Ranking the Top 25 Defensive Players in the NHL

Garrett BakerSenior Analyst ISeptember 12, 2013

Ranking the Top 25 Defensive Players in the NHL

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    It is difficult to accurately measure the defensive ability of NHL players, because most statistics only measure offensive achievements like goals and assists.

    But with the advanced metrics wave continuing to grow in hockey circles, certain aspects of defensive aptitude are coming to the forefront.

    Corsi and Fenwick ratings (described here), along with offensive/defense zone faceoff frequency, takeaways, and the old-fashioned eye test combine give a clearer picture of defensive prowess in the NHL.

    This ranking is not about two-way play; offensive skill was not taken into account at all here. These are the 25 best pure defensive players in the NHL right now.

    All Corsi and Fenwick ratings taken from stats.hockeyanalysis.com and behindthenet.ca. Interactive maps of advanced metrics available from somekindofninja.com and Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract

Honorable Mention

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    Victor Hedman and John Carlson: I had a hard time keeping these two off the list. Both have very good defensive qualities but just haven't put it all together quite yet.

    Sean Couturier: He's the best 20-and-under defensive forward in the league. He is one more good year away from being in the top 15 on this list.

    Jason Garrison and Alex Edler: Both are exceptional two-way players who are very capable defensively, but they are helped by their linemates, who are on this list.

    Jay McClement: McClement's a smart and reliable veteran forward who logs tons of penalty-kill minutes but just doesn't make enough of an impact night in and night out to crack the top 25.

    P.K. Subban, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson: I might catch some flak for leaving these three off, but my point remains: Take away their offensive talent, and they become average all-around defensemen.

    Dion Phaneuf: Originally I had him on the list, but after further research I dropped him out. The veteran plays tough minutes but just doesn't make enough of a positive impact when he's on the ice.

    Dave Bolland: Some would argue that his defensive efforts were a major factor in Chicago's success, and they would have a very strong argument, but not strong enough to get him in this top 25.

25. Jonas Brodin

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    Jonas Brodin is already a phenemonal defenseman who is only this low on this list because he hasn't played much yet. The Swede is a great skater with incredible instincts and positioning.

    Plays like these are bound to get people's attention, and he has all the tools to be an elite defenseman in the NHL sooner than many expected. It's hard not to see some Nicklas Lidstrom in his game.

24. Duncan Keith

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    Duncan Keith is an extremely talented defenseman who has been a staple on the Blackhawks' blue line for a long time now. He is known as a good two-way player, but he brings a lot to the table defensively.

    Keith has posted stellar corsi ratings and statistics the past few seasons due to a combination of smooth skating and underrated strength.

    The main reason he is ranked this low is because he benefits from being paired with two defensemen you'll find farther up on the list.

23. Luke Schenn

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    Luke Schenn is often criticized for his lack of offensive skill, but he's very fundamentally sound in his own end. The big, bruising defenseman has really developed into a great defensive player.

    Still just 23 years old, Schenn is always among the league leaders in hits, and he posted huge improvements in his corsi ratings this season. His confidence, positioning and skill are improving with experience.

    He could rise up this list by the end of the 2013-14 season.

22. Ryan O'Reilly

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    Ryan O'Reilly is overshadowed by some talented teammates, but he is the best defensive player on the Avalanche right now because of awesome plays like this

    He works hard every shift and just has that natural defensive instinct and work ethic which give him great corsi and fenwick ratings even while taking a lot of defensive-zone draws.

    This article over at Hockey Prospectus is a great breakdown of just how valuable O'Reilly is.

21. Brooks Orpik

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    On a Pittsburgh team that often needs it, Brooks Orpik has been the steady, physical and defensive-minded presence on the ice for about a decade now.

    He isn't flashy, but his keen defensive instincts and willingness to do some dirty work make him one of the more effective shutdown guys in the league. He's always the Penguins' least sheltered defenseman, yet he still maintains decent fenwick and corsi ratings while logging tough minutes.

20. Niklas Hjalmarsson

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    Niklas Hjalmarsson does not get the credit he deserves on a star-studded Chicago team, but he has pulled his weight defensively in the past two Stanley Cup runs.

    Looking at HockeyAbstract's player usage charts, Hjalmarsson is actually the least sheltered of the Blackhawks' top three defenseman. He excels no matter whom he's paired with, which is what puts him in the top 20 here. He's also one of the best shot-blockers in the league.

19. Brent Seabrook

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    The best defensive defenseman on the reigning Stanley Cup champs, Brent Seabrook has been instrumental in the Blackhawks' resurrection over the past few years.

    Seabrook plays tough minutes every night. Yet he had sensational fenwick numbers in 2013 and 2011 for players who played a significant number of minutes (750 and 1,250).

    He is known for his rough, physical style, but his skating and positioning are key to his success. 

18. Brandon Sutter

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    Brandon Sutter is not the biggest or most skilled player, but at 24 years old he has found his niche as one of the best defensive forwards in the league.

    If you look at the HockeyAbstract player usage chart for the Penguins, you'll see Sutter all the way at the top left of the chart, making him the least sheltered and best shutdown player they have. The hard-nosed center is extremely fast and works like crazy every shift.

17. Kevin Bieksa

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    Kevin Bieksa is a physical, agitating defenseman who can really wear down opponents. He has a powerful frame which he uses to clear traffic and level anyone in his path.

    The veteran is responsible in his own end while logging a ton of big minutes for the Canucks. He can be a little inconsistent, however, which is what keeps him out of the top 15.

16. Marc-Edouard Vlasic

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    Marc-Edouard Vlasic is an understated defenseman who doesn't get the attention he deserves out in San Jose.

    Vlasic doesn't have any flashy or dominating traits, but he is extremely effective, as evidenced by his stellar fenwick and corsi ratings.

    Similar to average-sized defensemen like Nicklas Lidstrom and Kimmo Timonen, Vlasic is always in the right place to make an impact. He has arguably the best positioning in the league, which allows him to control the play without exceptional size or speed.

15. Dan Girardi

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    Dan Girardi vaulted himself into the top 15 on this list by successfully stepping up into a shutdown role for the Rangers over the past two years as a true defensive defenseman.

    Girardi does not have one skill that stands out, but he is extremely tough and does many things well. he blocks a lot of shots, clears traffic from the net, and blankets the best forwards on the other team every single night.

14. Kimmo Timonen

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    Kimmo Timonen is the most underappreciated defenseman in the NHL and has been for almost a decade now. The quiet leader of the Flyers has been the backbone of the organization since arriving in Philadelphia in 2007.

    The undersized Finland native is incredibly smart and has good body positioning and stick usage. He logs huge minutes and still has positive corsi ratings every season, which deservedly makes him a top-15 defensive player in the NHL.

13. Jonathan Toews

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    Jonathan Toews is lauded for many things, and one of those is his exceptional defensive ability. He plays against other teams' stars every night and usually gets the better of them.

    Toews fore-checks, back-checks, works along the boards, and is responsible in his own zone.

    His natural ability is equaled only by his own effort, which is a recipe for the great corsi ratings that he produces each year while playing a ton of big minutes.

12. Francois Beauchemin

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    Francois Beauchemin struggled a little in Toronto, and since he was traded to Anaheim in 2011 he has really stayed under the radar.

    But the veteran defenseman remains one of the best defensive players in the league.

    It was nice to see him finally get a little publicity this past season for what was really a phenomenal campaign. His advanced metrics prove what can be seen on the ice: He's a tough, steady, smart and effective defenseman who makes his team better when he's on the ice.

11. Patrice Bergeron

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    Some people claim that the Patrice Bergeron love has gone a little too far, but many others (including myself) feel it is just long overdue. 

    If you look at Robert Vollman's maps, it is obvious that Bergeron is a very efficient defensive player who isn't sheltered with offensive zone draws. His all-out effort and scrappy style are enviable, although he just doesn't make quite the direct impact on the ice that the top 10 defensive players do.

10. Dan Hamhuis

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    On a Vancouver defense full of excellent talent, Dan Hamhuis stands out as the best pure defensive player. The 30-year-old is a quiet, understated guy both on and off the ice, but he is remarkably effective at his job.

    He is a calming presence on the blue line, a veteran who is smart, instinctive, and uses great positioning to often completely erase a team's offensive rush.

    He is often portrayed extremely favorably in the advanced stats world, which gives him the edge on the 15 guys behind him.

9. Oliver Ekman-Larsson

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    Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a superbly talented defenseman who has become one of the premier shutdown guys in the league. At just 22 years old, Ekman-Larsson plays like a seasoned veteran.

    His skating ability is his most impressive talent, although his strength and hitting ability should not be taken lightly. His positioning and stick work are already fantastic, and he can battle with almost any forward in the league.

    Don't be surprised if he's in the top-five conversation by the end of the season.

8. Marc Staal

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    After missing the first half of the 2011-12 season and then the second half of the 2013 season, Marc Staal has become a little bit forgotten amongst New York's talented blue line.

    But Staal is apparently feeling good for this upcoming season, and he is still one of the premiere defenders in the league. Few players are as strong along the boards or in front of the net, and Staal's shot-blocking and big-hitting ability push him into the top 10.

7. Pavel Datsyuk

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    Pavel Datsyuk is the best defensive forward and one of the best defensive players in the entire NHL. The three-time Selke Trophy winner is an unbelievable skater with an off-the-charts hockey IQ and deadly stick skills. 

    He was voted the "smartest player" and "most difficult player to play against" in a 2011-12 players poll, which is just part of why he lands this high on my list. Watching him play is truly like watching a magician at work.

    Watch this sequence for a sample of Datsyuk's impact. The goal is nice at the end, but he first back-checked all the way behind his own goal and leveled Johnny Boychuk to start the rush. Also skip ahead to 1:06 to see his unbelievable steal and move in his own zone.

6. Ryan McDonagh

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    Ryan McDonagh is the most underrated defenseman in the league right now because his style of play does not show up on highlight reels.

    McDonagh played in all 82 games of the 2011-12 season, spending much of it paired with Dan Girardi on the top line and emerging as a premier shutdown player.

    He stepped up even more in 2013, proving himself an elite defenseman with his flawless fundamentals and exceptional skating ability.

5. Drew Doughty

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    Drew Doughty broke into the league in 2008 and became known for his two-way game and big hits, but the Kings needed him to play a more defensive role after his second season.

    He embraced the role of the shutdown player, and his natural talent is incredible. He is a tremendous blend of strength, skill, quickness and that aggressive style which carried the Kings to a Stanley Cup victory and ultimately gets him in the top five.

4. Ryan Suter

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    Ryan Suter was sensational in his first season with the Minnesota Wild. He proved he could be an elite defenseman even when he wasn't paired with Shea Weber.

    Any hockey fan will appreciate the main video here, which shows clips of how Suter uses sharp instincts, swift skating and underrated strength on the puck to shut down opponents' top forwards.

    He carried Minnesota's improved defense while playing more than 27 minutes a night in 2013.

3. Alex Pietrangelo

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    St. Louis fans have to be getting progressively more worried that the Blues and Alex Pietrangelo have yet to reach terms on a new contract with the season almost underway.

    Pietrangelo has molded into a true No. 1 defenseman already at 23 years of age. He does so many things in his own zone at a high level, which is supported by every advanced and normal statistic available. 

2. Shea Weber

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    Shea Weber is a tremendous defenseman who is a powerful presence in his own zone. Weber does not get enough credit for his intelligence and positioning, which allows him to anticipate the play and uses his incredible strength on the puck.

    The veteran captain has essentially carried Nashville over the past few years with his incredible physical defensive play, and his corsi stats have been among the very tops in the league.

1. Zdeno Chara

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    Zdeno Chara remains the most intimidating defensive presence in the NHL even at age 36. He is a towering presence who uses his size to his advantage.

    With his strength and reach, Chara can out-muscle anyone in the league or strip them from a distance.

    But it is his skating ability and hockey IQ that make him so dominating and deserving of the top spot.

    Check out previous top 25 rankings on the hardest hitters, most one-dimensional scorers and best franchise cornerstones in the NHL.