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.
These rankings want to use both statistics and the eye test to decide who has the best defensive corps in the NHL. The best defenses are able to keep their opponent’s shots against per game (SA/G) and goals against average (GAA) low while putting up points of their own in the offensive zone. Also, the overall plus/minus and penalty kill percentage will help influence these rankings. While all of these numbers can be impacted by a great team around a defense, they still ultimately act as a good gauge for a unit.
Honorable Mention: Tampa Bay Lightning
Even before trading for Ryan McDonagh, the Tampa Bay Lightning had one of the most productive defensive units in hockey. Led by Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman, the defense has scored 154 points this season, ranking them near the top of NHL. Their defensive players also have the top plus/minus in the league, sitting at a massive plus-99 through 68 games.
With the acquisition of Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline, the Lightning brought in a true shut-down defenseman to help ease some of the workload on Hedman. Add in a standout rookie in Mikhail Sergachev, a defensive stalwart in Anton Stralman and a supporting cast of Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn, and you have a unit that is full of high-talent players that are able to be utilized to their fullest potential…In theory.
The problem is, none of this potential has been reached yet. It’s more than just the slow introduction of McDonagh to the roster, though. Throughout the year, the Lightning have given up far too many shots on net. They currently rank 24th in the league, with opponents averaging 32.8 SA/G. Without the Vezina caliber play of goaltender Andrei Vasilevksiy, their GAA would be significantly higher than 2.80, which ranks them 11th in the league.
A big reason for this discrepancy is the Lightning’s tendency to pinch defenders and play aggressively in the offensive zone. When it works, it can result in a score. When it fails, they give up an odd-man rush or take a bad penalty. With a penalty kill that ranks 26th in the league, these failings often lead to a goal against.
While, in time, the Lightning could grow into one of the top units in the game they are still a few steps behind the best teams right now.
Number 4: San Jose Sharks
Everyone knows about Brent Burns and his fantastic play as an offensive defenseman. There are few better in the league than Burns in the offensive zone, and it led to him eventually winning the Norris Trophy in 2017. However, the San Jose Sharks are more than one player on defense. They have a core of experienced players including Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon along with a handful of young players in Dylan DeMelo and Joakim Ryan, who are underrated throughout the league.
It can be easy to overlook San Jose when it comes to discussions about top defenses. They aren’t necessarily seen as a defense-first franchise, yet they have been able to assemble a unit that can compete with the likes of a Nashville — all while with Paul Martin, their second-highest paid defenseman, sits sidelined with an injury.
This season, the Sharks have scored 161 points while limiting opponents to a 2.70 GAA, good for ninth in the NHL. They also have the top PK in the league, clocking in at an 85% success rate all while keeping opponents to 30.4 shots each game, good for sixth overall. So while they are often known for their offensive firepower, they are no slouches on defense either.
Really, the only hole you can poke in San Jose overall is their bad plus/minus. For a team that ranks in the top 10 for goals against and scoring, their defense somehow is a minus-three on the year. This number is being dragged down by Burn’s -18, but this may be a case of where the numbers are not accurately representing the situation since he has 23 powerplay points. Either way, you can’t let one poor number downplay what is overall one of the best defenses in the league.
Number 3: Boston Bruins
When healthy, the Boston Bruins have a defensive unit that can be downright dominating. It starts with longtime franchise face Zdeno Chara who, despite being 40-years old, is still logging around 23 minutes of ice time each night and is a +26 all while playing on the top line. His partner, 20-year-old rookie Charlie McAvoy, was having a Calder Trophy worthy season, in route to a +26 while playing around 22 minutes a night. Despite their difference in age, they are a truly special top defensive pairing that can shut down the best in the league.
Behind their top line is Tory Krug, who is their top scoring defensemen with 48 points this season and is arguably as good of a player as Chara or McAvoy in his own right. The Bruins also have a decent amount of depth provided by Kevan Miller, Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo and trade deadline acquisition Nick Holden.
While the Bruins’ defensive scoring numbers aren’t anything spectacular, with only 142 points this season, they have some truly dominating defensive stats. The team gives up 2.56 goals a game, good for third in the league, by limiting opponents to 29.4 shots, putting them second overall. They also have one of the highest plus/minus overall at a plus-94, led by Chara and McAvoy. The only somewhat average number they have is their penalty kill, which ranks 11th with an 81.6 success rate. While this is far from poor, it is a bit middling compared to the rest of their dominant numbers.
However, with a recent rash of injuries, things have had a slightly different look for the Bruins on defense. With McAvoy suffering an MCL tear and Chara an ‘upper body injury’ they have been without their top defenders for the better part of a month. Even with these losses, though, the team has continued to find a way to win. With a playoff spot all but secured in the East, the Bruins will have the time to rest their defense before the playoffs or prepare for life without their top players.
If they can get healthy, the Bruins have a real shot to make some noise this postseason. Their defense is just that, a true defense. This sort of defensive play should scare playoff-bound bound teams, as it is exhausting to compete against a unit like this over the course of a seven-game series.
Number 2: 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, Christian Folin and the recently acquired Dion Phaneuf, the Kings are able to send out a player who can match-up with the opponent through skill, speed or experience.
This has led the Kings to become one of the top defenses in the league this year. They are a stingy unit, giving up 2.51 GA/G, putting them behind only the Nashville Predators overall. They also limit the opponent’s scoring chances by only allowing 31.6 shots each game, good for 10th overall, while also being the third-best penalty kill in the NHL. Even if their plus/minus isn’t anything spectacular, sitting at a plus-41 on the year they are still a top scoring defense, contributing 154 points.
This defensive proficiency has kept the Kings in the playoff hunt all season, even if they have struggled sometimes as a team. It’s more than just goaltender Jonathan Quick bailing them out too. The King’s defense is scary talented and is the type of unit that could carry a middling team through a long playoff run this postseason.
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 is one of the best in the NHL.
It starts at the top for Nashville, with perennial Norris Trophy Candidate P.K. Subban and captain Roman Josi leading a deep squad including Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. When healthy, these top four defensemen are some of the best in the league at suppressing shots, scoring goals and setting up their forwards for success. In fact, at the start of the 2017-18 season, NHL.com had Subban, Josi and Ellis ranked in their top 20 defensemen, making the Predators the only team with three representatives on the list. Add in solid depth players like Alexi Emalin and Matt Irwin, and you have a unit that will surpass just about anyone else in the league.
With this caliber of blueliner on their roster, it’s no surprise that the Predators are the best defense in the game. Not only do they have the lowest GAA this season at 2.46, they also boast the highest offensive output from any defensive corps with 177 points. While they do give up a lot of shots, ranking 20th in the league with 32.2 shots against per game, they still maintain a top plus/minus at plus-88. This is a unit that may not always shut down the opponents shooting lanes, but they know how to limit scorers and only give them low-risk chances.
The biggest problem with the Predators is that there isn’t much to say about them anymore on defense. This is a franchise that has 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.