While goals put fans in the seats, preventing them puts Stanley Cup banners in the rafters. Last season the Chicago Blackhawks were the stingiest defensive team in the NHL, giving up only 2.02 goals per game.
It's no coincidence that they went on to win the Cup.
In 2011-12, the Los Angeles Kings were the second-best defensive squad in hockey, giving up only 2.07 goals per game. They too have a championship banner to show for their commitment to detail in their own end.
The Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks were the two best defensive teams in 2010-11, and would eventually meet in the Stanley Cup Final.
You get the picture: In the NHL, preventing goals is more important than scoring them. A balance is needed of course, but success begins in your own end. And that success comes from building a strong contingent of competent defenders that can move the puck up ice while defending the house.
This isn't a listing for fantasy hockey. We aren't going to treat the defensive position like the Professional Hockey Writers' Association does every year when it awards the Norris Trophy to the blueliner who accumulated the most points.
To that point, this isn't a guess as to who will score the most. The purpose is to rank the guys who give their teams the best chance to win on a nightly basis through their contributions at both ends of the ice.
The separation between the sixth-best defender here and the 17th-best is small. If you think a player shoulder be moved up 10 or 11 spots, odds are he could be.
50. Travis Hamonic - New York Islanders: One of the most underrated defenders in the NHL, Hamonic will be a rock for the Islanders for the next seven years after signing a ridiculously cap-friendly extension this summer.
49. Cody Franson - Toronto Maple Leafs: Contract negotiations aside, Franson really came on for the Leafs in 2013 and was a central cog for the team as it returned to the playoffs.
48. Christian Ehrhoff - Buffalo Sabres: Little question remains about Ehrhoff's ability to move the puck up ice. He's become more dependable in his own zone, though, and was one of only a few Sabres to finish 2013 with a plus-rating while playing massive amounts of minutes for the team.
47. Mark Streit - Philadelphia Flyers: Streit was the man with the New York Islanders, with no one really pushing him for power-play time. He's in a timeshare with Kimmo Timonen now, and the Flyers will be looking for more out of him in his own zone.
46. Sergei Gonchar - Dallas Stars: After several injury-plagued campaigns, Gonchar has managed to remain relatively healthy over the last two seasons. He'll be an important part of the blue line for the Stars as they continue to rebuild on the fly.
45. Fedor Tyutin - Columbus Blue Jackets: Another criminally underrated offensive-defenseman, Tyutin has scored at least 25 points a season since 2008. He can be a bit of a liability in his own zone, but he's a slick puck-mover who has kept the Jackets going through a multitude of changes.
44. Marc Staal - New York Rangers: The Rangers have several representatives on this list, and they all seem to be cut from the same cloth. Staal is a rough-and-tumble defenseman who will do whatever it takes to win. He can hit, block shots and can find the scoresheet on occasion.
43. James Wisniewski - Columbus Blue Jackets: Few players have faced more issues over the last few years than Wisniewski. He has the tools to be a top-25 defenseman, but always seems to get derailed by injuries or suspensions. 2013-14 will be an important year for him and his massive contract.
42. Matt Carle - Tampa Bay Lightning: No one is going to confuse the Lightning for the Boston Bruins defensively, but any positive movement forward will be through Carle and Victor Hedman.
41. Mark Giordano - Calgary Flames: The newly anointed captain of the Flames, Giordano is a strong puck-moving defenseman who knows how to play in his own zone. He's managed to maintain single-digit minus ratings on some soft Flames teams, indicating his solid play from his own blue line in.
40. Zach Bogosian - Winnipeg Jets: With a seven-year, $36 million contract, the Jets made a big commitment to Bogosian. They expect him to be better moving forward, and if he can begin to cash in on his considerable potential, he could move up this list over the next few years.
39. Roman Josi - Nashville Predators: The heir apparent to Ryan Suter's mantle in Nashville, Josi took on a ton of responsibility for the Predators in 2013. Where other youngsters had buckled, the Swiss native stood tall and played a lot of important minutes while posting 18 points in 48 games.
38. Victor Hedman - Tampa Bay Lightning: The No. 2 overall selection from 2009 has quietly grown into one of the most indomitable defensemen in the NHL. Hedman puts up solid plus-minus ratings despite playing on a porous Lightning team, and posts some points in the process.
37. Justin Schultz - Edmonton Oilers: Power-play QB extraordinaire, Schultz has the offensive tools to finish among the league leaders in offensive output from the back end. His defense still needs work as indicated by his minus-17 last season, but he's only 23 and will be the engine powering one of the best power-play units for years to come.
36. Dan Hamhuis - Vancouver Canucks: Hamhuis has played nine seasons in the NHL and has never posted fewer than 20 points. He has 30-plus-point upside and has put up some massively positive plus-minus totals since joining the Canucks in 2010. He will fit in well with John Tortorella's new defensive schemes.
35. Tobias Enstrom - Winnipeg Jets: Like Fedor Tyutin with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Enstrom is tasked with moving the puck up the ice in a hurry for the Winnipeg Jets. He's capable of scoring 50 points in a season, and typically isn't too bad in his own zone either.
34. Alex Edler - Vancouver Canucks: Has fully rebounded from an injury-wracked 2010-11 season to only miss three games over the last two years. Edler is an outstanding option on the power play and has a knack for joining the rush at the right times.
33. Michael Del Zotto - New York Rangers: Del Zotto has always been capable of putting up points. The 23-year-old Stouffville, Ontario native has 110 across 250 games played, but recently has started to become much more responsible in his own end as well. As he becomes stronger on the defensive side of the puck, his overall rating will only continue to increase.
32. Jack Johnson - Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets technically traded for Johnson two years ago, but he's yet to play a total of 82 games total for the club. 2013-14 will be his first full year in Columbus, and merely getting fully acclimated should do wonders for his overall game.
31. Andrei Markov - Montreal Canadiens: Few players in the NHL are more injury-prone than Markov at this point. After three straight injury-filled seasons, he managed to stay totally healthy for the Canadiens in 2013 and was a strong contributor from the back end on a nightly basis as he compiled 30 points in 48 games.
30. John Carlson - Washington Capitals: Another underrated young defenseman, Carlson was only two blocked shots behind the much more heralded Dan Girardi for the NHL's lead in that category in 2013. He would have been on pace for his third consecutive 30-plus-point season had the lockout not truncated the year, making Carlson one of the better two-way defenders under 25 in the league.
29. Dennis Seidenberg - Boston Bruins: Averaging more than 23 minutes a game in 2013, Seidenberg is one of the defensive workhorses who maintains the blue line for the Bruins. He's the kind of player who will do whatever it takes to win, including playing under the massive shadow that Zdeno Chara casts.
28. Mike Green - Washington Capitals: Once one of the most offensively productive defensemen in the NHL, Green's once-promising career was stunted by injuries. He didn't shake the injury bug in 2013, and hasn't played a full 82-game season since 2007-08. When Green is healthy, he's capable of doing a lot of damage from the blue line, but he just misses too much time to be ranked any higher on this list.
27. Kevin Shattenkirk - St. Louis Blues: If you ask most fans to name an outstanding young defenseman on the St. Louis Blues, they'll almost certainly respond with "Alex Pietrangelo." While Pietrangelo is an outstanding player, Shattenkirk has quietly become a steady two-way performer for the Blues since arriving in 2010. He hasn't been a minus player for St. Louis yet, and is capable of posting 40 points in a season.
26. Kimmo Timonen - Philadelphia Flyers: Arguably the most important member of the Philadelphia Flyers, Timonen makes the all-important power play tick with his slick passing and outstanding vision. He's no slouch in his own end either, and has only been a minus-player once since becoming a Flyer for the 2007-08 season.
25. Kevin Bieksa - Vancouver Canucks: Much has been made about the John Tortorella effect in Vancouver. One of the players who could benefit is Bieksa, who is a guy who is willing to lay it all out on the line to secure victories. He probably won't see a career high in points, but could round into an outstanding all-around defender for Torts if the two don't butt heads.
24. Paul Martin - Pittsburgh Penguins: It's tough to get attention as a Pittsburgh Penguin. On a team so loaded, a guy like Martin isn't going to get much of the spotlight, but that doesn't mean he's not one of the top 25 defenders in the NHL. He's defensively capable of taking care of business in his own end and is a seasonal lock for at least 25 points.
23. Jay Bouwmeester - St. Louis Blues: Many pundits were surprised when the Blues decided to lock up Bouwmeester before Alex Pietrangelo. St. Louis knew what it was doing, though, and managed to lock up one of the best defensive corps in the NHL after inking both to deals this summer. Bouwmeester is a minute-munching defender who tends to make his partner look better out on the ice.
22. Dustin Byfuglien - Winnipeg Jets: As Big Buff goes, the Jets will go. He's the most important player on this team and is capable of topping the league lead in points for defensemen when he's applying himself. He came to camp looking trim and is busting his hump during drills and practices. That bodes well for Winnipeg's playoff hopes.
21. Dan Boyle - San Jose Sharks: An oldie but a goody. It's still a joy to watch Boyle move up and down the ice. He can be a risk taker, jumping into the offensive play more often than not, but he can finish just like a forward. Despite being 37, he's still one of the premier offensive-defensemen in the league.
20. Slava Voynov - Los Angeles Kings: Emerging as one of the best young offensive-defensemen in the game today, Voynov has taken over the power play for the Kings entirely. Not just a one-trick pony, the Russian defender also pays close attention to what's going on in his own zone and plays well inside of the defensive system that the Kings have in place.
19. Brian Campbell - Florida Panthers: One of the smoothest skaters in all of hockey, Brian Campbell will play an important role for the Panthers as their offensive cavalry arrives in the form of youngsters like Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. He plays more like a forward than a defender and is never going to win a Norris Trophy, but his role in the offensive zone is impossible to downplay.
18. Jonas Brodin - Minnesota Wild: When rookies take the NHL by storm, it's usually on an offensive level. Rarely do teenagers impress with their level-headed play and rock-solid stay-at-home style, but Brodin did just that for the Wild last season. He surprised many when he managed to stick on a pairing with Ryan Suter, and together they are one of the more formidable duos in the NHL.
17. Keith Yandle - Phoenix Coyotes: We could have Yandle too low here. By the time 2013-14 is done, he could be viewed as a no-brainer and one of the 10 best defensemen in the NHL. He's outstanding in all three zones, plays with a lot of hustle and will have every opportunity in the world to produce points for a Coyotes team that will take them from anywhere it can.
16: Francois Beauchemin - Anaheim Ducks: Beauchemin has been an absolute anchor for the Ducks during his second tenure in Anaheim. He's the kind of defenseman who can change the outcome of a game by playing a truckload of minutes while rarely making mistakes. He'll play more than 23 minutes a game and is capable of producing offense from the back end when given the opening.
15. Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Phoenix Coyotes: We're bullish on OEL and like his chances of establishing himself as one of the top young defensemen in the league in 2013-14. The Swede just turned 22, but plays with a maturity well beyond his years and can score points just as well as he prevents them. As Ekman-Larsson rounds out his defensive game, he could become a top-10 defender in the league.
14. Dion Phaneuf - Toronto Maple Leafs: Few jobs in the world will make you more of a lightning rod for criticism than being captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Phaneuf handles the gig with aplomb, though, and can turn the tide of a game through various means. He's one of the hardest hitters around, is outstanding at getting his shots through traffic and typically isn't very fun to play against.
13. Dan Girardi - New York Rangers: Girardi led the NHL in blocked shots last season and plays with a contagious never-say-die attitude. He's borderline reckless with his body and couldn't care less about the pain that befalls him. Aside from providing a ton of intangibles, he's also good for 30 points while playing responsibly with the puck in his own end.
12. Ryan McDonagh - New York Rangers: Rounding out New York's strong showing among our top 50 is McDonagh. They say there's no such thing as a free lunch, but that's pretty much what the Rangers received from the Canadiens in exchange for Scott Gomez. Coming the other way in that deal was McDonagh, who has since evolved into one of the most reliable two-way defenders in the NHL.
11. Alex Pietrangelo - St. Louis Blues: It's tough to leave Pietrangelo outside of our top 10, but we're worried that missing so much of training camp could slow him down a bit to open the year. Still, he's one of the most prolific passers in the NHL these days, and is a big part of St. Louis' Stanley Cup aspirations this season.
10. Brent Seabrook - Chicago Blackhawks: Already the owner of two Stanley Cup rings, Seabrook is one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL. He's had one minus season with the Chicago Blackhawks (back in 2006-07) and is one of the most sturdy top-end players around. Seabrook has only missed 10 games over the last seven seasons, making him one of the league's true iron men. Tack on his ability to produce upwards of 40 points from the blue line, and you have a true top-10 defender with Seabrook.
9. Niklas Kronwall - Detroit Red Wings: Adjusting to life without Nicklas Lidstrom was never going to be easy for the Red Wings, but the transition would have been downright hellacious if not for the steady presence of Kronwall on the blue line. Known in passing for his massive body checks, Kronwall has reeled it in over the last few seasons and become one of the toughest one-on-one players in the league.
8. Drew Doughty - Los Angeles Kings: Franchise defensemen are tough to come by, but the Kings have a damn good one in Doughty. He could have broken the 40-point barrier for the third time in his young career had 2013 been full length, and Doughty only continues to improve the defensive aspects of his stellar game.
7. Kris Letang - Pittsburgh Penguins: Few players seem to be able to do more with less than Letang. He's injured often, yet when he's out on the ice there may not be a more dynamic offensive force from the back end than Letang. He's never passing the puck to anyone who doesn't have the ability to score, which boosts his assist totals to asinine heights. Letang still has to see the players hit their holes, though, and his ability to hit streaking forward in stride from massive distances is second to none.
6. P.K. Subban - Montreal Canadiens: The defending Norris Trophy winner sliding to No. 6 on our list is no slight to him and his capabilities. We just feel that one lockout-shortened campaign does not suddenly catapult Subban to the head of the class. With an equally strong 2013-14, he could very well end up there—and we're curious to see how he and his Canadiens perform after shattering all expectations in 2013.
5. Ryan Suter - Minnesota Wild: No player in the league averaged more ice time per game in 2013 than Suter. He was out there for more than 27 minutes a night, meaning that the opposition's top six were almost certainly going to be facing him down on every shift. Now that he's settled into Minnesota's systems, we expect even bigger things from Suter in 2013-14.
4. Erik Karlsson - Ottawa Senators: The only question mark for Karlsson is his Achilles tendon. If it's healed up, or he's learned to work around it, there isn't a defenseman capable of putting up as many points as the smooth-skating Swede. 80 points is an insane ceiling for a blueliner, and Karlsson is a top-five defender in the league because of it.
3. Duncan Keith - Chicago Blackhawks: The backbone of two Chicago Cup-winning teams, Duncan Keith reminds us a bit of Nicklas Lidstrom. You rarely notice him when he's out on the ice because he very rarely makes mistakes. There are few players we'd rather have back on a two-on-one, and there are few players we'd rather have making the first pass out of the zone. That's a special player.
2. Shea Weber - Nashville Predators: It's tough to adjust when a defensive partner like Ryan Suter is no longer at your side. Weber has had a truncated season to learn to play without his once-wingman, however, and we think he's poised for a massive 2013-14. Much was made about his early-season struggles, yet no one seemed to notice when Weber started to turn his game around during the last 30 games or so.
1. Zdeno Chara - Boston Bruins: There's no more indomitable presence on the blue line than Chara. He's the nucleus around which these "Big and Bad" Bruins have been built, and he plays with an attitude on a nightly basis. He can score, hit and pass with the best of them and is the top defensemen in the NHL at this stage of his career.