NHL Playoffs: Ryan Suter and 11 Defensive Studs to Watch This Postseason

Gianluca NesciContributor IIIApril 16, 2012

NHL Playoffs: Ryan Suter and 11 Defensive Studs to Watch This Postseason

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    Great defensemen are a valued commodity in the NHL, and there are many of them on display right now in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    But defensive studs come in different forms, with some blueliners thriving when they have the puck on their stick going forward, while others excel shutting down the opposition in their own zone.

    Others—like Nashville Predators star Ryan Suter—are excellent in both facets of the game.

    That’s why this list will be divided into three categories: offensive defensemen, defensive defensemen and those who are great at both ends of the rink.

    While there are certainly players from both Vancouver and Pittsburgh who belong on this list, given the current situations of the respective teams, we’ll leave them out of this discussion.

    Had this been written prior to the start of the playoffs, they would definitely be mentioned, but it’s hard to look out for players who are no longer on the ice, which looks to be the case very shortly with each team.

    For that reason, the likes of Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik will all receive an honorable mention right now, but no more.

    With that settled, here are the defensemen you should be paying attention to for the remainder of the postseason.

    Leave your comments in the section below and let us know who you think is the best defenseman to watch this postseason.

Offensive Defensemen

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    Few things are harder to account for in the NHL than a defenseman jumping into the rush and adding an extra element to the attack.

    Some others, meanwhile, prefer to launch the rush themselves. Be it with a great pass or a quick move at center-ice, some defensemen have the skill to create scoring chances all by themselves.

    Here are the blueliners known primarily for their ability to put points on the board.

    Honorable Mention: Kimmo Timonen, Dan Boyle and Drew Doughty

Erik Karlsson: Ottawa Senators

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    When you manage to finish second on your team in scoring as a defenseman, you’re doing something right on the offensive end. Karlsson broke onto the scene in a big way this season with a surprising Ottawa Senators team that defied common opinion and returned to the playoffs.

    Karlsson led the league in points from the blue line with 73, beating out the second-place finishers in the category (Brian Campbell and Dustin Byfuglien) by 25 points.

    While the smooth-skating Swede certainly needs to get stronger physically and improve his defensive game, there is no questioning his offensive talent. The 21-year-old is excellent at skating the puck out of his zone and creating chances with his speed and stick-handling ability, while he also makes a great first pass. He will be amongst the league leaders in points from defensemen for a very long time.

    Ottawa managed to steal a game in New York from the Rangers, and Karlsson will play a key role if they are to pull off the upset and win the series.

Alex Pietrangelo: St. Louis Blues

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    Playing in St. Louis, the former fourth-overall draft pick in 2008 often doesn’t get the attention of his fellow defensemen, but it’s certainly not for a lack of ability.

    Pietrangelo plays the most minutes on a team that allowed fewer goals than any other in the league this season. While the stellar play of both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot had a lot to do with that, the play of the 22-year-old defenseman certainly didn’t hurt.

    At 6’3” and 205 pounds, Pietrangelo uses his size, strength and long reach to keep opponents at bay in the defensive zone.

    But it is offensively where the young Canadian thrives. The former Niagara Ice Dog has blossomed into a great threat from the blueline with his excellent shot and passing ability. With 51 points during the regular season, Pietrangelo was third on the team scoring chart behind forwards David Backes and T.J. Oshie (54 points each).

Brian Campbell: Florida Panthers

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    Most people thought the trading of Brian Campbell to the Florida Panthers was nothing more than a salary dump for the Chicago Blackhawks, who were looking to relieve themselves of Campbell's massive contract that will pay him just over $7 million per season until 2016.

    Instead, Campbell has become the anchor of the Florida blueline, playing a key role in helping the team reach the postseason for the first time in 12 years. After a poor season in 2010, Campbell responded in a big way this year, with a career-high 53 points.

    With Campbell leading the way, youngster Erik Gudbranson has taken a big step forward in his development this season, as has 27-year-old blueliner Jason Garrison.

Defensive Defensemen

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    For some hockey fans, the ability to shutdown the opposing team’s offensive stars will always be the main responsibility of a defenseman.

    While these players may not excel on the offensive end, there are few better at helping to keep the puck out of their net.

    Here are the best stay-at-home blueliners currently playing in the postseason.

    Honorable Mention: Marc Staal, Dennis Seidenberg and Douglas Murray

Dan Girardi: New York Rangers

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    The imposing New York Rangers blueliner stands out as the best shutdown man on a team that includes the likes of Marc Staal and emerging youngster Ryan McDonagh.

    Dan Girardi led the Rangers in average ice time during the regular season, playing over 26 minutes per game. Much of that time is spent playing against the opposing team’s best forwards, as we’ve seen in the opening round with Girardi matching up against Ottawa Senators star Jason Spezza.

    In his own zone, Girardi puts his body on the line to help keep the puck out of his net, blocking a team-high 185 shots during the regular season.

    If the Rangers are to live up to their high expectations this postseason, Girardi's ability to stifle the league’s offensive starts will be vital.

Barret Jackman: St. Louis Blues

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    While his teammates, Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, get the attention for their offensive prowess, Jackman goes about his defensive duty without much fanfare.

    One of the more underrated defensemen in the NHL, Jackman is tough as nails and often plays against the top line of the opposition. On a Blues team that allowed the fewest goals in the league during the regular season, Jackman was a major contributor. With a team-leading 153 blocked shots this year, Jackman helped make life much easier for both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot in the St. Louis goal.

    He's only listed at 6’0” and 205 pounds, but that doesn’t stop him from also engaging in a physical style of play—always a good trait for a defenseman.

    At 31 years old, Jackman’s experience will be vital on a St. Louis blueline that is littered with young talent. If the Blues are to make a deep playoff run, the native of Trail, BC will be expected to continue his solid play within his own zone.

Willie Mitchell: Los Angeles Kings

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    The Los Angeles Kings defenseman is one of the key reasons why the Vancouver Canucks— the current Presidents' Trophy holders—are on the brink of elimination, trailing 3-0 in a very entertaining series.

    Willie Mitchell has been matched up against Canucks star Henrik Sedin for the majority of the series and has done a masterful job holding the talented Swede to only two points in the postseason so far.

    The 34-year-old blueliner may not be the flashiest player on the ice, but his importance to head coach Darryl Sutter cannot be overlooked. Only star defenseman Drew Doughty plays more minutes than Mitchell, who has only scored more than 20 points in a season twice since breaking into the league in 2000.

    A veteran with playoff experience, his former team certainly would love to have him back on the blue line right now instead of matching up against him.

    If the Kings are to complete the improbable sweep and continue deep into the postseason, Mitchell will see plenty of action against the offensive stars in the Western Conference.

Great at Both Ends of the Ice

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    The best of the best.

    These are the players that every general manager in the league would take in a heartbeat due to their ability to dominate at either end of the ice.

    Not surprisingly, the teams mentioned in this grouping are legitimate playoff contenders each and every year.

    Honorable Mention: Keith Yandle and Brent Burns

Ryan Suter and Shea Weber: Nashville Predators

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    The big Predators captain is arguably the best defensemen in the NHL today.

    An absolute force in his own zone, Weber is a nightmare to play against (even when he isn’t auditioning for a WWE roster spot).

    At 6’4” and 232 pounds, Weber dominates the opposition with his physicality and strength and rarely gets beaten in his own zone. In addition, the 26-year-old is the undisputed leader of the Predators and can often be seen pointing out instructions to his teammates on the ice.

    He is complemented perfectly by his American defense partner, who is quickly becoming one of the best all-around blueliners in the game. Suter does everything on the ice extremely well and will be in very high demand if the Predators are unable to sign the 27-year-old restricted free agent (RFA) to a contract once the season is over.

    On the offensive end, Weber has a cannon for a shot, making him a very dangerous weapon on the power play. He boasts the second hardest shot in the league and uses it to good effect. The Sicamous, BC, native recorded 49 points this season, tying him for sixth amongst defensemen in scoring.

    Suter was not far behind, with 46 points of his own.

    Together, the duo put up a plus-36 rating on the year, showing just how good they are at both ends of the ice.

    Weber's status amongst the NHL’s elite was solidified this past summer, when he was awarded with the largest salary arbitration settlement in league history—$7.5 million for this season. He will once again be an RFA this summer, and there will certainly be a long line of teams hoping that Nashville is unable to re-sign him.

Zdeno Chara: Boston Bruins

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    One of the most intimidating defensemen in the league, the “Big Z” is dominant in both his own zone and in that of the opposition.

    Defensively, his skills are obvious.

    Standing 6’9” and weighing in at 255 pounds, Zdeno Chara is a physical phenomenon, able to use his strength and incredible reach to shut down the very best players in the league. While he may not be the quickest player in the league, Chara's reach more than makes up for that. His long stick allows him to break up passes and force players to attempt shots from the outer portion of the Bruins' zone. Very rarely will the Slovakian ever be beaten in a one-on-one situation.

    Throw in a nasty mean streak that occasionally presents itself, and the 35-year-old is an absolute nightmare to play against.

    Chara is also more than willing to drop the gloves and protect his teammates if the need arises, fulfilling all the duties expected of an NHL captain—just ask Bryan McCabe what it’s like to fight against him.

    Offensively, his rocket of a shot is well known to goaltenders around the league. The veteran blueliner uses it to good effect, as he is a fixture of the Bruins power play. Chara finished the regular season with 52 points—eight of which were goals scored with the man-advantage—beating out the closest Bruin (Joe Corvo) by 27 points.

    A former Norris Trophy winner, the one-time Ottawa Senator will be a key contributor as the Bruins attempt to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings did so in the 1997/1998 seasons.

Nicklas Lidstrom: Detroit Red Wings

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    No list of the best defensemen in the NHL is complete without the presence of Nicklas Lidstrom, who will go down as one of the greatest to ever play the game.

    The veteran of two decades in the league has won seven Norris Trophies, putting him level with former Montreal great Doug Harvey, only one behind the legendary Bobby Orr.

    At 41 years old, Lidstrom may finally be showing some signs of slowing down, but his play is still amongst the very best in the league at both ends of the rink. Anchoring the Red Wings blue line once again this year, the classy Swede played over 23 minutes per game during the regular season—a team-high—while leading Detroit’s defense core with 34 points.

    Thanks to his incredible intelligence on the ice, Lidstrom is able to make everything seem easy, seemingly one step ahead of his opposition at all times.

    Whether he is in his own zone or in that of the opposition, his incredible skating ability and knack for reading the play means he is almost never caught out of position.

    His composure both with and without the puck is something that few players in the league possess, and it makes him the automatic choice for head coach Mike Babcock to throw on in every single key situation.

    Offensively, Lidstrom passes the puck better than most defensemen in the league. He is calm enough with it to allow for openings to appear in the defensive zone coverage before making a killer pass to one of Detroit’s many talented forwards.

    If the Wings are going to overturn a 2-1 series deficit against Nashville in the opening round, Lidstrom will be a major factor, just as he has been for the last 20 years.

Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith: Chicago Blackhawks

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    Much like Suter and Weber, the two Blackhawks are fantastic individual players. However, put together, they are arguably the best pairing remaining in the postseason (along with the Nashville duo).

    Seabrook provides a strong physical presence, with his 6’3”, 221-pound frame, while the smooth-skating Keith—a former Norris Trophy winner— brings incredible speed and puck-moving ability to the Chicago blueline.

    Few players in the league make a better first pass out of the zone than Keith, who also likes to engage physically despite giving up both height and weight to his teammate.

    Combined, the Canadian duo collected 74 points this season while also putting up a plus-36 rating.

    Seabrook has already shown his propensity for timely offense in Chicago’s opening-round series against the Coyotes, netting the game-tying marker in Game 1 with only 14.2 seconds left in regulation. For an encore, he provided the point shot that Patrick Sharp deflected into the net to force overtime with only 5.5 seconds remaining in Game 2.

    Seabrook and Keith have each logged over 30 minutes of ice time in the playoffs so far, ranking first and second in the category, respectively.

    If Chicago hopes to emulate its Stanley Cup victory of two seasons ago, its two star defensemen will need to continue their strong play at both ends of the ice.