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.
While there were a lot of roster changes made in the 2018 offseason that looked to create some defensive juggernauts across the league, things haven’t all worked out as planned. Injuries, chemistry struggles and just general regression across the board have made some of the top units in the game look surprisingly mediocre this season. At the half-way point, there’s no consensus top defensive unit like there was at the start of the season. Sure, this may all level out by the time we reach the playoffs, but as of now, there’s a real discussion to be had about which franchise has the best defense in the NHL.
Number 4: Calgary Flames
Heading into the 2018-19 season, no one really knew what to make of the Calgary Flames. In recent seasons, the franchise has largely been treading water, fighting to stay on the edge of relevancy while never breaking into Stanley Cup contention. That has all changed this season, though, as a deep and talented Flames team rocketed up the standings while looking like a true threat to win the Stanley Cup.
No small part of this success can be attributed to Calgary’s defense, which has developed into one of the best units in the league. Not only are they the third-highest scoring defense, but they are also limiting the opponent’s goal-scoring chances as well. 51 games into their season, the Flames are only allowing 28.8 shots per game, good for fourth overall, while sitting seventh in goals against per game, representing a major improvement over their 2017-18 season.
This impressive defensive play is due in no small part to a few new faces added in the 2018 offseason and some veteran players finally reaching their full potential. It starts with Mark Giordano, who is having a career season at the ripe old age of 35. By scoring 11 goals and 52 points all while playing more than 24 minutes a night, Giordano is showing that age is just a number as he makes a serious case to win the 2019 Norris Trophy.
Next are Noah Hanifin and T.J. Brodie, who are reaching their full potentials on this Flames defensive unit. While their numbers can’t touch Giordano, they have both registered 25 points while playing roughly 21 minutes a night. Considering that Hanafin and Brodie were huge question marks heading into the season, their play can only be viewed as great by fans of the franchise. Mixed into these top-three defenders is veteran Travis Hamonic, who is registering more than 21 minutes of ice-time a night when he stays healthy.
Behind their top-four is rookie Rasmus Andersson, who has started in 48 games this season while playing 15 minutes a night. Filling in the unit is a rotating cast of players, including Oliver Kylington, Juuso Valimaki, Michael Stone and Dalton Prout. While none of these players truly standout, they provide some necessary depth that a great defense need.
While there still may be a lot of questions to ask about the Flames, there’s one thing that’s certain: this defensive unit is solid. While we don’t know what they will do in the playoffs, everything is in place for Calgary to make a deep run should this unit continue to fire on all cylinders.
Number 3: Tampa Bay Lightning
A major factor in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s domination of the NHL this season has been the drastic improvement of their defensive play. In the past, defense was one of the Lightning’s greatest weaknesses. Now, it is a strength that has helped carry them to the top of the league.
It starts with Victor Hedman, the Lightning’s Norris-winning defender, who has established himself as one of the top players in the league. Even if his numbers aren’t as impressive as last season, he still has 33 points despite missing seven games with an injury. Behind him is Ryan McDonagh, who is playing some of the best hockey of his career, posting 26 points while looking like as much of a threat for the Norris as Hedman.
Playing alongside McDonagh on the Lightning’s second pair is rookie standout ErikCernak. While he hasn’t been scoring many points, his strong, defense-first style has been an absolute revelation for the team. This has allowed veteran Anton Stralman to take over a top-pairing role with Hedman while a combination of Mikhail Sergachev, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi fill in the bottom pairing. All of this talent gives head coach Jon Cooper the ability to rotate defenders each night so they can get some much-needed rest during the season.
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Statistically, the Lightning may not stand out in any one area, but they are consistently solid across the board. They sit eighth in overall goals against with 140, 11th in goals against per game with 2.86, and are sixth overall on the penalty kill with an 83.5 percent kill rate. That last area is a huge improvement for the franchise, who featured one of the worst penalty killing units in 2017-18.
Simply put, the play of the Lightning’s defensive unit has been nothing short of outstanding. Even an injury to Hedman at the start of the season couldn’t slow this unit down, with the next man up mentality pushing McDonagh to play some vintage hockey as Tampa Bay’s top defender. This unit is deep, talented and capable of outplaying just about any team in the NHL.
Number 2: San Jose Sharks
To say that the start to the San Jose Sharks season was lackluster would be a bit of an understatement. After trading for all-world defender Erik Karlsson, the Sharks were expected to go out and completely dominate the NHL. Instead, they struggled to find their footing, looking a bit out of sync with their newest defensive superstar. Sure, they scored goals and kept pace in the Pacific Division, but they still fell behind Calgary at the top of the standings.
However, once things started to click for San Jose, their defense turned into exactly what we all thought they could be at the start of the season. This is a highly-skilled, offensive-minded unit that is an absolute match-up nightmare for opponents. While their statistics are a bit lackluster overall, they have dominated the scoresheet, posting 151 points behind offensive juggernauts like Brent Burns and the aforementioned Karlsson.
It’s not just the superstars who are playing impressive hockey, either. Karlsson’s partner, Brandon Dillon, is having a breakout season, posting 16 points while being a team-high plus-19. Along those same lines, Radim Simek has been a revelation as Burns’ defensive partner, as he is seemingly able to keep his offensive-minded partner settled on the ice. Depth-wise, Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed are better than average replacements who can fill in without missing a beat.
Things are not all well in San Jose, though. Veterans Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun have both been playing well below expectations. For Vlasic, nagging injuries seem to have slowed what is otherwise one of the top defensive defensemen in the league. For Braun, this might just be a down season or a bit of market correction for a player who was playing some of the best hockey of his career throughout the 2017-18 season.
Few teams feature the defensive depth and scoring potential of San Jose. Even with a slow start to the season, everything is still in place for the Sharks to become the top defensive unit in the NHL by the playoffs. If Vlasic and Karlsson can return from their injuries at full strength, this unit will be untouchable in terms of offensive and defensive play.
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 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.
This was projected to be the number one defense at the start of the season, and they have managed to maintain this status despite suffering a key injury to P.K. Subban early in the season. To put it simply, there’s a reason why the Predators had a league-high three players on NHL Network’s Top 20 Defenseman list: this is one of the deepest units in the NHL.
Even with Subban off the ice for 10-plus games, the Predators still had Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm to drive scoring. With 36 and 35 points, respectively, these star defensemen sit 10th and 11th in overall defensemen scoring. Mix in a healthy Ryan Ellis, who has posted 22 points, and you have a top-four that can out-pace any other in the NHL.
Even if the offseason addition Dan Hamhuis has provided only a lackluster return so far, Nashville still has a stable of veteran defensemen including Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin, giving them a defense corps with both high-end production and depth to fill in for injuries without missing a beat.
Statistically, the Predators feature the second-best goals-against average at 2.58, give up 29.4 shots per game, good for seventh overall, while still being the second-highest scoring defense with 134 points. Even if their penalty kill is below par right now, sitting 16th overall, this is still one of the most ferocious units in the NHL.
Have the Predators been perfect this season? No. But even with less than perfect play, they still have a defensive unit that can dominate games and help make up for goaltending that has looked shaky at times. While the Sharks, Lightning or Flames could overtake them in this rankings by the end of the season, for now, Nashville is still the NHL’s dominant force on defense.