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.
As we cross the All-Star break, this presents a perfect opportunity to check in on the best defenses across the NHL. Heading into the 2019-20 season, the list of the top defenses was fairly routine, with stalwarts like the San Jose Sharks, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning holding onto their spots on the list.
However, things have changed drastically since October. Both San Jose and Nashville are struggling defensively, letting up an abnormal amount of goals for teams with fantastic rosters. Tampa Bay is also in a bit of a weird place at the moment, with their defense starting to come together after struggling throughout the early parts of the season.
Due to this, the top-five defenses have seen a bit of an upheaval in recent weeks. So, which new faces have made the case to crack the top defenses in the NHL throughout the first half of the 2019-20 season?
Number 5: Pittsburgh Penguins
The idea of putting the Pittsburgh Penguins on a list about defense feels wrong, but the 2019-20 season has been a truly wild one for the franchise. Despite suffering countless injuries on all fronts, the team has just kept plugging along, putting themselves well in a playoff position.
Part of this success is due to the Penguins’ incredible scoring, of course, but their defense doesn’t get enough credit for what it has done this season. Despite injuries to starters like Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz, the unit has stayed steady, helping to carry the team when times were tough.
The face of Pittsburgh’s defense has remained Kris Letang, who has been one of the best scoring defensemen for years. New to the discussion is John Marino, whose play has not only made him one of the best players with the Penguins but put him solidly in the Calder Trophy discussion.
Outside of those two top-end players, however, the unit is mostly a hodgepodge due to injury. Jack Johnson finds himself on the top-pairing most nights alongside Letang, and while his play hasn’t been necessarily good, it has been enough of an improvement to at least be serviceable. Marcus Pettersson is also playing more than 19 minutes each night while putting together some solid play overall.
Even with all of their injuries, this unit is playing with a conviction that could carry them all the way to the Stanley Cup. Once they get healthy, watch out, because the Penguins could have one of the best defenses in the entire NHL.
Number 4: 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.
If not for injuries, this unit would easily be in the top three and could make a real case for the first-spot overall. However, with Dougie Hamilton suffering a long-term injury earlier in the month, Carolina’s defensive corps will need some time to adjust. Even with the loss of their best defenseman, however, the Hurricane’s have the talent to fill in the gaps.
With Hamilton out, 2020 All-Star Jaccob Slavin will need to take on a bigger role with the franchise, showcasing that he can be the man in Carolina. Alongside him is Joel Edmundson, a very talented player who will need to prove that the top-paring won’t be too much for him to handle.
Behind their top-pairing, the Hurricanes feature Brett Pesce and Jake Gardiner, two players that can easily eat 20-plus minutes of ice-time each night. So, while this top-four may not be perfect, it still has plenty of talent to keep them in the discussion. Finally, you add in Haydn Fleury and Trevor Van Riemsdyk on the third pairing, and you have a unit that can stand up to the best in the NHL.
When healthy, everything about this Hurricanes defense screams ‘elite.’ Even with their top-defenseman out, however, this unit still holds the potential to be one of the best for the rest of the 2019-20 season.
Number 3: Dallas Stars
The 2019-20 Dallas Stars are a very odd team to get a handle on. They have, arguably, one of the best offensive rosters on paper, with star names like Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Joe Pavelski jumping off the page.
Despite this, their offensive numbers have been terrible. They currently sit tied for 27th in scoring, posting just 2.56 goals a game. Normally this would be a death knell to a season, but the Stars are still firmly holding onto a playoff spot due to their league-leading goals-against average of 2.46. So, while they may not be able to score often, their opponents won’t be able too either.
When healthy, this unit is led by Miro Heiskanen, the Finnish sensation who has helped to revitalize the Star’s blueline. Following him is a solid core of veteran talent, including Esa Lindell, John Klingberg, Andrej Sekera, Roman Polak, and Jamie Oleksiak.
In terms of pure defense, there are few teams in the NHL as good as the Stars. If they can stay healthy, this unit can carry them to the postseason, despite their offensive deficiencies. Given how brutally hard it is to score against them, Dallas is going to be an incredibly hard out should they reach the playoffs.
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 defense. With their defensive corps finally at full force for the playoffs, they were able to push through even the toughest opponents with relative ease.
By keeping most of the defensive unit that made the run to the Final intact, Boston had that perfect balance of experience and youth that has helped power them to one of the best records so far in the 2019-20 season.
Led by Zedano Chara and his 20-plus years of NHL experience, the aging giant still has the ability to play big minutes, currently running a team-best plus-18. 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 league.
Complimenting this top-pairing are Torey Krug, the Bruin’s leading defensive scorer with 32 points, and Brandon Carlo, which gives the Bruins one of the best second-pairings in the NHL. Their third pairing options are is also solid, with Connor Clifton, John Moore, and Matt Grzelcyk rounding out the unit with some talent that could push for a top-four role in the future.
If their defense can stay healthy, there’s no reason to believe that the Bruins won’t work their way back to 2020 Stanley Cup Final. They currently sit tied for second overall in goals against, and they have the experience to work through anything the playoffs can throw at them.
Number 1: Columbus Blue Jackets
For the better part of two years now, whenever you talk about the best defenses in the NHL, someone always mentioned the Columbus Blue Jackets. This made sense, as Columbus has been building a great defensive roster for years, but they were easy to overlook due to the talent in net stealing the show.
The 2019-20 season has been a real coming-out party for the Blue Jackets’ defense, however. With uncertainty in net and no real expectations, the unit has solidified into one of the best in the game.
It all starts at the top, where Seth Jones and Zach Werenski anchor, arguably, the best pairing in all of the NHL. These two play some incredible hockey together, posting a combined 58 points while dominating the league.
Behind them is a mix of talent who don’t appear to be anything special on paper, featuring names like David Savard, Vladislav Gavrikov, Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara and Scott Harrington. However, on the ice, they have combined to do something truly special.
The Blue Jackets currently sit tied for second in goals-against, stifling opponents’ scoring despite having some uncertainty in net. So, this isn’t a situation where a great goaltender is bailing out a bad defense, but a time where a great defense is making goaltending look truly elite.
Should their play continue, the Blue Jackets’ appear to be a team that can make an unexpected run at the 2020 playoffs, despite losing so much talent in the offseason. If they do, it will only continue to prove that an elite defense can take even a mediocre team on paper and make them into a true contender.
Defense Will Decide the 2020 Playoff Contenders
As the second half of the 2019-20 season commences, expect defensive play to continue showcasing who will be a true threat for the 2020 Stanley Cup.
While injuries can reshape who the top units are, should these five teams stay healthy, expect them to continue in their winning ways. They have everything in place to be great, now they just have to take that potential all the way to a playoff run.