NHL Defensemen Ready to Become Top-Pairing Players in 2014-15
Top pairing defensemen are arguably the most important skaters on any given team, and there's intense competition among teams for those few whose effectiveness have been proven. Any team that can find someone ready to step in and excel in its top unit has a huge competitive advantage.
Who are the strongest possibilities?
The first step of this analysis is to rule out those teams which already have top pairing defensemen. To accomplish that I looked at each blueliner's cap hit, their average ice time (both overall and at even strength), and where they stood on the depth chart according to NBC, CBS, CBC and The Hockey News. The 67 defenseman who were in the top pairing in at least three of these categories were ruled out.
The toughest part was determining how effectively each remaining defenseman was currently performing his duties and whose success could transfer to the top pairing. A variety of analytics were used to good effect here, including their typical usage, possession-based metrics and obviously some traditional scoring stats.
In the end, the 10 defensemen most likely to serve capably as top pairing options were identified and ranked. Remember that this is only the analytic perspective, and it may therefore overlook the intangibles, so feel free to weigh in on more potential candidates in the comments. Let's begin!
10. Tom Gilbert, UFA
Last summer Tom Gilbert was bought out by Minnesota, and, to the absolute shock of the analytics community, found absolutely no takers initially on the free-agent market. It may have been a stretch for people to believe he was still a viable NHL defenseman last summer, just as it may be a stretch to see him as a potential top pairing defenseman today.
With the exception of his forgettable 2012-13 season with the Wild, Gilbert has always been on the top pairing bubble. He has finished second or third on his team's defensemen in quality of competition every other season, though some might consider that more of a testament to some weak blue lines than to his own play.
Gilbert is a strong two-way defenseman, with seven seasons of experience as a solid number three. He's very durable, with 2013-14 season being the first seas he's missed more than three games to injury. He's very disciplined, with only 106 penalty minutes in 384 games, and has the upside to match or exceed the 45 points he scored in 2008-09 with the Edmonton Oilers.
Areas of Concern
Brian Campbell can make anyone look good. Remember Jay Garrison and Filip Kuba?
Gilbert is also 31 years old and coming off a sports hernia. Though he was a top penalty-killing option in the past, he was used less than a minute per game in shorthanded situations this season. He is defensively responsible, but might make too many mistakes for the top pairing.
His offense has dropped, too. He scored an impressive 115 points in his first 258 games, but just 89 in the 262 since then. That's like going from a 37-point defenseman to a 28-point version.
Gilbert is also a relatively non-physical player despite being 6'2". He also has just five games of postseason experience.
Gilbert was a tremendous bargain last year for the Panthers at just under $1 million. Coming off such a strong season the UFA won't sign that cheap this time.
In a recent poll, only 58 percent of Panther fans at Litter Box Cats felt that Gilbert should be re-signed. Unfortunately for Gilbert, Florida may be one of the few places where he could get an opportunity on the top pairing, and even then it looks like it's Dmitry Kulikov's time.
9. Jonathan Ericsson, Detroit Red Wings
Jonathan Ericsson's greatest asset is his tremendous size, which he is learning to use more and more effectively. Already a good skater, becoming a stronger, more physical presence has helped him develop into an effective shutdown defender.
Detroit has been trusting Ericsson with its tough minutes for two seasons now, and he has responded by finishing as one of the top two defensemen for the Red Wings in quality of competition. And he plays on the team's top penalty-killing unit.
Despite the difficulty of his assignment, and being deployed primarily in the defensive zone, his possession numbers relative to the rest of the team have been dead even for three years now.
Originally a ninth-round selection in 2002, Ericsson played in the AHL All-Star Game in 2007-08, and won a Silver Medal for Sweden in the 2014 Olympics.
Areas of Concern
Ericsson doesn't appear to have much of an offensive upside. He has scored between 11 and 15 points in each of his five full NHL seasons and has just 14 total goals on 351 shots in 325 games. He previously had only a single point in 81 games in three seasons in the Swedish Elite League.
He also suffered three injuries this season—to his finger, ribs and shoulder—playing in only 48 games.
Discipline could be an issue, although he seems to have improved in that aspect too.
Finally, Ericsson will carry a cap hit of $4.25 million for the next six seasons (until age 36), which is way too much if he can't ultimately serve effectively as a top pairing defenseman.
There is definitely an opportunity for Ericsson in Detroit. Niklas Kronwall has clearly developed into the team's number one defenseman, but after that it's a battle between the likes of Danny DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey (if the UFA is signed) and young Brendan Smith.
Ericsson could have a tremendous impact if he continues to hone both his physical play as well as his defensive technique....and if he can find a way to use his size to launch cannon shots from the point.
8. Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals
Karl Alzner is Washington's top shutdown defenseman at both even strength and while killing penalties. He has faced the team's top competition in all but one of his six seasons, and generally is assigned to play in the defensive zone more frequently than anyone else. He nevertheless posts respectable possession numbers, considering his usage.
Alzner was drafted fifth overall in 2007, and became the captain of the Calgary Hitmen the following season. He was named the WHL player of the year and the top defenseman in the CHL. That was also the year he won the gold medal in the World Juniors for the second consecutive season, this time serving as captain of the Canadian team.
The 25-year-old hasn't missed a game in four seasons.
Areas of Concern
Has the value of shutdown defensemen been overstated lately?
Analyst Tyler Dellow wrote a fascinating article on his blog demonstrating how a perceived defensive liability like Mike Green actually performed better against the league's top players than a shutdown specialist like Alzner. If that's true then using Alzner on the top pairing would be a huge mistake.
Dellow was referring especially to shutdown defensemen with no offensive upside, like Alzner. He has only seven goals on 301 shots and this year's 18 points are his single-season career high. Defensemen rarely score at a lower rate than his 0.6 points per 60 minutes, and he has no experience working the power play either.
At his best Alzner could be the shutdown portion of Washington's top pairing, either alongside his usual partner John Carlson or perhaps someone like Mike Green.
Alzner has three years left on a deal with a $2.8 million cap hit, after which he'll be a UFA.
7. Christopher Tanev, Vancouver Canucks (RFA)
One of this season's biggest individual surprises for me was seeing how effective a top-four defenseman Chris Tanev became for Vancouver this year. In my view he already qualifies as a top pairing defenseman, but I can understand how the media sites mentioned in the opening slide saw it differently.
The 24-year-old achieved great chemistry with Dan Hamhuis, who finished only one goal ahead of Tanev to lead the Canucks in plus/minus. Though the statistic has its flaws, it's still to his credit that Tanev is now plus-26 in 156 career games.
Tanev is a smart, calm, safe and patient player. That's why virtually no Canucks defenseman (other than Hamhuis) is more trusted to take the defensive zone shifts or to kill penalties. He also led the team's defensemen in quality of competition after facing only the depth lines for his first three seasons. He nevertheless did not put the team at a possession-based disadvantage.
He's also a great shot-blocker, and tied Alexander Edler for the team lead with 136. Of course, he also twice injured himself doing so.
Areas of Concern
Although he has some strong puck-moving potential, the offensive side of Tanev's game requires some development. He has only 115 shots and 27 points in 156 career NHL games and is completely untried on the power play. He did, however, once manage 26 points in 63 games for the AHL's Chicago Wolves.
Initially undrafted, Tanev had a late growth spurt and consequently signed as a free agent by Vancouver in the summer of 2010. He may have grown to 6'2", but he remains relatively a light and non-physical player, and his 25 hits were the lowest among the team's regular players last year.
In Vancouver, Tanev will be competing with Hamhuis, Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Jay Garrison. The Canucks don't have one big-name defenseman, they spread it out, which could limit his potential impact even if he does develop physically and/or offensively.
Tanev is currently a restricted free agent coming off a contract with an annual cap hit of $1.5 million.
6. Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins
At 6'5" Dougie Hamilton is the only teammate Zdeno Chara can talk to without slouching.
A ninth overall draft choice in 2011, a pick acquired in the Phil Kessel trade, Hamilton possesses a cannon of a shot and great offensive instincts. He led the OHL's Niagara Ice Dogs in scoring for three straight seasons with 171 points in 149 games, winning the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the league's most outstanding defenseman in 2011-12.
He has already proven he can work the power play at the NHL level, consistently scoring around 3.0 points per 60 minutes, which is excellent. His 1.1 points per 60 minutes at even strength is comparable to Chara's scoring rate.
Unlike fellow Bruins youngster Torey Krug, Hamilton is already taking on tough minutes. He finished second to Chara in quality of competition among Boston's defensemen last year and nevertheless managed to repeat his solid possession numbers, even when compared to the rest of his amazing team.
Areas of Concern
Hamilton is about to turn 21, and has only two seasons and 106 NHL games of experience.
He understandably still has some work to do to improve his defensive game. The Bruins barely use him at all in killing penalties, for example.
Hamilton did miss some games with a leg injury and a concussion, but there are no real concerns about his health status at this time.
Hamilton is capable right now of serving as the puck-moving partner on the top pairing of even a team as great as Boston.
He has tremendous athletic talent, which is particularly impressive given his size, and his upside is extremely promising. Nicholas Goss of NESN feels that "it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s a Norris Trophy candidate on a consistent basis" while Bruins coach Claude Julien told Matt Kalman of CBS Boston that "he’s going to be an elite defenseman."
Worst-case scenario is that Hamilton is still a year away, in which case his Bruins teammate Johnny Boychuk would be another player potentially capable of being tried as a top pairing option.
5. Calvin De Haan, New York Islanders (RFA)
Calvin de Haan is highly regarded by Islander fans, 99 percent of whom at Islanders Insight rated his season as at least a B, while analyst Peter McEntee felt that "one can certainly make the case for de Haan as the team’s best defenseman, and not many people would object to that."
I certainly wouldn't object. The 23-year-old finished second among the team's defensemen in quality of competition and first in defensive zone usage, and yet he was an absolute monster in terms of driving possession.
De Haan has a huge offensive upside, one that can be fully unleashed if he can achieve on Long Island the same chemistry with John Tavares that they enjoyed with the OHL's Oshawa Generals. He was named the rookie of the year in 2007-08, the first of two seasons in which he would lead the team's defensemen in scoring.
He is a great skater with solid offensive instincts and is reliable defensively. That's a big reason why the Islanders traded up to draft him 12th overall in 2009.
Interestingly his NHL rookie season scoring was almost identical to his first season in the AHL. He managed 16 points in 51 games in his first NHL season—the same number of points that he had in 56 games in his rookie year in the AHL, a season that included a trip to the AHL All-Star Game.
Areas of Concern
De Haan obviously needs more experience and development, making his inclusion on this list perhaps one year premature.
He needs to develop his physical game too, and there could be some doubt about whether his defensive game is up to the level of a top pairing.
Most notably de Haan has had some serious shoulder injuries that cost him both the bulk of the 2012-13 season and most of his 2008-09 OHL campaign.
Travis Hamonic is the clear number one, but de Haan could have an opportunity to earn a spot alongside him. That should take some pressure off veteran Lubomir Visnovsky and Dan Boyle (assuming he signs with the club).
De Haan is currently a restricted free agent and one the Islanders will not let get away.
4. Mark Fayne, UFA
Mark Fayne is already trusted with the tough minutes. The big 6'3", 27-year-old led the team's blue line in defensive zone starts the last two years and has been top two in quality of competition in all but his 2010-11 rookie season.
Fayne has nevertheless enjoyed consistently strong possession numbers, even for a Devil. In more traditional terms, he ranks fifth on the Devils in plus/minus over his four seasons, leading the team in 2010-11.
Originally a fifth-round selection in 2005, Fayne played four years for a relatively weak Providence College team. His best season was 2009-10 when he led the team's defensemen with 22 points in 34 games after finishing second in two of this first three seasons.
Fayne is also a strong penalty killer but given the number of solid defensive options on New Jersey, he has generally played on the second unit.
Areas of Concern
Fayne is not strong offensively. He has taken only 293 shots in 242 NHL games and scored on just 13 of them.
He has 48 career points and a single-season career high of just 17. The Devils actually used him occasionally on the power play his first two seasons before giving up on the idea. The Hockey News nevertheless describe him as someone who "moves the puck efficiently and has offensive ability to boot" and as a "solid puck-moving defenseman." Weird.
There are just a couple of causes for concern: a groin injury that required surgery; the fact that he doesn't handle the sheer volume of minutes typical of a top pairing defenseman, and the possibility that his success was the result of playing with Andy Greene, one of the league's most underrated defensemen.
With the right partner, Fayne could be the effective shutdown presence on the top pairing almost anywhere.
His last contract was a tremendous bargain at $1.3 million. But will he stay in New Jersey? Todd Cordell of HockeyBuzz believes he should, and specifically alongside Andy Greene, who does better with Fayne than with anybody else.
I completely agree, but will the Devils? Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger has reported that there have been "no meaningful talks" but that Fayne has expressed a desire to remain a Devil.
3. Brenden Dillon, Dallas Stars (RFA)
Initially undrafted, Brenden Dillon shot up nine inches and has become one of the strongest physical defensemen in the NHL.
Now standing 6'3", the 23-year-old finished third on the Stars with 86 penalty minutes, led the team with 168 hits and placed second with 149 blocked shots. In his rookie 2012-13 season he finished second in all three categories. Despite his highly physical brand of play, Dillon has missed only two games in his two NHL seasons.
Right out of the gate Dillon has been trusted with the team's toughest minutes, finishing in the top two on the Dallas blue line in quality of competition and defensive zone starts both seasons and finishing within mere seconds in average ice time for killing penalties.
Dillon was captain of the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds in his final WHL season back in 2010-11, a year in which he found his offensive game, winding up with 59 points.
Areas of Concern
In a season-ending poll on Defending Big D, 94 percent of Dallas fans rated Dillon no worse than a "B". Analyst Josh Lile wrote that there was "nothing really bad about this season."
On the other hand, the The Hockey News describes him as a "depth defenseman with a little upside." He can also be undisciplined, and has enjoyed only a single season of scoring success at any level. Dillon has just 25 points in 129 NHL games after posting 43 points in 123 games in the AHL.
The departure of his former partner Stephane Robidas makes room for Dillon on the depth chart, but he still has to fight off Jordie Benn and catch up with Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley. That may be a tall order for Dillon—no matter how physical of a defenseman he becomes—until he develops more of an offensive game.
Dillon is currently an unrestricted free agent.
2. Fedor Tyutin, Columbus Blue Jackets
Fedor Tyutin's inclusion may be against the spirit of this list. At 30, he's not an up-and-coming player, and he was a top pairing defenseman until arguably only the last season or two. In my view he still is the top pairing defenseman, but he failed to meet the criteria mentioned in the opening slide.
Could all four independent sites be mistaken in their depth charts?
Anyone who also considered Tyutin a top pairing defenseman can replace him with James Wisniewski on this list instead, using a nicely crafted argument by Nick Biss of BS Hockey.
The basic idea is that both Tyutin and Wisniewski are top pairing defensemen, whether Columbus realizes it or not. They may be on the downward arcs of their respective careers, but they can still play on the top unit, which is exactly within the spirit of this list.
Tyutin's strengths may just be an afterthought here, but it's common knowledge that the three-time Russian Olympian is a strong two-way player with valuable experience and a true talent for the penalty kill.
Drafted by the New York Rangers, Tyutin was dealt after four seasons to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the trade that brought Nikolai Zherdev to N.Y. Tyutin has led Columbus' defensemen in scoring three of the six seasons, and his 162 points are the most by a defenseman in franchise history.
Areas of Concern
There's not a lot of downside to Tyutin's game, other than being 30 years old and carrying a cap hit of $4.5 million for four more years. He has had some injuries lately, missing at least a dozen games in two of the past three seasons.
A big but not particularly physical player, Tyutin is a secondary power-play option only, with a career high of just 34 points back in 2008-09, one of only two seasons he has topped 27 points.
Tyutin has been the top pairing defenseman before—his first four years in Columbus, right up until Jack Johnson came to town. Even in 2012-13 you could arguably place him ahead of James Wisniewski on the depth chart.
The results? He was highly effective, even when playing with an otherwise reserve defenseman like Nikita Nikitin as a partner. Quite frankly, Johnson should be knocked off the top pairing in favor of Tyutin and Wisniewski.
There is obviously more to the game than analytics, but there just isn't a lot that can be done statistically to justify Johnson's continued usage on the top unit when there are two superior options available.
1. Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota Wild
Is Jared Spurgeon better than Ryan Suter? Ger Devine of Hockey Wilderness believes that to be case, writing, "Jared Spurgeon was the Wild's best defenceman this season and drove possession extremely well."
That's a surprisingly common opinion from local analysts who claim that "if you dig a little deeper, you find that the Wild's top d-man would be Jared Spurgeon," as Giles Ferrell wrote at The Team of 18,001.
I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but Spurgeon certainly strikes me as a close number two, thanks to his strong two-way play.
Offensively Spurgeon led the WHL's Spokane Chiefs defensemen in scoring for four straight seasons. He went on to lead Minnesota's blue line in scoring in 2011-12 and has finished second to Ryan Suter ever since. He also tied Suter for the team lead in plus/minus this year.
The 24-year-old works both special teams; he averaged over two minutes a game on the power play and killing penalties this past year.
Defensively Spurgeon has faced increasingly tougher competition every year, finally finishing second among the team's defensemen this year. He's deployed offensively, of course, which has helped him achieve solid possession numbers all four seasons.
Spurgeon's strong defense comes without a cost in terms of penalties. He is one of the league's most disciplined players, earning only 28 minutes in penalties in 229 NHL games, and draws at least as many penalties as he takes every year, which is uncommon for a defenseman.
Best yet, his cap hit is just $2.67 million for two more years, after which he remains an RFA.
Areas of Concern
Spurgeon wasn't selected until the sixth round in 2008, and even then the Islanders opted not to sign him. Why? For the same reason so many other skilled players are overlooked: because they're short.
Fortunately for Minnesota, the front office looked past Sturgeon's 5'9" frame and secured itself a complete two-way defenseman at a bargain price.
There really isn't much to criticize in Spurgeon's game. Perhaps the only major area for improvement is his shooting. He doesn't take a lot of shots, but what few he takes aren't exactly howitzers.
Spurgeon is ready for top-line duty, but has Suter and Jonas Brodin ahead of him on the depth chart.
Minnesota nevertheless enjoys a considerable competitive advantage over other teams by having one of the league's strongest second pairings in Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, who may be on this list next year.
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