Toward the end of last year’s abbreviated regular season and after watching yet another typically-grinding Los Angeles Kings game, I was struck with frustrated inspiration and quickly scribed a piece about the top five defensive teams in the NHL. Instead of merely assuming teams with the least goals allowed are de facto the best defensive clubs (that would have made for one mighty short article), I ranked all 30 NHL teams in six statistical categories that I believed reflected a team’s overall defensive prowess. I then weighted them appropriately, multiplied the weightings by the rankings, added across, sorted from low to high and voilà — a list was born.
All right, so I wasn’t exactly calculating the interest on the national debt or penning the Magna Carta. Nevertheless, the analysis was grounded in important, measurable defensive categories: goals against, shots against, blocked shots, hits, takeaways and faceoffs. With respect to the weightings, 40% was assigned to goals against (after all, that really is the point), 20% to shots against, and 10% to each of the remaining . The other four components each receiving equal 10% weightings.
Why those particular statistics and percentages, you ask? Each has its role in determining a team’s overall defensive effectiveness, and as far as weightings go, I emphasized the two most important measurements — goals allowed and shots against — while still putting significant weight on the other four categories. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments section below.
Now that we’re closing in on the end of the first half of the 2013-14 regular season, it’s time to do it all over again. Last year, the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings finished 1-5 on the list of the best overall defensive teams in the NHL. Will they make the list again time? Read on.
The defensive results aren’t always what you might expect
When you’re assigning 40% of the formula to goals allowed, there will naturally be a correlation between how many times a team surrenders a goal and its overall defensive ranking — as it should be. However, with 60% going to four other categories, the deck becomes more than a tad shuffled. For example, although the New York Islanders are last in goals against (3.41), by this methodology they aren’t the worst defensive team in the league. That dubious distinction goes to the 7-22-2 Buffalo Sabres, who are 24th or lower in four out of six categories. The Colorado Avalanche may be seventh in fewest goals allowed, but rank just 16th on this list. Montreal’s goals against is a rock-solid 3rd in the league, but taken as a whole, their defensive effectiveness comes in five slots lower at #8.
With all that said, it’s time to present the top five defensive teams in the NHL. Without further ado, here they are:
#5: Anaheim Ducks
As a die-hard Kings fan I hate to admit it, but the Ducks are pretty damn solid in almost every category. They stand eleventh in goals allowed, tenth in shots allowed, third in blocked shots, eleventh in hits and numero uno in takeaways. The only area they don’t sniff the top ten is in faceoffs, and even there they don’t exactly embarrass themselves at eighteenth. The Ducks didn’t crack the top five in last season’s list, but they rank fifth overall to this point of the season.
Francois Beauchemin (+15, although recently placed on the IR) and Hampus Lindholm (+14) are amongst the league leaders in plus/minus, and although Jonas Hiller isn’t going to win the Vezina, he brings his ‘A’ game most nights. Does the Ducks’ defensive prowess translate to wins? Check the top of the Pacific Division standings for your answer.
#4: Minnesota Wild
The Wild are a bit like the Kings, in that they perennially employ a defense-first philosophy. The biggest difference between the two is that the Kings are merely wildly inconsistent offensively, whereas Minnesota’s shots just seem to go consistently wild. Ranking fourth in goals against, third in shots allowed, and sixth in faceoffs overcomes lesser results in takeaways (twelfth), blocked shots (sixteenth) and hits (twenty-ninth). The net result is a fourth-place ranking on the list of defensive-oriented teams after not making it at all last year.
Ryan Suter is generally acknowledged as one of the league’s best on the blue line, and Josh Harding has been stellar, replacing the injured Nicklas Backstrom. Overall, the Wild are in the middle of a dogfight for the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference.
#3: Boston Bruins
Big surprise. The Bruins are loaded once again, with the rankings to prove it. Boston is second overall in goals against, third in faceoffs, ninth in shots allowed, and tenth in hits. Ok, so they don’t take the puck away very much (twenty-first) or lay down to block many shots (twenty-third), but who’s perfect? Overall, they are good enough to finish third on the list, after being top dog last season.
Zdeno Chara is a man-mountain but the other defenseman names aren’t exactly big. Regardless, Boston’s defense helps propel them to the very top of the Eastern Conference standings.
#2: Pittsburgh Penguins
It just doesn’t seem fair. The Pens have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury, and — oh yeah — a top-ten ranking in five of the six aforementioned categories. Specifically, they are fourth in shots allowed, fifth in goals allowed, sixth in hits, eighth in blocked shots and ninth in faceoffs. They are only twenty-sixth in takeaways, but that doesn’t detract from the remaining body of work, which is rock solid. Again, it’s just not fair. Pittsburgh ranked second on the list, the exact same place they finished last time around.
Matt Niskanen is sixth amongst NHL defensemen in plus/minus, the rest of the defensive corps has performed admirably despite Rob Scuderi’s broken ankle, and Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the best the league has to offer. Pittsburgh is nipping Boston’s heels for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
#1: Los Angeles Kings
When you’ve allowed the fewest goals per game in the league and have both Jonathan Quick’s backup and the backup’s backup pitching shutout after shutout, somethings going right in the land of smog and silicone enhancements. L.A. is also the league’s best on the draw, as well as second in hits and fifth in shots allowed. They are near the bottom in takeaways (twenty-seventh) and blocked shots (twenty-ninth), but when blended together, shaken and stirred, the Kings are the league’s top defensive club. Last year, they were fifth overall.
Drew Doughty has evolved into the all-around defenseman Dean Lombardi hoped for when drafting him second overall in 2008, and although Quick has been injured, Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones have stepped in and performed brilliantly. The Kings are a mere five points from being the top seed in the West.
Walter McLaughlin is a Los Angeles Kings correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He is an avid sports fan, having followed the Kings since living in L.A. in the mid-1970’s, as well as suffering through Seattle sports teams’ general futility. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and has worked in community banking for over 25 years, specializing in SBA loans. He is married and has two daughters.