While goalies and defensemen obviously have the greater responsibility in preventing scoring, the best defensive forwards can make all the difference. For example, take last year's Eastern Conference Finals when the key to Boston's victory was how their solid defensive forwards helped to completely shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
While not every team is loaded with forwards who excel in their own zone like the Bruins, each franchise has one front-line player who stands above his teammates when it comes to handling defensive duties. Can some recent analytics help find them?
In the days of Bob Gainey we relied purely on reputation to find the league's top players. With today's analytics, which players defensive reputations will be confirmed and which new defensive gems can be found?
Most frequent opponents: stats.hockeyanalysis.com
Offensive zone starts, quality of competition: www.behindthenet.ca
Both sources draw directly from the NHL game files.
All other advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
Quality of Competition: 2nd highest among Ducks forwards
Top Opponents: Loui Eriksson, Jeff Carter, Patrick Kane, Jordan Eberle
Offensive Zone Starts: Bottom three of team's forwards every year
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 45.7 percent
One reason for Anaheim's struggles in 2011-12 was that the lack of forward depth forced Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf to handle all the tough defensive assignments. Despite handling them brilliantly, it left little time for them to focus on generating scoring of their own.
Fortunately the arrival of Daniel Winnik helped change things, as he achieved instant chemistry with Andrew Cogliano and Saku Koivu on potentially the league's best checking line.
In a fashion reminiscent of their famous Nothing Line of years ago (Rob Niedermayer, Sami Pahlsson and Travis Moen), Anaheim's new checking line took on enough of the defensive load that their top stars could bounce back to their normal scoring totals.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Bruins forwards three of past five seasons
Top Opponents: Martin St. Louis, Jason Pominville, Daniel Alfredsson, Claude Giroux
Offensive Zone Starts: Second to fourth lowest among Bruins forwards every year
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 35.2 percent
Patrice Bergeron is arguably the league's best defensive forward on potentially the league's best defensive team. He gets the most ice time—against the toughest opponents and often in his own end—and yet the Bruins continue to dominate whenever he's on the ice.
Bergeron won the Selke award as the league's best defensive forward in 2011-12, was probably the wiser choice last season and probably the favorite to win it this year.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Sabres forwards last year, top-four last three seasons in Dallas
Top Opponents: Tyler Seguin, Phil Kessel, Martin St. Louis
Offensive Zone Starts: Lowest among Sabres forwards last year, bottom-three two of last three seasons in Dallas
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 28.0 percent
Buffalo Sabres co-captain Steve Ott is typically the player called upon when protecting a late-game lead or in an otherwise difficult defensive situation.
Acquired from Dallas along with Adam Pardy in the Derek Roy deal, Ott quickly became popular for his incredible work ethic and dedication.
If there's a flaw in Ott's defensive game, it's that he takes a few too many penalties in his quest to shut down top opponents.
Quality of Competition: Top three among Flames forwards for second straight season
Top Opponents: Henrik Sedin, Joe Pavelski, Jordan Eberle, Corey Perry
Offensive Zone Starts: Typically deployed offensively
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 34.3 percent
When dealing away several of their big names recently, the Calgary Flames were careful to hang on to their best two-way player: Curtis Glencross.
Not only is Glencross the team's best defensive forward, both at even strength and when killing penalties, but arguably also their best offensively. Though he missed the final few games with a leg injury, Glencross still managed to lead the Calgary Flames in goals last season (15).
In the middle of a four-year, $10.2 million deal, Glencross is certainly one of the league's best bargains.
Quality of Competition: Highest among team's forwards four years in a row
Top Opponents: Steven Stamkos, Alexander Ovechkin, Evander Kane, Mike Ribeiro
Offensive Zone Starts: Lowest among Carolina forwards last year, among bottom four every year in Pittsburgh
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 47.6 percent
There are several types of defensive forwards, and when considering those who consistently play the team's very toughest minutes, against the top opponents, in the defensive zone and in penalty-killing situations, Jordan Staal has been the league's best.
Staal's talent is neutralizing the disadvantage those types of situations would normally cause for his teams. Add in the additional offense that the 2010 Selke finalist provides, and it's no wonder that his annual $6.0 million cap hit (for the next 10 seasons) is rarely called into question.
Quality of Competition: Top five among Hawks forwards four years in a row
Top Opponents: David Backes, Pavel Datsyuk
Offensive Zone Starts: Typically deployed offensively
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 27.2 percent
While it was great that Jonathan Toews' defensive talents were recognized with the Selke award last year, he probably isn't the league's very best defensive forward. Though he is certainly Chicago's best, Toews doesn't carry the same defensive load as the top stars on some other teams.
Historically Dave Bolland was the team's top defensive specialist up front, but he was already starting to get transitioned into a more offensive role last season before being dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Quality of Competition: Highest among team's forwards for second time in three seasons
Top Opponents: Taylor Hall, Joe Thornton
Offensive Zone Starts: Varies, but second lowest among team's forwards last year
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 22.9 percent
The Colorado Avalanche have several solid two-way forwards, including Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly, but these days the lion's share of the tough minutes rest slightly more on Paul Stastny's capable shoulders.
The combination of his steep $6.6 million cap hit and his declining offensive numbers has led to a decline in his popularity with the team's fans. The new coaching situation in Colorado could provide Stastny with the opportunities he needs for his tremendous two-way talent to win them back.
Quality of Competition: Top three among team's forwards last three seasons in New York
Top Opponents: Patrick Kane, Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar
Offensive Zone Starts: Fourth lowest in two of last three seasons in New York
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 29.4 percent
Acquired along with Artem Anisimov and others from the New York Rangers in the Rick Nash deal last offseason, Brandon Dubinsky's all-around, do-it-all talents offered Columbus a variety of options in how he could be used.
Though he wasn't used most frequently in a defensive fashion last season, Dubinsky was a key go-to shutdown forward when he was in New York. It may be only a matter of time before Columbus starts leaning on him in that fashion as well.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Oiler forwards in three seasons previous to last year
Top Opponents: Patrick Marleau, Mike Cammalleri
Offensive Zone Starts: Among the fourth lowest on the team in four of past five seasons
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 39.8 percent
Though it's hard to imagine Edmonton's defensive situation being any worse these past few years, it very well may have been without veteran Shawn Horcoff. His 17-game absence last season gave Oilers fans a glimpse of his actual value to his team.
Unfortunately his age (35), steep cap hit ($5.5 million) and lack of offense forced Edmonton to go a different direction this season, and he was dealt to the rebuilt Dallas Stars for Philip Larsen and a draft pick.
Horcoff won't be handling the defensive burden alone in the Lone Star State. Dallas has other strong defensive players, including most notably Vern Fiddler.
Quality of Competition: Top three among team's forwards for third consecutive season
Top Opponents: Jonathan Toews, Matt Duchene, Anze Kopitar
Offensive Zone Starts: Varies from second to sixth lowest among team's forwards
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 18.9 percent
Some slides seem easy but with fine defensive forwards like Henrik Zetterberg and now newcomers Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss, they're actually not.
Despite all the incredible talent at coach Mike Babcock's disposal, everybody still knows that Datsyuk will be the one handling the toughest defensive situations. Except oddly enough when killing penalties, where he isn't one of the team's primary options.
Datsyuk certainly has one of the league's most devoted fanbases, so words must be chosen carefully when suggesting the multitime Selke award winner is currently merely among many greats and no longer the greatest.
Quality of Competition: Top four among Phoenix forwards for second consecutive season
Top Opponents: Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews, Jordan Eberle
Offensive Zone Starts: Lowest among team's forwards two consecutive seasons
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 45.7 percent
The Oilers have a dominant young offense just ready to explode, but have been held back by weakness in their secondary lines. Leads are useless if they can't be consistently held, which is why Edmonton opened their wallets wide to sign unrestricted free agent Boyd Gordon this offseason.
The lack of proven shutdown players to occupy his wings shouldn't be anything new to Gordon, who quietly centered one of the league's best checking lines last year in Phoenix with Rob Klinkhammer and David Moss. He was just the player Edmonton needed, even at that high price.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Panther forwards for second consecutive season
Top Opponents: Andrew Ladd, Steven Stamkos, Derek Stepan
Offensive Zone Starts: Varies from second to fifth lowest among team's forwards
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 30.9 percent
With a cap hit of just $1.7 million per season, Marcel Goc is one of the most affordable shutdown forwards in the game.
Together with Sean Bergenheim, Florida has two forwards capable of facing up against the league's top players and neutralizing their offensive abilities.
Not only does this take pressure off top players like Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg, but it also allows their young superstars like Jonathan Huberdeau, Drew Shore and Aleksander Barkov easier ice time to exploit with their tremendous offensive talents.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Kings forwards in 2012-13
Top Opponents: Jamie Benn, Corey Perry, Zach Parise, Patrick Marleau, Henrik Zetterberg
Offensive Zone Starts: Typically deployed offensively
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 29.0 percent
Anze Kopitar is one of the league's very best complete two-way forwards—and a perennial Selke oversight.
Los Angeles is home to a number of great shutdown forwards, including most notably Mike Richards and with Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter not far behind.
It is nevertheless Kopitar who consistently handles the toughest situations and judging from the miserly rate at which the Kings allow goals, he handles them exceptionally well.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Wild forwards in 2011-12, otherwise varies from fifth to eighth
Top Opponents: Jordan Eberle, Matt Duchene, Jaromir Jagr
Offensive Zone Starts: Remarkably below 40 percent in four of past five seasons
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 37.4 percent
Anyone who was expecting Mikko Koivu or Zach Parise as Minnesota's top shutdown forward might get thrown for a loop to see Kyle Brodziak selected instead.
Despite the fact that Koivu and Parise are both excellent two-way forwards, the Wild need them primarily for their offensive talents and are therefore not used in as defensive-minded a fashion as their gifts would normally allow.
Brodziak, in contrast, has been used almost exclusively in a defensive capacity for years. Recently he's even been promoted to relieve Koivu and Parise of the burden of facing all the top line players.
This season Brodziak's heavy load will be shared by Matt Cooke, who played a very similar role in Pittsburgh, but perhaps with a grittier edge.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Canadiens forwards in two of past three seasons
Top Opponents: David Krejci, Steven Stamkos, Jason Pominville, Phil Kessel, Alexander Ovechkin
Offensive Zone Starts: Usually varies between fifth and eighth lowest on the team, but was high last year
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 37.9 percent
With five consecutive 20-goal seasons through 2010-11 while leading the Montreal Canadiens in overall scoring in the final two, Tomas Plekanec has received praise for his offensive play, but it's potentially his defensive play that has offered the greatest value.
The 30-year-old Czech center, who turns 31 later this month, is in the middle of a six-year deal that carries a cap hit of $5 million per season. While not a bargain, plenty of times are paying more for a two-way forward on their top lines.
Quality of Competition: Fifth among Predators forwards. Used to be top two every year
Top Opponents: Patrick Kane, Pavel Datsyuk
Offensive Zone Starts: Third or fourth lowest among team's forwards in three of past five seasons
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 31.4 percent
The Nashville Predators have spared absolutely no expensive picking up a number of strong defensive forwards over the years, like Mike Fisher, Paul Gaustad and most recently Eric Nystrom. However, their go-to guy remains their franchise's first-ever entry draft selection: David Legwand.
While these new faces have taken off much of the load that used to be placed more exclusively on Legwand's shoulders, he's still effective in shutting down top opponents, both at even strength and while killing penalties.
Quality of Competition: Fifth and sixth among New Jersey forwards in his first two seasons, respectively
Top Opponents: Claude Giroux, Brad Richards, Nazem Kadri, Andrew Ladd
Offensive Zone Starts: Second and third lowest among New Jersey forwards in his first two seasons, respectively
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 33.8 percent
It's quite unusual to have such a young and inexperienced player as a team's top shutdown forward, especially such a strong defensive team that includes higher-profile names like Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus, but perhaps Adam Henrique is an unusual guy.
Whether it was the 2011-12 Stanley Cup finalist season or last year's disappointment, coach Peter DeBoer hasn't been shy about using his young pivot in key situations against top opponents and while killing penalties. If this continues, Henrique could easily evolve into one of the game's better two-way forwards.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Isles forwards last year, second in 2011-12
Top Opponents: Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux
Offensive Zone Starts: Varies from third to sixth lowest among team's forwards
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 39.2 percent
Frans Nielsen is potentially the league's most undervalued player. He wins faceoffs, plays against top opponents, handles defensive-zone assignments, kills penalties, draws penalties and scores in the shootout. He does this without big-name linemates—and with a cap hit of just $2.75 million per season.
John Tavares may get the greater share of the press for his outstanding offensive play, but it's the strong defensive play of guys like Nielsen that provide Tavares with such opportunities. A return to the postseason may rest almost as much on Nielsen's success this season as Tavares.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Ranger forwards in two of past three seasons
Top Opponents: Claude Giroux, Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane
Offensive Zone Starts: Relatively balanced/average
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 37.9 percent
Ryan Callahan is your prototypical do-it-all player. He throws hits, kills penalties and shuts down the team's top opponents any which way he can. He's also a fantastic character player known for his great work ethic.
The full value of players like Callahan, as well as Derek Dorsett and Brian Boyle, may very well be tapped by new coach Alain Vigneault. In Vancouver, Vigneault was able to make Art Ross and Hart Trophy winners out of the Sedin twins by leveraging the defensive talents of players like these to open up the ice for them. Callahan could do the same in New York for Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, etc.
Quality of Competition: Relatively average
Top Opponents: Phil Kessel, Rich Peverley, Cody Hodgson
Offensive Zone Starts: Fifth lowest among team's forwards
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 40.5 percent
The Ottawa Senators are one of the handful of teams that don't necessarily have a single shutdown forward for every situation. If it's a penalty-killing situation, however, they will generally turn to young winger Erik Condra.
At even strength Condra is used more typically, though still in a predominantly defensive capacity. There's nevertheless an opening in Ottawa for someone to step up and be their top shutdown forward, and it's a role that Condra could easily move into as he matures.
Quality of Competition: Second highest among Flyers forwards last year, fifth in his rookie year
Top Opponents: Rick Nash, Alexander Semin, John Tavares, Evgeni Malkin
Offensive Zone Starts: Lowest and second lowest among team's forwards in his first two seasons, respectively
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 42.4 percent
Drafted with the pick acquired in the trade with Columbus that sent Jeff Carter away in exchange for Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier was selected eighth overall in 2011. Almost immediately Couturier was trusted in the toughest situations in the defensive zone, against top players or while killing penalties.
The son of short-time Los Angeles King Sylvain Couturier, Couturier was highly decorated in the QMJHL for his solid play at both ends of the ice. While his offensive game is yet to explode, his defensive game has been on display since his first game.
Quality of Competition: Second among Phoenix forwards, breaking a string of four consecutive seasons on top
Top Opponents: Anze Kopitar, Jaromir Jagr, Jamie Benn, Patrick Kane, Zach Parise
Offensive Zone Starts: Has been used more and more offensively over the years
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 33.9 percent
The Phoenix Coyotes have been successful despite talent-thin rosters for years (until last season, at least), and part of the reason is players like Martin Hanzal.
Though the Phoenix Coyotes had Antoine Vermette at their disposal last year, not to mention a great checking line in Boyd Gordon, Rob Klinkhammer and David Moss, the very toughest assignments were generally reserved for Hanzal.
A highly underrated talent, Hanzal has been shutting down opponents for years, both at even strength and on the penalty kill, and yet still produces about a point every other game.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Penguins forwards last year, top three his final three seasons in Carolina
Top Opponents: John Tavares, Brad Richards, Tomas Plekanec, Vincent Lecavalier
Offensive Zone Starts: Lowest among his team's forwards for second consecutive year
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 38.4 percent
Acquired from Carolina along with a prospect and a pick for Jordan Staal, Brandon Sutter was the top defensive force up front on an otherwise offense-focused team.
Though certainly no Staal, Sutter is nevertheless an effective shutdown center who can kill penalties and help protect the late leads that teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin help generate. A player of at least Sutter's caliber is essentially a must for a team like Pittsburgh.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Blues forwards for third consecutive seasons
Top Opponents: Henrik Zetterberg, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Loui Eriksson
Offensive Zone Starts: Second lowest among Blues forwards for second consecutive seasons
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 32.1 percent
A Selke finalist in 2011-12, St. Louis captain David Backes is one of the league's very best two-way forwards. A two-time 30-goal scorer, Backes led the Blues in overall scoring in both 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Defensively Backes is the go-to shutdown player on a team with lots of strong options, including frequent linemate T.J. Oshie, who is highly underrated.
Protecting leads has always been a key part of St. Louis' game plan, especially since Ken Hitchcock took over as head coach. Backes gets the big minutes because he's the one trusted most to handle any opponent, at any time and in any game situation.
Quality of Competition: Highest among Shark forwards in three of past four seasons
Top Opponents: Ryan Getzlaf, Zach Parise, Jamie Benn, Taylor Hall, Henrik Zetterberg
Offensive Zone Starts: Varies, but typically deployed offensively
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 37.6 percent
The San Jose Sharks are blessed with several excellent two-way forwards who rarely get their due, the foremost of whom is Patrick Marleau.
One of the reasons San Jose has remained competitive for so long is definitely Marleau's consistently effective two-way play as far back as his 18-year-old rookie season in 1997-98. During that time he has scored 30 goals six times, all while shutting down the best players in the league.
Quality of Competition: Highest among team's forwards four consecutive seasons until a big drop last year
Top Opponents: John Tavares, Eric Staal, Alexander Ovechkin, Claude Giroux, Evander Kane
Offensive Zone Starts: Among three lowest among team's forwards every year
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 43.7 percent
Definitely among the league's most undervalued players, Tampa Bay center Nate Thompson provides premium defensive play for the bargain cap hit of just $1.6 million for each of the next four seasons.
Behind every leading scorer, there is often a great defensive player. Thompson's effective handling of defensive-zone assignments against top opponents frees up the team's other talents to play predominantly in the offensive zone, like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
Quality of Competition: Top three among team's forwards in four of past five seasons
Top Opponents: Alexander Ovechkin, Derek Stepan, Daniel Alfredsson, Rick Nash, David Krejci
Offensive Zone Starts: Always the lowest among team's forwards
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 53.5 percent
A classic example of a defensive-minded forward who handles tough minutes, Jay McClement is earning every penny of his value-priced $1.5 million per season contract.
No active forward has killed a higher percentage of his team's penalties over the past five seasons as McClement (53.5 percent). He also starts his shifts in the defensive zone to a greater extent than all but a handful of NHL forwards—and generally against top-line opponents.
There really is no better model of a tough-minutes, defense-only shutdown forward than McClement, especially since new teammate Dave Bolland has been gradually phased into a more balanced role this past year or two.
Quality of Competition: Used to always be the highest among team's forwards, now closer to average
Top Opponents: Jamie Benn, Henrik Zetterberg, Chris Stewart
Offensive Zone Starts: Typically balanced or even a little offensive
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 40.3 percent
You can't spell Kesler without Selke!
Ryan Kesler won the Selke award after the 2010-11 season when his aggressive and effective two-way play was a major factor in Vancouver's amazing 117-point season. His absence last season had a clear and obvious impact on the Canucks, whose winning percentage dropped from .677 to .615 before being knocked out in the first round.
The selection as Kesler as Vancouver's top forward was, however, not the no-brainer that one might expect. Former coach Alain Vigneault was already staring to use Kesler in a more balanced fashion, very similar to how new coach John Tortorella has deployed him so far.
Manny Malhotra used to handle some of the toughest defensive assignments in those days, and he was also absent last season. Malhotra recently signed an AHL contract with Charlotte.
Quality of Competition: Always top three among team's forwards
Top Opponents: Rick Nash, Evander Kane
Offensive Zone Starts: Normally balanced, but third lowest among team's forwards in 2011-12
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 38.6 percent
Though known primarily as an offensive-minded team, the Washington Capitals are capable of shutting opponents too, and that's often in large part thanks to Brooks Laich.
Laich, whose absence (to a groin injury) was clearly felt in the first half of the 2013 season, is a hard-working and inspirational leader for the Capitals, featuring a strong dedication at both ends of the ice.
Though not always given the credit he deserves, Laich is one of the league's most effective two-way forwards, and the Caps know it. The 30-year-old center (and sometimes left winger) is signed for four more years with a cap hit of $4.5 million.
Quality of Competition: Second highest among team's forwards last year, highest in two of past five seasons
Top Opponents: Alexander Ovechkin, Eric Staal, Martin St. Louis
Offensive Zone Starts: Typically balanced, sometimes somewhat offensive
Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 21.4 percent
The fourth overall selection in the 2004 entry draft, Andrew Ladd won the Stanley Cup in the next NHL season with Carolina, and then another one in 2010 after being traded to Chicago for Tuomo Ruutu. The Atlanta Thrashers then acquired Ladd from the cash-strapped Hawks for a song (actually Ivan Vishnevskiy and a pick), since then he was scored 155 points, 21 more than any other Thrasher/Jet.
This incredible offensive performance was possible even despite having to face the team's top opponents. Having defensive-minded lines, but not the type that was trusted against top opponents, the Jets were forced to use Ladd against opposing top lines and have rarely been disappointed.