The top defensive pairing is one of the most important roles on a hockey team, and the success of that team depends largely on it.
Nine of the last 10 Stanley Cup Finals have featured at least one perennial Norris Trophy finalist. The two teams closest to being dynasties in the last 15 years–Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils–have been built around arguably the two best defensemen of this era: Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer.
Clearly, the statement "Defense wins championships" still holds true. Let's take a look at each team's top defensive pairing.
*Note: Because defense pairings change frequently on some teams, I've taken the top defenders in ice time who generally play together.
New Jersey's disappointing top defensive pairing has been a key factor in their demise this season.
After bringing Tallinder as a free agent, the Devils expected he and Andy Greene to take a step forward into a versatile, two-way defensive pair.
Unfortunately, they've been just terrible.
Combined Stats: 100GP 5G 22A 27P 38PIM -36
The top pairing of Hamonic and MacDonald features a 20-year-old and a 24-year-old that have been pleasant surprises on the injury-riddled Isles.
Hamonic joined the Islanders on November 24, and has worked his way onto the top pairing very quickly. He's only a minus seven on a bad Islanders team, which is impressive for a rookie.
MacDonald was a sixth round pick in 2006, and has blossomed into a good all-around defenseman.
The Islanders would normally rank a bit higher in this, but their best defenseman, Mark Streit, hasn't played a game yet this season due to injury.
Combined Stats: 65GP 1G 24A 25P 37PIM -9
Columbus' top defensive pair has often been considered amongst the most underrated in the league, but they haven't been very good this year.
They offer little offensive upside, which is unfortunate because none of the other Blue Jackets defensemen contribute offensively either. This year, they've been mediocre defensively too.
Combined Stats: 95GP 7G 22A 29P 40PIM -15
The Leafs' top pairing hasn't been that bad, but they haven't been anywhere near as good as they need to be for the money they make and ice time they take.
Phaneuf is supposed to be a good offensive defenseman, but he has just one goal this year, and hasn't been good enough defensively to get away with not scoring. That one goal is on 106 shots, which shows the quality of the shots he's taking.
Combined Stats: 91 GP 2G 20A 22P 73PIM -12
The lowest pairing with an All Star on it, Erik Karlsson was chosen as an All-Star more so because everyone else on the Senators has been bad than because he's been great.
Karlsson's offensive numbers are decent, with 29 points so far, but his minus 19 rating is ugly, and he's been a healthy scratch twice this year.
Gonchar was supposed to solidify the Sens defense when they gave him a three year, $16.5 million contract during the summer. His biggest positive this year has been staying healthy. Ironically, the concern when they signed him was his health, not his play. That's changed to say the least.
Combined Stats: 100GP 14G 36A 50P 46PIM -36
The Panthers pairing of Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman hasn't been terrible, but they shouldn't be a top pairing.
Their points have been close to average, but Wideman's minus 18 rating is awful. McCabe has been disappointing with only five goals.
Combined Stats: 93GP 11G 35A 46P 49PIM -11
Ryan Whitney had a good start to the year with 27 points and a plus 13 rating in 35 games, but after Whitney it's slim pickings on Edmonton's defense.
Now, Whitney is out long term, and the Oilers have really struggled without him. Number two defenseman Tom Gilbert is a minus 13, and has just 15 points.
Combined Stats: 84GP 7G 35A 42P 57PIM Even
Roman Hamrlik has been steady for the Canadiens this season, but isn't supposed to be a top pairing defenseman. Andrei Markov's season-ending injury has forced Hamrlik to step up.
Wisniewski has been good since coming over from the Islanders, but he's a minus 19 on the season. It's his fourth team in less than three years as his weak defense makes him expendable.
Combined Stats: 93GP 9G 45A 54P 68PIM -15
Sometime in the next few years, St. Louis will likely have one of the best top pairings in the league as Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo develop into superstars.
For now, Johnson is paired with captain Eric Brewer while he better learns the NHL game. Johnson has been somewhat disappointing after posting 39 points last year. Many expected him to take the next step and top 50 points, but he's only on pace for 28.
Combined Stats: 97GP 13G 18A 31P 90PIM -1
John-Michael Liles started this season absolutely on fire with a nine game point streak. He's cooled off since then, but is still having a good year with 35 points so far.
Smooth skating partner Kyle Cumiskey missed almost three months with a concussion, and has only been back for four games. As he gets his legs back, the Av's top pairing should keep getting better.
Combined Stats: 65GP 7G 35A 42P 35PIM +4
6'8" sophomore Tyler Myers has hit the dreaded sophomore slump this season after winning the Calder Trophy as league's best rookie last year.
Myers' is on pace for 35 points this year after posting 48 last year, and he's a minus 11 after being plus 13 a year ago. He's still going to be a great defenseman because of his size, reach, and surprisingly good skating ability.
His partner, Jordan Leopold, has been one of the best and least publicized free agent signings from last summer. Leopold signed a three year, $9 million deal, and is proving to be worth every penny. He's already set a new career high in goals, and is on pace to smash his career best for points as well.
Combined Stats: 96GP 16G 32A 48P 44PIM -17
Hedman was drafted second overall, behind John Tavares, in 2009, and is just starting to look really comfortable in the NHL. He's starting to jump into the play offensively, and his long strides let him get back quickly on defense. He's also starting to take the body more, and will soon emerge as one of the best defensemen in the league.
Mattias Ohlund, at 34, is heading into the decline of his career, but is a great mentor for fellow Swede Hedman. Ohlund has been teaching Hedman the finer points of playing great defense in the NHL, and after so many years playing for the Canucks and matching against Jarome Iginla, he knows his stuff.
Combined Stats: 95GP 2G 22A 24P 86PIM +1
Mike Green has significantly changed his game this season, and it looks like he's still trying to get comfortable with it.
Green has been the best offensive defenseman in the NHL for the last two seasons, but after being left off Canada's Olympic team last year, and being denied the Norris Trophy for a second straight nomination, Green has changed his focus to defense.
He hasn't been bad, but he's on pace for less than half of the points he had last year, and his plus/minus is suffering as well.
His partner, Jeff Schultz, led the league at plus 50 last year, but is just plus one this season.
Combined Stats: 88GP 8G 21A 29P 56PIM +9
Carolina's Joni Pitkanen is almost always amongst the league leaders in ice time. He's not flashy, but he plays a solid two-way game, and always matches against the opponents top line.
His partner, Joe Corvo, is in his second tour of duty with the Hurricanes and is on pace for a career high in points. He's mainly an offensive defenseman, and has a booming shot that helps on the power play.
Combined Stats: 95GP 10G 37A 47P 52PIM -6
Mark Giordano is emerging as the heart of the Calgary Flames, and if Jarome Iginla is ever traded, Gio will probably be wearing the "C". He's a good skater who's not afraid to jump into the rush, and he's a great penalty killer who's second in the league in blocked shots.
Jay Bouwmeester has been a disappointment in Calgary. He posted 12, 15 and 15 goals his last three seasons in Florida, and was expected to continue to step up for the Flames. Instead, J-Bow put up just three goals and 29 points last year, and is only on pace for six goals and 24 points this year. His smooth skating and endurance are assets on the Flames blueline though.
Combined Stats: 104GP 8G 33A 41P 76PIM -7
Dallas' top defensive pair is efficient, but unspectacular. Both are good skaters who chip in offensively and play big minutes against the opponent's best.
Robidas is currently having what might be his best season all-around, and Daley was just rewarded by the Stars with a six year, $19.8 million contract extension.
Combined Stats: 101GP 8G 35A 43P 75PIM +17
Boyle and Vlasic have been part of a badly underachieving Sharks team this season. Boyle is only on pace for five points less than last year, but he's set to get half as many goals and his plus/minus is 16 points worse than last season.
Vlasic was a plus 21 last year, in just 64 games, and is already minus eight this year. He and Boyle have to be better if the Sharks are going to contend for the Stanley Cup this season.
Combined Stats: 102GP 7G 37A 44P 48PIM -17
Minnesota defenseman Brent Burns just very deservedly played in his first career All-Star Game. He's having a great season, and sits second among defensemen with 14 goals. Burns is a great skater who plays physically, blocks shots, and averages almost 25 minutes of ice time per game.
Marek Zidlicky was very quietly putting together another very good season when he injured his shoulder on December 29. He had 20 points in 30 games, and was on pace for a career year offensively. Unfortunately, he's out long term.
Combined Stats: 78GP 18G 33A 51P 86PIM -3
Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle is the most underrated player in the league. He's in the midst of a 10-game point streak, and has a real shot at winning his first Norris Trophy. Yandle leads all defensemen in scoring, and is on pace for 70 points this year. He's already surpassed his career high in points, and should set a new best for goals very soon.
Partner Adrian Aucoin is a fantastic plus 17, and his defensively responsible style allows Yandle to jump into the rush and attack.
Combined Stats: 102GP 11G 53A 64P 78PIM +19
Alex Edler and Christian Ehrhoff are an intimidating combination of speed, skill, and strength, and at just 24 and 28, respectively, will be part of the Canucks defensive core for a long time.
Ehrhoff is on pace for a career year offensively, and Edler was too, but just had back surgery, and is likely to miss the rest of the regular season. Edler coming back in time for playoffs will be a key factor in whether or not the Canucks are successful.
Combined Stats: 97GP 17G 45A 62P 48PIM +19
While less offensive than most of the highly rated defensive pairs, Staal and Girardi are emerging as one of the elite shutdown units in the league. Both are top 40 in the league in hits, and Girardi leads the league by a wide margin with 144 blocked shots.
Staal and Girardi, along with Henrik Lundqvist, are key factors in the Rangers being fifth in the league in goals against average, and ninth in penalty killing efficiency.
Staal was just rewarded with his first trip to the All-Star Game.
Combined Stats: 104GP 9G 33A 42P 63PIM +22
Visnovsky and Lydman are probably the quietest pair in the top 10, in terms of recognition. Visnovsky is second in the league in points by defensemen, but wasn't chosen to play in the All-Star Game.
Lydman has been one of the most unheralded free agent signings of last summer, and has been phenomenal for the Ducks. He's second in the league in plus/minus rating, is on pace for career highs offensively, and is playing about four minutes more per game than last season.
Visnovsky and Lydman are also one of the cleanest pairs in the league, with just 38 penalty minutes between them.
Combined Stats: 99GP 10G 53A 63P 38PIM +31
Chris Pronger just looks mean, and even a bit psychotic, which is fitting given his style of play. Pronger is one of the most physical, chippy defensemen in the league, and there isn't a single forward who likes playing against him because they know they're going to take some questionable shots.
Matt Carle is an ideal balance for Pronger. He's fast, good offensively and he doesn't take many penalties. He's seen his plus/minus jump from one to 20 since he started playing with Pronger.
Combined Stats: 87GP 5G 40A 45P 47PIM +28
Kris Letang has emerged this season as one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. His slick stickhandling and passing, combined with his incredible speed allow him to lead the rush and still get back quickly on defense. He just earned his first birth in the All-Star Game, and had two goals, not to mention he won the fastest backwards skater in the SuperSkills.
His partner, Brooks Orpik, is a hard-hitting, shot-blocking, stay at home defenseman. He's the perfect anchor to balance Letang's sometimes risky play offensively, and he's a key reason why the Pens have the league's best penalty kill.
Combined Stats: 96GP 8G 44A 52P 114PIM +34
Zdeno Chara is an absolute beast. 6'9" and 255 lbs, Chara's so big the league had to change the rule about the maximum allowed length of stick. Chara's reach is so long it's nearly impossible to get by him, and if you try to go between him and the boards, you're going to get crushed.
Dennis Seidenberg is a reliable two-way defenseman who's on pace to set career highs offensively. He's seventh in the league in blocked shots, and is a good fit beside Chara.
Both men also have cannons for shots, as evidenced by Chara's fourth-straight NHL All-Star SuperSkills hardest shot victory.
And, as if getting by the defensemen isn't hard enough, you win the chance to shoot on Tim Thomas and his .945 save percentage. Good luck opposition.
Combined Stats: 102GP 14G 36A 50P 76PIM +28
Drew Doughty hasn't taken the next step forward this year that most people expected him to. After posting 16 goals, 59 points, and a plus 20 rating last season, to go along with a Norris Trophy nomination, Doughty has been a bit disappointing this year with just four goals and 26 points so far.
He struggled with some concussion issues near the start of the season, which may be to blame for the slow start, but he's looked a lot better lately despite not putting the points up. He's back to rushing the puck, which is a big part of what made him so good last year.
Doughty's partner, Jack Johnson, is having a breakout season offensively, and should shatter his previous career highs. He's also improved defensively, and is going to be a very good two-way defenseman for many years to come.
Combined Stats: 96GP 8G 51A 59P 74PIM +9
Much like Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith has taken a step backwards this year. After winning the Norris Trophy last year, and posting 14 goals and 69 points, Keith has just four goals and 29 points, and is a minus three. More was expected of him this season, and he has to be better if the Blackhawks have any chance of repeating.
Keith's partner, Brent Seabrook, is on pace for 44 points, which would smash his career best of 32. Seabrook is also 12th in the league in hits, but his minus six rating is a worrisome number after posting double-digit plus ratings each of the last three years.
Maybe Keith and Seabrook are tired from the long run to the Cup last year, and the short summer that followed, but whatever the case, they have to be a great shutdown pairing this year, especially with the reduced depth the Hawks have at forward this year because of cap constraints.
Combined Stats: 102GP 7G 50A 57P 48PIM -9
Just a few short weeks ago, both Enstrom and Byfuglien were almost surefire Norris Trophy candidates. Now, they might not either be.
Enstrom is out with a broken finger, and Byfuglien doesn't have a point in his last 11 games, to go along with a minus five rating in that period.
Still, both men have emerged as premiere defensemen, and, along with Ondrej Pavelec, are the key reasons that the Thrashers are currently in a playoff spot. Byfuglien leads all defensemen with 16 goals, and the two are tied for fourth in defensemen scoring.
Enstrom needs to come back from his injury quickly, and he and Big Buff need to get back to the way they played for the first 40 games of the season if the Thrashers are going to hang on to any hope of making the playoffs.
Combined Stats: 103GP 24G 58A 82P 77PIM +5
The Predators first and second round picks in the phenomenal draft of 2003 now form one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, second best to be exact.
I recently named Ryan Suter the second most underrated player in the league, and after watching him play against the Flames, I stand by it. Suter isn't flashy or exciting at all, but he does all the little things right. He shuts down the opposition's top line almost completely without throwing hits, and he puts up about 40 points per season.
Shea Weber covers the physical needs of this pair by throwing huge hits on anyone. When Weber is matched up against someone, he gives them almost no space to work with, and lays punishing hits on them whenever he can. He also has the second hardest shot in the league, which he employs with an absolutely lethal one-timer.
Combined Stats: 91GP 10G 43A 53P 72PIM +24
Nicklas Lidstrom is arguably the second best defenseman in the history of the NHL, and at age 40, is still the best in the game today. There will be a changing of the guard sometime in the next few years, but for now, Lidstrom is still dominant, and is probably the most respected player in the league.
In my mind, the most impressive part of Lidstrom's game is how he can so effectively shut down anyone in the league without throwing hits or taking penalties. Lidstrom is on pace for his eighth season with 20 penalty minutes or less.
11 times Lidstrom's plus/minus rating has been higher than his penalty minutes. To put that in perspective, Wayne Gretzky only did it 10 times, and he didn't have to play defense against the best players in the world.
Lidstrom is on pace for 69 points this season, and has an excellent chance to win his seventh Norris Trophy, which would tie him with Doug Harvey for second all-time, and leave him just one behind Bobby Orr. He's also on pace for 18 goals, which would be the second most of his career.
Lidstrom's partner, Brian Rafalski, is no slouch either. He's on pace for the best offensive season of his career at age 37, despite missing 11 games at the start of the season.
Rafalski and Lidstrom both boast the impressive accomplishment of never having posted a minus ranking over a full season, but Lidstrom needs to improve his current minus three to keep that streak alive.
Detroit fans must be hoping that neither Lidstrom or Rafalski are going to retire anytime soon.
Combined Stats: 87GP 15G 59A 74P 26PIM +13