NHL Power Rankings: Ranking Each Team's Defensive Prowess

Matthew FairburnCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2012

NHL Power Rankings: Ranking Each Team's Defensive Prowess

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    Defensive cliches are obnoxious.

    "Defense wins championships."

    "Think defense first, offense second."

    "They can't win if they can't score."

    We get it; defense is important. With that, I'm going to delve into a power ranking of the defenses in the NHL. But before I start, we should lay out some ground rules.

    What goes into a good defense?

    1. A good scheme—without a solid defensive scheme, even talented players can let up a ton of goals.

    2. Talented defensemen.

    3. Strong goaltending.

    4. Results—statistics don't always tell the whole story, but when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net, it's hard to argue with the numbers.

    That being said, let's get to the rankings.

1. Boston Bruins

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    The Boston Bruins are the perfect storm of a defensive team. Claude Julien has implemented a sound defensive system that relies on talented stay-at-home defensemen.

    Bruins rearguards aren't flashy offensively, but they limit mistakes in their own end and keep shots to the outside.

    In addition to their stalwart blue line, Boston boasts the league's best goaltending tandem in Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask.

    That formula has resulted in a league-leading 1.92 goals against average this season.

2. New York Rangers

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    The New York Rangers have become an elite defensive team. Henrik Lundqvist was always among the league's best goaltenders, but this season, his supporting cast has started pulling more weight.

    The biggest strength of the Rangers' blue line is depth.

    Even in the absence of Marc Staal early in the season, New York was getting strong play from the likes of Jeff Woywitka, Anton Stralman and Tim Erixon, while Michael Del Zotto just continues to develop as a player. Meanwhile, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh have formed a rock-solid top pairing. 

    This unit is only going to get stronger as Marc Staal gets his skating legs back underneath him.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins fly under the radar as a defensive unit at times due to the outstanding star power at forward. However, over the last two seasons, Pittsburgh's defense has really been the story.

    This season, despite a rash of injuries, the Penguins are showing the depth of their system, ranking in the top 10 in goals against and near the top of the league in shots against.

    Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik are the big names, but Simon Depres and Philip Samuelsson have risen to the occasion in the wake of injuries.

    Behind a sturdy set of defensemen, Pittsburgh also has an elite goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury continues to develop into one of the league's best and showed last season that he can carry this team if need be.

4. Detroit Red Wings

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    The Detroit Red Wings are an organization that goes about its business the right way. The Wings have a system in place that works, and they draft and sign players that fit that system perfectly. 

    In addition to an All-Star cast of blue liners, the Wings have forwards that are responsible in their own end. Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom lead the way in establishing a disciplined mentality up front.

    The fact that Jimmy Howard is starting to come into his own will only make this unit more dangerous.

5. Los Angeles Kings

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    The Los Angeles Kings haven't gotten off to the start they were hoping for this season, but it's no fault of the defensive unit.

    Jonathan Quick is turning in a Vezina-type campaign, and the defense in front of him is holding up well.

    The Kings are No. 5 in the league with a 2.12 goals against average . If they could muster some semblance of an offense, Los Angeles could be hosting playoff hockey well into the spring.

6. St Louis Blues

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    Is it just a flash in the plan, the masterful work of Ken Hitchcock or the initial development of a dominant defensive team?

    The St. Louis Blues are No. 2 in the league in goals against average, and it is a result of all of the factors listed above. The Blues have been on a tear to start the season, which may or may not last, given some of the inexperience on the blue line.

    But Ken Hitchcock has a track record of putting together reliable defensive units, and St. Louis is getting outstanding goaltending from both Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak.

    Whether or not this success can be sustained over the course of the season is one thing, but for now, it's tough to not include the Blues very high on this list.

7. Vancouver Canucks

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    Not to sound cliche, but sometimes the best defense really is a strong offense.

    The Vancouver Canucks still have a stable, deep group of defensemen, but they benefit from the insane amount of puck possession the offense generates.

    Not to mention, the second best tandem of goaltenders in the NHL, Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, is backstopping the Canucks.

8. San Jose Sharks

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    The San Jose Sharks sought to become a more balanced team this offseason, and so far this season, they have accomplished that goal.

    San Jose is keeping the pressure off of its goalies, allowing just over 28 shots per game. The Sharks are now actually ranked higher on defense than they are on offense.

9. Nashville Predators

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    The Nashville Predators are not posting their usual defensive numbers, but it's impossible to exclude them from the top 10 on this list.

    The trio of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne is what is keeping this team competitive.

    The Predators thrive on their defensive scheme, and that reliance on three players is starting to wear this team down.

10. Phoenix Coyotes

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    Was Ilya Bryzgalov just the product of a goalie-friendly system?

    After seeing the success the goaltenders in the desert have had this season, as well as some of Bryzgalov's inconsistencies, the question is starting to pop up.

    The system does work, though, and the Coyotes manage to stay competitive for long stretches of the season due to solid defensive play.

    The fact that they are in the top 10 in goals again—despite losing a Vezina-caliber goaltender—is impressive.

11. Minnesota Wild

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    Mike Yeo has provided the Minnesota Wild with a new sense of discipline in all areas of the game.

    While they have cooled down from their hot start, the Wild are still relying on their defensive systems and goaltending to remain in the top five of the NHL in goals against average.

    But do they have the offense to keep up in the Northwest Division?

12. New Jersey Devils

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    The New Jersey Devils have always thrived on their ability to keep the puck out of the net.

    Unfortunately, Martin Brodeur is in a steep decline. The Devils are only allowing 27.6 shots per game but are still a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of goals against average.

    A solid goaltender will complete this unit.

13. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Make no mistake about it, the Chicago Blackhawks are an offensive team.

    The slight sophomore slump of Corey Crawford has not helped matters.

    But the talent is still there on Chicago's blue line to be a serviceable defensive unit. 

14. Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Philadelphia Flyers are an underwhelming defensive team thus far this season.

    Part of their struggles are linked to the inconsistency of Ilya Bryzgalov, but an even bigger reason for the defensive woes is the absence of captain Chris Pronger. The entire makeup of the defense is different without him.

    Braydon Coburn is having a disappointing season, and Matt Carle continues to be inconsistent. As long as Kimmo Timonen holds up, however, Philly will only need to add a depth defenseman at the deadline.

15. Florida Panthers

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    Has any team made a bigger turnaround than the Florida Panthers this season?

    The additions of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski on the blue line have helped the Panthers rise to the top half of the league in defense.

    They have also gotten solid goaltending from both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. Theodore has his goals against average under 2.5.

16. Buffalo Sabres

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    After spending so much money on the back end, and with two quality, starting goaltenders, one would think the Buffalo Sabres would put up much more of a threat on defense.

    Think again.

    Despite the additions of Robyn Reghr and Christian Ehrhoff, the Sabres have stumbled to a goals against average of 2.88.

    In addition, Ryan Miller is fighting through one of the worst seasons of his career with a goals against over three and a save percentage hovering around .900.

17. Montreal Canadiens

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    The Montreal Canadiens are not the team we are used to seeing, but they still have a very capable stop unit.

    Backstopped by world-class talent Carey Price, the Habs are holding teams to 28 shots and 2.67 goals per game. Those totals aren't bad considering the struggles this team has had.

18. Edmonton Oilers

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    The bulk of Edmonton's rebuilding project has been focused on the offense, but the Oilers are starting to come around defensively as well.

    A resurgence of sorts from Nikolai Khabibulin has helped, and there is still work to be done, but progress has been made.

19. Colorado Avalanche

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    The Colorado Avalanche are a tough team to peg.

    With Semyon Varlamov in net, the Avalanche have a tough time keeping the puck out of the back of the net.

    But oddly enough, Colorado is a tough team to crack with J.S. Giguere between the pipes. This roster is still in transition, though, and depth on defense is a concern.

20. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Brian Burke has done a fine job of reworking Toronto's once-depleted roster.

    The Maple Leafs have developed an above-average group of defenders, but the goaltending has been lackluster at best this season.

    James Reimer has been decent at times, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him. 

21. Calgary Flames

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    The Calgary Flames may have lost their top defenseman in the offseason, but they still have a tandem of reliable goaltenders.

    That counts for something, right?

22. Dallas Stars

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    The Dallas Stars are far from stellar defensively.

    Kari Lehtonnen manages to carry this team at times, but that by no means makes the Stars a formidable stop unit.

23. Washington Capitals

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    The Washington Capitals have tried to go with a more defensive approach and even signed Tomas Vokoun.

    Until their forwards buy into Dale Hunter's scheme, the Caps are going to have trouble on the back end, no matter how well Tomas Vokoun continues to play.

24. Winnipeg Jets

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    The Winnipeg Jets have the makings of a decent defense.

    Unfortunately, one of the most polished defensemen on the roster, Tobias Enstrom, missed a decent chunk of the fall with an injury.

    Now that he is back, the Jets are coming together on the back end.

25. New York Islanders

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    The New York Islanders are once again a complete disappointment.

    They have a trifecta of underwhelming goaltenders to go with an inexperienced blue line. That's far from a winning combo.

26. Carolina Hurricanes

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    We're getting to the bottom of the barrel, but I refuse to rank Cam Ward at the very bottom of this list.

27. Anaheim Ducks

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    The Anaheim Ducks are inexperienced on defense, and the down year from Jonas Hiller isn't helping the situation.

28. Ottawa Senators

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    The Ottawa Senators are allowing 31.8 shots per game.

    Craig Anderson can't handle that type of onslaught on a nightly basis.

29. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Dwayne Roloson appears to be completely over the hill.

    The lack of support in front of him is not helping the aging process, either.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Pretty much anything that could go wrong in Columbus, has gone wrong.

    At this point, wholesale changes need to be made within the organization.