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.
It’s not easy to build an elite defense, of course. It can take years of drafting and developing defensemen before they eventually reach their full potential. Even then a team will still need to dip into free agency and the trade market to get enough talent to build a core of players capable of winning the Stanley Cup.
Related: The Best NHL Defensemen Ever
So, with all of this in mind, which franchise has the best defensive unit as we approach the start of the 2021-22 season?
Number 5: 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, but in practice, you could see a lot of holes in those statistics, as players struggled to play up to their projected level.
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.
A lot has changed since that playoff run in Carolina, though. The 2021 offseason featured key names like Dougie Hamilton and Jake Bean departing the franchise and being replaced with less sure players like Tony DeAngelo.
While these moves are risky, you still can’t discredit what the Hurricanes’ defense should be. With names like Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei still holding down the blue line, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the unit could still be elite.
So for now, Carolina will keep a tentative spot on this list, but they are the team that will likely have the greatest variability. They could struggle and fall off entirely by the All-Star Game, or they could gel into an elite unit once again that is vying for the top overall spot.
Number 4: Boston Bruins
The 2020-21 season was one of change for the Boston Bruins’ defensive corps. For the first time in 14 years, Zdeno Chara didn’t headline the unit, as he parted ways with the franchise to join the Washington Capitals. Along with this, they also lost Torey Krug to free agency, meaning that they were without two of their former top-four players.
Despite this, Boston’s defense didn’t lose a step, as they finished with the second-ranked penalty kill and fourth-fewest goals against while giving up the second-fewest shots in the league.
While the Bruin’s defense may not have the same star power and name recognition it once featured, it’s still a unit that is fantastic both on paper and on the ice. This stout group should continue to be a driving factor for the team’s success as they look to win the Atlantic Division.
Number 3: Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche’s defensive corps is a rare example of what happens when everything goes right throughout the course of a rebuild. Just a few years ago, this unit was a mess, with no real identity outside of Erik Johnson, who has been playing more than 20 minutes a night for the franchise for the better part of the last decade. Heading into the 2021-22 season, however, the Avalanche now features one of the deepest blue lines in the sport after some daft drafting and trades stocked their cupboard with high-ceiling players.
This incredible unit is built around 2020 Calder Trophy winner Cale Makar. Since making his debut in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Makar has played like one of the best defensemen in the entire league, which led to him earning a nomination for the 2021 Norris Trophy.
Next, you have the spoils from the Matt Duchene trade, which brought back top-four starter Samuel Girard and a first-round pick that turned into the fourth-overall selection in the 2019 Draft, which was used to select Bowen Byram. While Byram looked a bit shaky throughout his rookie season, he is still just 20 years old and could find himself taking on top-four minutes in the near future. Plus, once you eventually add in a healthy Devon Toews to this line-up, you will have a top-four with the potential to be amongst the best in the entire NHL.
So, while the Avalanche still have some work to do to reach their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup, it appears that they have built a defensive corps that has the talent to get the franchise there.
Number 2: Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights have been a fascinating franchise to watch as they established themselves in the NHL. What started as an upstart team full of castaways has turned into a perennial contender due in part to the aggressive pursuit of top talent by management.
This mindset was in full force throughout 2020, when Vegas traded for a top-four defenseman in Alec Martinez at the trade deadline, then signed Alex Pietrangelo, the biggest fish in the 2020 free-agency pond.
During the 2020-21 season, the Golden Knights were a force on the ice, as they tore through the relatively weak Honda West Division. After everything shook out, they finished second overall in the standings, with a league-leading 122 goals against and an incredible 86.8 penalty kill, which was also tops in the NHL.
With much of the same defensive core returning, expect Vegas to continue to be a contender, especially as they are the favorites to win the Pacific Division.
Number 1: Tampa Bay Lightning
Over the last few seasons, we have seen the Tampa Bay Lightning transform from a franchise that just couldn’t get over the hump in the playoffs to a team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups. While this transformation was due in part to a number of factors, one key aspect was the franchises’ commitment to building an elite defensive corps.
Needless to say, the Lightning were successful in this venture. Their left-side alone is unmatched, as they feature three elite talents in Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev. While their right-side may not carry the same name recognition, Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak, and Zach Bogosian are proven Stanley Cup Champions who know exactly what it takes to win it all.
It’s easy to overlook just how good the Lightning’s defense has become when they have a vaunted forward corps in front of them and, arguably, the best goaltender in the NHL stopping pucks behind them. Despite this, you have to give the franchise credit for the unit they assembled over the years, as it has reshaped Tampa Bay from being a perennial postseason punch-line to a Stanley Cup Champion.
The NHL Features Many Great Defenses
Whenever you create a ranked list like this, there will always be teams that are left off that just barely missed the cut. In terms of defense, a few teams to keep an eye on are the New York Islanders, Nashville Predators, Washington Capitals, and Dallas Stars, as these franchises feature elite defensemen who could be in the Norris discussion by the end of the season.
Plus, in the coming months, there will be those unexpected teams that get that final piece in place on their blue line which pushes them from being a good unit to a great one. When that happens, they could make the case to earn a spot on this list and force one of the former top teams off it.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.