20 postseason to rank teams by defense. Again the Central dominated, with half of the top six: the Lightning at #3, the Hurricanes at #5, and the Blue Jackets at #6. (And, again, the other three divisions contributed only one team each.) Looking at the 2019-20 regular season, Covers.com ranked the Stars at #2, the Blue Jackets at #4, and the Lightning at #7.

OddsShark.com also ranked teams according to their defense. Three of the top four are now in the Central Division: Columbus (#2), Tampa Bay (#3), and Dallas (#4). The top team on their list? The Boston Bruins, whose defensive corps has lost Torey Krug and has not yet re-signed Zdeno Chara, two of their top three defensemen in terms of ice time last season.

Boston Bruins Torey Krug
Former Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

At NBC Sports, Adam Gretz of the program Pro Hockey Talk listed his top seven defensive teams alphabetically. They include the Hurricanes, Stars, Predators, and Lightning – four of the top seven. Oh, and the Blue Jackets were an honorable mention.

It’s Not Just the Corps, it’s the Players, Too

Ranking a team’s defense looks at a group of players as a unit. But individual defensemen in the new Central Division are also among the best in the league. Dan Rosen, a Senior Writer at NHL.com, published a ranking of the top defensemen in the league just before Christmas according to 11 NHL.com staff members who voted. Seven of the top 15 defensemen (just about half) play in the Central:

  • #1 Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
  • #2 Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
  • #5 Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
  • #6 Miro Heiskanen, Dalls Stars
  • #8 Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
  • #11 Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
  • #15 Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

The NHL Fantasy Hockey Staff listed players within each division (also published just before Christmas). Eight of the Central’s top 25 players (and over 1/3 of the top skaters) are defensemen. The West Division has six defensemen among the top 25. The East and North? Each had only two.

That busy fantasy group also released their list of the NHL’s top 50 defensemen for the 2020-21 season. Among them, 56% are in a single division. Yup, it’s the Central. Among the 13 defensemen, six are in the Central (Hedman #4, Hamilton #5, Josi #6, Heiskanen #11, Jones #12, Werenski #13).

Dougie Hamilton Carolina Hurricanes
Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

David Satriano of the NHL Network ranked the top 20 NHL defensemen. Eight of the top 20 (40%) are also in the Central: Hedman was ranked #1, Josi #2, Jones #5, Hamilton #7, Heiskanen #10, Werenski #12, Slavin #17, and Ryan Ellis (Nashville) #19.

The Experts Have Spoken: The Best Defenses Are in the Central Division

There you have it! The best defense is disproportionally represented (in a good way) in the Central Division. Statistically speaking, with the NHL divided into four divisions, one could expect approximately 25% of the top defensive groups and 25% of the top defensemen to belong to one division. Yet, the Central Division shows up much more often.

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

In the team rankings, the Central grabbed far more than 25% of the slots: three of five, five of eight, six of nine, and four of seven. Individual defensemen from the division also dominate lists of the best: seven of 15, six of 13, and eight of 20. The top half of the Central will include the best defenses – and players – for the NHL’s 2020-21 season.