Defense wins championships. It’s a saying as old as hockey itself, but there is truth to this wisdom. A stout defense can both limit the opponent’s scoring chances while placing additional pressure on them in the offensive zone. When a defense is playing near perfection, it also helps ease some of the burdens on both the goaltender and forwards, which can turn the tide of a game or a playoff series.
With the start of the new season, how has the defensive landscape shifted in the NHL? The 2019 offseason was an active one for defensemen, with a number of top-end players changing teams. With all of this in mind, which franchises have the top defensive units heading into the 2019-20 NHL season?
Number 5: San Jose Sharks
At first glance, there’s so much to like about the San Jose Sharks’ defensive corps. The unit is absolutely stacked, featuring a mixture of all-world talent and plenty of depth to fill in the gaps.
It all starts with the return of Erik Karlsson, who signed a massive eight-year, $92 million contract this offseason. By keeping Karlsson, the Sharks retained one of the best defensemen in the league, who can change the outcome of a game by his skill alone.
Behind Karlsson sits Brett Burns, the former Norris Winner who posted 83 points in 2018-19, making him the top-scoring defensemen in the league.
Along with this All-Star talent, the Sharks have perfect complementary players in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brenden Dillon, who fill in the top four with experience and talent. Then, you round out the unit with Tim Heed and rookie Mario Ferraro, which gives San Jose a relative youth presence on their third-line.
The problem with San Jose’s defensive corps is that they simply didn’t live up to expectations in 2018-19. This unit was good, elite even, but due to injuries and other difficulties, they struggled at times as they attempted to mesh all of their talent.
If they can stay healthy, they should be one of the most dominant groups in the NHL. However, if they get struck by the injury bug again, it will slow their play and cause the Sharks to take a step back from their run to the 2019 Western Conference Final.
Number 4: Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s no secret that the Tampa Bay Lightning dominated the 2018-19 regular season, due in no small part to their excellent defensive corps. The unit was one of the best in the NHL, scoring seemingly at will while holding opponents to 2.70 goals per game, good for 7th in the league.
After the unit melted down in the 2019 playoffs, however, it became clear that the Lightning needed to make changes to their defense. Despite being tight against the cap, the franchise somehow found a way to improve an already stout unit.
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This improvement started with what the Lightning lost in the offseason. By parting ways with the aging Dan Girardi and the often injured Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay opened up room for new, more consistent players to shine.
Next, they signed the newly bought-out Kevin Shattenkirk to a bargain contract, giving the Lightning a veteran option who could spend some time either on the top-line or on the third-pairing.
These moves only acted to shore up a unit that is still led by Victor Hedman, the Lightning’s Norris-winning defender, who has established himself as one of the top players in the league. Behind Hedman is Ryan McDonagh, who played some of the best hockey of his career in his first season with the Lightning.
Filling in the line-up are Mikhail Sergachev, who looks primed to have a breakout season, Erik Cernak, who impressed as a rookie last year, and veteran Brayden Coburn. All three of these players can eat minutes when needed, with Sergachev and Cernak likely playing valuable top-four minutes this season.
If they can stay healthy, the Lightning’s defensive corps should dominate the NHL. They have the perfect mixture of experience, youth, and talent that could propel them even farther than the highs of their 2018-19 regular season.
Number 3: Carolina Hurricanes
For years, the Carolina Hurricanes were the statistical darlings of the defensive world. They featured a unit that was, on paper, one of the best in the league. In practice, however, you could see a lot of holes in those statistics, as players struggled to put together consistent performances on a nightly basis.
That all changed in the 2018-19 season, however, when the Hurricanes’ defense put it all together. The once-maligned unit dominated games while helping to carry Carolina back to the postseason and eventually the Eastern Conference Final. That unit was one of the best in the 2019 playoffs, and they may be even better for the 2019-20 season.
Inarguably, Carolina’s biggest asset is their top-pairing, which features the dynamic duo of Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin. These players absolutely dominated in the postseason, and they should continue to be the Hurricanes’ driving force in 2019-20.
Behind their top-pairing, the Hurricanes feature the equally talented Joel Edmundson and Brett Pesce, two players that can eat 20-plus minutes of ice-time each night while driving play every bit as well as Hamilton and Slavin.
Sure, the Hurricanes depth may have taken a hit with the departure of Calvin de Haan and Justin Faulk in the 2019 offseason, but they managed to sign Jake Gardiner to a four-year extension that will replace some of that top-end talent. Finally, you add in Haydn Fleury and Trevor Van Riemsdyk to this unit, two players who give Carolina plenty of needed depth for the long regular season.
Everything about this Hurricanes defense screams ‘elite,’ even if they don’t feature a Norris winner or a corps of household names. Perhaps that is what makes them the ultimate unit, as they can rely on every player to pull more than their own weight to win each and every night.
Number 2: Boston Bruins
One of the reasons why the Boston Bruin made it all the way to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final was due to their defense. With their defensive corps finally at full force for the playoffs, they were able to push through even the toughest opponents.
As we head into 2019-20, there’s a lot to be excited about for the Bruins. By keeping most of the defensive unit that made the run to the Final intact, Boston has that perfect balance of both experience and youth that should power them throughout the regular season.
Led by Zedano Chara and his 20-plus years of NHL experience, the aging giant still has the ability to play big minutes. Add in Charlie McAvoy, who is one of the brightest young defensemen in the league, and you have a top-pairing that can compete with anyone in the game.
Complimenting this top-pairing are Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo, which gives the Bruins one of the best second-pairings in the game. Their third pairing is also solid, with Connor Clifton and Matt Grzelcyk rounding out the unit with some developing talent that could push for a top-four role in the future.
If they can stay healthy, this unit will be one of the best in the league. The Bruins will be a contender this season with their defense, as they have everything in place to work their way back to 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
Number 1: Nashville Predators
The amount of defensive talent that has gone through Nashville since the start of this decade is almost unfathomable. With names like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, P.K. Subban and Seth Jones leaving the franchise since the 2011-12 season, one would expect there to be a dip in the Predators’ defensive abilities. However, the unit has only become better with time, leading up to the current squad that still is the best in the NHL.
Despite trading P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils this offseason, the Predators haven’t missed a beat. They still have a top-four that is, arguably, the best in the league, with a perfect mixture of offensive and defensive talent.
It all starts with the Captain, Roman Josi, who has developed into one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL. While his offensive numbers may not be league-leading, there are few players who play the role of quite like Josi.
Paired with Josi on the top-line is Ryan Ellis, another truly elite defenseman who, when healthy, can dominate the flow of the game.
There’s no dropoff in talent on the second pairing, either, which features Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro. While Ekholm is a proven commodity, Fabbro’s development is the reason why the Predators felt like they could move on from Subban in the offseason. If they are correct in their assessment, they could have another defensive star on their roster.
Finally, the Predators’ third-pairing is a veteran group featuring Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber. While neither of these players are particularly outstanding, they create an experienced pairing that can play solid minutes each night.
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Now are the Predators stronger without Subban in their line-up this season? No. But they have everything in place to replace him as cleanly as possible, which is something few franchises could do.
So, while the Sharks, Lightning or Bruins could overtake them in this rankings by the mid-point of the season, for now, Nashville is still the NHL’s dominant force on defense.