Defense wins championships. It’s a saying as old as hockey itself, but there is truth to this wisdom. A stout defense that can both limit the opponent’s scoring chances while placing additional pressure on them in the offensive zone can turn the tide of a game and a playoff series. When a defense is playing near perfection, it also helps ease some of the burdens on both the goaltender and forwards, allowing them to play their best.
With the 2018-19 season now upon us, this is a great time to review the top defensive units in the NHL. With a number of changes occurring across the board to rosters during the offseason, these rankings will try to utilize the 2017-18 statistics as a guiding hand, but will ultimately have to rely on the eye test to decide who has the best defensive corps in the NHL to start out the season.
Number 4: Tampa Bay Lightning
On the surface, the Tampa Bay Lightning have everything in place to be one of the top defensive units in the NHL. It starts with Victor Hedman, their Norris Winning defender who has established himself as one of the top players in the league. Behind him is Ryan McDonagh, who appears to be healthy and ready to thrive in his role as a second-line defender alongside fellow former New York Ranger Anton Stralman or last season’s rookie standout Mikhail Sergachev. Add in veterans Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi and a talented (if not underutilized) Slater Koekkoek, and you have a unit that is deep from top to bottom.
However, there is one big issue for the Lightning… their nightly line-ups. Outside of Hedman and McDonagh, there is little certainty of where players will be starting each game.
It centers around Sergachev, who will be looking to build upon an incredibly successful rookie season in his sophomore campaign. The problem is, in order for him to get top-four minutes, he would have to shift to the right side of the ice, which is not his dominant side. If he can make the transition, he could very well find himself on the Lightning’s top-line alongside Hedman by the end of the season.
However, where it stands now, he will be relegated to the team’s third line, alongside Coburn. While this isn’t a bad third line pairing by any means, it will force an aging Girardi into top-four minutes, which he has struggled with in recent years. This means that the Lightning would have an off-balance line-up, with some of their best talent not getting proper playtime each night.
The good news for Tampa Bay, though, is there is time for this issue to sort itself out. If Sergachev can grow into a role on the right side and take on top-four minutes, it could bring balance to the line-up, raising the entire team as a whole. If this happens, this unit could very well be one of the best in the history of the franchise. Even if this doesn’t occur, there’s still reason to believe that the Lightning will be one of the top scoring defensive units this season, and they could make a case to move up this list in the coming months.
Number 3: Los Angeles Kings
Few teams are lucky enough to build a franchise around a defenseman, but the L.A. Kings have done so since drafting Drew Doughty second overall in the 2008 entry draft. For the last decade, Doughty has been the cornerstone of the King’s defense, helping lead the franchise to their first two Stanley Cup victories all while winning the Norris Trophy after the 2015-16 season.
Behind Doughty is a number of underappreciated defensemen who are more than capable of holding their own against the best of the NHL. Between Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, Derek Forbort, Paul LaDue and Dion Phaneuf, the Kings are able to send out a player who can match-up with the opponent through skill, speed or experience.
In many ways, it’s easy to forget just how good the King’s defense really is. All they do year in and year out is put up fantastic numbers that rival any other group in the NHL. Remember, this is the unit that had the lowest goals against per game average last season, along with the best penalty kill, yet they are often overlooked in the discussions for top overall units in the league.
This defensive proficiency largely carried L.A to the playoffs last year and, despite other teams adding huge talent to their line-ups, the Kings still remain as one of the defenses to beat with only minor changes made to their roster this offseason. This defense is scary talented and is the type of unit that could carry a middling team to another playoff birth this year.
Number 2: San Jose Sharks
So, even before the Sharks made the blockbuster trade for Erik Karlsson back in September, they had one of the top statistical units in the game. Led by Brett Burns, the 2017 Norris Winner and arguably the best defensive defenseman in the NHL in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the unit was well-rounded, deep, and experienced enough to keep pace with anyone else in the league.
Adding Karlsson to this already talented roster is, in a word, ridiculous. He is a world-class player that brings a perfect mixture of offensive skill and defensive stability that will improve the Shark’s already stellar play. If he and Vlasic can gel on the ice, this could easily be the best top-line defensive pairing in all of the NHL.
However, this doesn’t mean that the Shark’s line-up is suddenly infallible, though. As best said by Zeke of THW:
If the Sharks had one thing they didn’t need, it was an offensive-minded right-handed defenseman with a big shot. They already have one in Brent Burns… Karlsson ups the team’s talent level a lot. But he doesn’t address the roster’s main challenges.
Also, there is no guarantee that Karlsson will click with his new teammates. It is very common for a major addition made through a blockbuster trade to take time to mesh with their new teammates and surroundings. In general, when an apparent ‘superteam’ is assembled, it then takes weeks or even months before their full potential is reached.
This could mean that even a great roster like the Sharks could be slow to start out of the gate. However, even if this occurs, they should still be able to win games and keep pace for a Pacific Division title. Once playoff season hits, they will be one of the top threats to win it all, powered by the play of their defense. For the immediate future, though, it is a bit foolhardy to just assume everything will work out perfectly from night one. Great things take time, and this unit has the makings to be one of the great things in the NHL this year.
Number 1: Nashville Predators
The amount of defensive talent that has gone through Nashville since the start of this decade is almost unfathomable. With massive names like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Seth Jones leaving the franchise since the 2011-12 season, one would expect there to be a dip in the Predator’s 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.
This was the number one defense from last year, and they maintained their status on this list by keeping their unit virtually the same. Sometimes roster stagnation can be a bad sign for a team, but in this case, it is a mark of quality. With a league-high three players on NHL Network’s Top 20 Defenseman list, there’s reason to celebrate the greatness that is the Predators.
It starts with P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, two of the best players in the world at their respective positions, who would easily be a top pairing defenseman on almost every team in the league. Mix in a now-healthy Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, who is coming off a career-high 10 goal season, and you have a top-four that can outpace any other in the NHL.
It doesn’t stop there for the Predators, though. The one significant upgrade the team made this offseason brought Dan Hamhuis back to the team that drafted him back in 2001. Despite being an aging veteran, Hamhuis could rejuvenate his career in Nashville by playing a more limited role on the third pairing. Add in a few solid veterans like Yannick Weber, Matt Irwin and Anthony Bitetto, and you have a defensive corps that has both high-end production and depth to fill in for injuries without missing a beat.
The biggest problem with the Predators is that there isn’t much to say about them anymore. This is a franchise that cut their teeth on defense for more than a decade, and it has shown with the incredible names that have passed through the organization. With a core of Subban and Josi currently in the middle of their prime, Nashville should continue to be the dominant name on defense for years to come.