Ranking the NHL's 10 Best Defensive Pairings
As gratifying as it is for any NHL team to have a hardware-caliber all-around defenseman, like the Montreal Canadiens have with Norris Trophy recipient P.K. Subban, it takes two reliable blueliners to form a top-notch defensive tandem.
Not that any of Subban’s recent partners have been slouches, but he was practically hopping between multiple associates in key stretches of this past season. He took even-strength shifts primarily with Josh Gorges in mid-April, then Francis Bouillon and others before transitioning to Andrei Markov by the end of the month.
It is much easier to evaluate a blue-line unit when it stays intact through at least the defining, deciding stretches of its team’s campaign, if not the vast bulk of the season.
Performances in the 2012-13 season will receive special emphasis for the purposes of these rankings, and only pairings that have the potential to work together going forward are eligible. That is, no pairing that features the likes of, for instance, Sergei Gonchar or Mark Streit will be included as they have both switched teams this summer.
On that note, here is how the league’s top 10 defensive duos stand as the NHL changes over from 2012-13 to 2013-14.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.
10. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh
Results-wise, this past season was somewhat of an off-year for New York Rangers minute-muncher Dan Girardi. The team allowed a total of 112 regular-season goals, and he was on the ice for exactly half of them with 56.
Only L.A.’s Rob Scuderi (63 out of 118) and St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo (58 out of 115) were on duty for a greater percentage of their opponents' output in 2012-13.
Still, Girardi’s effort surfaced in the form of a league-leading 125 blocked shots, so part of his struggles may have been a product of wear and tear down the stretch. Another part may have been the fact that he was not always on a unit with Ryan McDonagh.
In early April, though, Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News was apt to underscore the spark Girardi and McDonagh cultivated for one another and the team when head coach John Tortorella paired them back together.
That night reiterated a well-established notion that, when they are working together and on top of their respective games, Girardi and McDonagh make an appreciable tandem. Both of their scouting reports from The Hockey News list the terms “big-minute” and “shutdown” for a reason.
9. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek
Not even a week into his first season as a Coyote and as Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s defensive partner, Zbynek Michalek told Sarah McLellan of AZCentral.com about his admiration for the young all-around phenom.
As McLellan wrote at the time in her Jan. 23 report, "Since the pair has just started to play together, chemistry is still a work in progress. Communication has been the biggest help with that, but Ekman-Larsson’s skill set is an easy read for Michalek.”
Ultimately, Michalek missed 14 games. But he and Ekman-Larsson would work together well enough to take the first shift of the season opener on Jan. 19 and, in essence, the last shift of the season finale on April 27.
In the latter case, Michalek was in action when Ekman-Larsson picked up an assist on a goal with two seconds left.
Even with the missed time, Michalek still managed to lead all Phoenix defensemen with 87 blocked shots. When paired with Ekman-Larsson, that type of defensive prowess doubtlessly helped the latter player cultivate more of his all-around potential.
While Ekman-Larsson ran away with the team lead in cumulative ice time, seeing substantial action in all situations, his nightly average of even-strength and shorthanded minutes was similar to Michalek’s. Ekman-Larsson led the team with precisely three minutes on the penalty kill per game, while Michalek was a narrow second with 2:57.
8. Shea Weber and Roman Josi
Ryan Suter’s move to Minnesota opened the door to Roman Josi in Nashville. Within a year, Josi had a hefty new contract of his own to ensure a long-lasting alliance with Predators captain Shea Weber.
As general manager David Poile told USA Today at the time of that contract’s confirmation, “Roman’s skating ability and instincts have allowed him to play in all key situations. ... With today’s signing, we have our top defensive pairing locked up long term.”
Indeed, Josi joined Weber as the only other Predator to break four digits in total ice time this past season and to break triple digits in power-play ice time. He also averaged a respectable 53 seconds of shorthanded action per night.
It was doubtlessly a down year, at best, for Nashville, which finished second-to-last in the Western Conference and authorized an average of 2.77 opposing goals per 60 minutes.
But all things considered, the minutes leader, Weber, held his own en route to a personal 2.75 GAA (calculated through 57 goals in 1,244:14 of ice time). Along the way, he effectively helped Josi foster his game.
7. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin
While it was no secret that two of the Minnesota Wild’s newest rearguards took their time to acclimate, the way they finished the 2013 playoff push represents a crucial aspect of the franchise’s promising future.
Prized free agent Ryan Suter did not get on the plus side of the plus/minus column until March 27 and rocked back and forth in that category for the final month. Although, he was a decently consistent producer, save for a four-game cold spell early on and five straight pointless outings to conclude the regular season.
Rookie Jonas Brodin had a rating as high as a plus-seven for a few moments in March before ultimately receding to a plus-three.
Still, both finished strong and flaunted a noticeable chemistry by season’s end. As Wild coach Mike Yeo told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “Ryan has really taken him under his wing and helped guide this kid. ... You can’t ask for a better example.”
In terms of sheer goal prevention in their own end, the Brodin-Suter tandem cultivated sound results relative to their team and much of the league. They were the lone two Minnesota skaters to surpass 1,000 minutes of action in the regular season with Suter logging 1,309:25 and Brodin 1,044:35.
In that span, Suter saw the red light flicker behind his team’s cage 54 times, Brodin 39. Plug in the goals-against average formula, and Suter’s was a 2.47, Brodin’s 2.24, both better than the team’s collective 2.60 GAA or the 2.48 of top goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
6. Dan Boyle and Matt Irwin
Matt Irwin missed 10 games in his first NHL season. But when available, he was paired with veteran Dan Boyle for the season opener, the regular-season finale, Game 7 of the Sharks’ shortcoming against Los Angeles and much of the time in between.
Interestingly enough, in late February, Inside Hockey columnist Andrew Bensch weighed in on the newfangled duo with the telling headline “Matt Irwin Makes Dan Boyle Better.”
Come what may, Burns and Irwin were easily San Jose’s two stingiest defensemen in terms of goals per minute of action. Boyle led the team with 1,048:42 minutes and saw 34 strikes on his watch for a 1.95 GAA, while Irwin, with 24 goals against in 725:50, gave him exclusive company with a 1.99 GAA.
Among the rest of the team’s regulars in that position, only Marc-Edouard Vlasic came close with a 2.10 GAA coming from 35 setbacks in 999:35.
Boyle and Irwin also tied for first among Sharks blueliners with 16 takeaways apiece.
5. Luke Schenn and Kimmo Timonen
The Philadelphia Flyers renewed Kimmo Timonen’s tenure for another season in February, at which point Luke Schenn had only been working with him for three weeks. Nonetheless, Schenn told USA Today’s Dave Isaac that Timonen is “the guy you turn to for an older presence when things aren’t going your way. He’s consistent.”
Indeed, virtually everything one-half of Philadelphia’s top defensive duo lacks, the other bountifully brings. The 38-year-old Timonen remains a productive puck-mover and playmaker, while the 23-going-on-24-year-old Schenn does all of the basic grunt work of a stay-at-home blueliner’s job description.
Their efforts translated to solid results, considering the situation they were in.
The Flyers tied Buffalo for 22nd on the NHL’s team defense leaderboard with 2.9 goals against per night. Starting goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov finished with a wretched 2.79 GAA.
Timonen: 42 opposing tallies in 979:29 of ice time gave him a 2.57 GAA to finish the year.
Schenn: 47 goals on his watch over 1,027:33 minutes translated to a 2.74 GAA, which easily bested the average Flyer in 2012-13.
In addition, Schenn led Philadelphia with 187 hits (also the most among all NHL blueliners) and 102 blocked shots, while Timonen placed third on the team with 79 blocks. For that, they were rewarded with a tie for the team’s third-best rating at plus-three apiece.
4. Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray
The Anaheim Ducks had no shortage of grizzle and grit at the top of their depth chart with the 33-year-old Francois Beauchemin and 37-year-old Sheldon Souray linked up in late January.
Early on, Beauchemin told the Orange County Register, “I think we’ve been doing a good job against anybody we’ve been playing. It’s been going well. We’re two guys that can be physical and can skate and can contribute on the offensive end too.”
In the same Register report, Souray offered, “I think we like the responsibility. ... I like to think we're both familiar with that part of the game,” meaning the shutdown defensive aspect.
They stayed together for the better part of the balance of the season. One noteworthy exception came in the last two games of the regular season, which came immediately after Souray had sat out a set of back-to-back outings in Edmonton.
Interestingly enough, in the midst of the reporting that Souray would be out against the Oilers, the Edmonton Journal noted his plus-23 rating up to that point. As it happened, when he came back and suddenly stopped taking simultaneous shifts with Beauchemin on even strength, that rating dropped to a plus-19.
Still, that was good enough to tie Beauchemin for the team lead among all skaters and the NHL lead among all blueliners. Concomitant with that display of efficiency, Beauchemin placed No. 10 in the league with 110 blocked shots.
3. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg/Johnny Boychuk
The task of serving as Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara’s blue-line partner has tended to fluctuate between Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Seidenberg. It may depend on the situation and the matchup at hand, but both arrangements usually work well enough.
Seidenberg, though, is the go-to guy when the Bruins are seeking to smother an opposing line in one session. He is the club’s most prolific combined hitter and shot-blocker, as evidenced by the 115 he collected in each category last regular season.
Had he not missed four of the team’s 22 playoff games, he might have led all Boston blueliners under one or both of those headings yet again.
Through the 48-game sprint that was the 2012-13 regular season, the Bruins placed third among all teams with a 2.21 goals-against average. Chara and Seidenberg each personally bested that with 2.11 and 2.19 GAAs, respectively, as they allowed 42 and 40 opposing strikes in more than 1,000 minutes of action apiece.
Boychuk has earned his share of shifts with Chara as well by playing a similar style to Seidenberg. In the 2012-13 regular season, that approach translated to 79 hits, 87 blocks and the third-most shorthanded minutes on the team with 111:04.
2. Drew Doughty and Robyn Regehr
The fact that these two have only been teammates for a short period to date is the chief reason why they are not ranked any higher.
Robyn Regehr started to take at least semi-regular shifts with Drew Doughty when he debuted with the Kings on April 4 against Minnesota. After two months of collaboration, L.A. general manager Dean Lombardi openly sought to extend Regehr so as to cultivate more from this pairing.
As detailed in a May 30 story by Elliott Teaford of the Los Angeles Daily News, everyone involved appreciates the supplementary puzzle pieces of one all-around blueliner and one gritty stay-at-home specialist.
As Teaford wrote, “Regehr is the old-school, hard-nosed veteran and Doughty is the freewheeling youngster with the skills to match.”
Granted, one-quarter of an already shortened season and three rounds of playoff action is not a large sample. But in the homestretch of the regular season, Regehr helped to confine the opposition to eight goals in 255:15 total minutes of ice time, which would translate to a slim 1.88 goals-against average.
Neither Doughty nor Regehr had the most savory transcript at the conclusion of the playoffs, witnessing 16 and 17 opposing goals on their watch, respectively. But the majority of that damage came via a single opponent, the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Doughty was on the ice for eight Chicago goals, Regehr seven in a five-game series. But before that, Regehr limited St. Louis and San Jose to a cumulative 10 strikes and Doughty eight over 13 outings.
1. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook
Shortly after the Blackhawks clinched the Western Conference playoff title, and two weeks before they won the Cup, several players offered Chicago Tribune reporter Brian Hamilton their insights on the symbiotic motivational partnership between Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Seabrook himself told Hamilton that neither half of the unit is hesitant to give the other a verbal kick when necessary. In his words, as relayed by Hamilton, “If Dunc’s having a tough game, I know I can rip on him or tell him to get going, and I know he’s not going to take it to heart. I know he’s going to just think of it as I’m trying to help him, and it goes the same for me.”
That explains a lot as far as what Chicago’s two biggest minute-munchers did to help keep the team on its season-long streamroll.
Keith and Seabrook did not constitute a unit every single night for the 36-7-5 ride through the regular season or the 16-7 run through the playoffs. But they were together at the start of the belated campaign and for the latter half of the postseason, and when that was the case, they did not leave each other room for complacency.
That was a visible motif across the Blackhawks' dressing room, as evidenced by their consistency in the win column from January to June.
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