2011 NHL Playoff Predictions: The Most Important Defenseman on Each Team

Ben BarrCorrespondent IApril 13, 2011

2011 NHL Playoff Predictions: The Most Important Defenseman on Each Team

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    Duncan Keith was the marquee defenseman on the 2010 Blackhawks Cup team, losing some teeth in the process.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The Stanley Cup playoffs are getting underway on Wednesday, and one facet of the tournament that fans look for year after year is the so-called "hot goalie"—a netminder who catches lightning in a bottle and takes his team on a deep playoff run.

    Last year it was Jaroslav Halak, who guided the Canadiens to a pair of upset wins over the Capitals and Penguins before finally falling to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference final. What can be learned from this is that a great goaltending performance can get a team a long way, but not necessarily to the Cup.

    The second example of great individual effort in the playoffs is highlighted by a team's one true workhorse defenseman—the blueliner that leads and completes a team's corps with heavy responsibilities in key situations, excellent play in his own end and most noticeably a ton of ice time.

    When called upon, these great defensemen can answer the challenge of playing for 30 minutes of regulation time, let alone what an epic overtime game might take.

    Here are the defensemen that may carry this role on their teams and in turn will be a big reason for any success in the postseason.

Vancouver Canucks: Dan Hamhuis

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    How will coming back from a late-March concussion affect Hamhuis' game and the Canucks chances?Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Dan Hamhuis headlines Vancouver's defense corps that is one of the deepest in the NHL. He has proven to be a key cog in many areas for the Canucks this year, including on the penalty kill.

    Hamhuis was on the ice killing penalties for 3:08 a game, guiding a unit that finished third in the league on the PK with 86.0 percent.

    While Vancouver is also dealing with the loss of penalty killer Manny Malhotra for the playoffs, one angle to follow during the Canucks' playoff run could be how well Hamhuis performs after returning from a concussion last month against Columbus. Anything less than what he has been capable of so far this year would be a chink in the Canucks' armor—something that is very hard to find on this team.

Chicago Blackhawks: Duncan Keith

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    Keith will have to be in Norris Trophy form for the Blackhawks to have a shot at knocking out the Canucks for a third straight year.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Blackhawks are facing the mighty Canucks in the first round, marking the third straight year these teams will meet in the playoffs. The Canucks will have all the more motivation this year, bowing out to the 'Hawks the last two years.The difference this year is that the Canucks have the Presidents' Trophy and are loaded top to bottom.

    While the 'Hawks needed to wait until the Wild beat the Stars in the last game of the regular season to even have a playoff spot, they will need to return to their 2010 playoff form to take down the Canucks.

    That is why Duncan Keith is going to be their most important defenseman again.

    While Keith didn't repeat his Norris Trophy-winning performance from a year ago, he is still very capable of matching up with a top line in crunch time, which is exactly where the Blackhawks find themselves right now.

    While his points were down from 2010, Keith's defensive numbers like hits and blocked shots were nearly identical, but his plus/minus was a glaring minus-one after posting a plus-33 last year. The Blackhawks will need his very best against the Canucks.

San Jose Sharks: Dan Boyle

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    San Jose finally made a deeper playoff run last year, can Boyle guide them again?Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The Sharks made a deep playoff run last year that answered some critics about their spring performances in previous years. The highlight of last spring for San Jose was ousting Detroit in five games, but then they were swept by the Blackhawks in the Western Conference final.

    Dan Boyle is the clear No. 1 defender in San Jose, and he is the straw that stirs the drink on a great power play.

    The pressure that mounts in San Jose comes from high expectations that is unfortunately coupled with past failures. As the Sharks hope to make even more noise in the playoffs this year, Boyle is going to be one of the key reasons why, along with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, with regard to how much of a factor he is in San Jose's game.

Los Angeles Kings: Drew Doughty

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    Doughty will look to help a still young Kings team build on last year's first round playoff appearance.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The Kings finally broke through to the postseason with a young squad that took the Canucks to six games before bowing out in the first round.

    In a lot of the players' first postseason experience, Drew Doughty had a great series along with Jack Johnson, both tallying seven points in six games. Doughty's big-game experience from the Olympics was more than a lot of what his other young L.A. teammates had going into the playoffs, which was definitely positive.

    The Kings are going to need Doughty to be in top form for this year's team to have a serious opportunity to defeat the Sharks.

    Having another year of experience for this young squad after a good series against Vancouver last year is a reason to believe that L.A. can hang with the Sharks this postseason. Having Doughty leading the back end is one of the reasons why.

Detroit Red Wings: Nicklas Lidstrom

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    Lidstrom leads yet another strong Red Wing team into the playoffs.Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

    Nicklas Lidstrom is going to be turning 41 during these playoffs and you can still say all of the great things about his game now that has always been said about the Swedish future Hall of Famer.

    In the first round the Wings are facing the Coyotes, who forced Game 7 before Detroit emphatically closed it out in Phoenix.

    Lidstrom's newest immediate challenge going into this postseason is health around him.

    Henrik Zetterberg, a great defensive forward, has been ruled out for Game 1 and fellow defenseman Nicklas Kronwall is also coming into these playoffs without the greatest bill of health. While they haven't missed any time, Pavel Datsyuk and Brian Rafalski have also been nicked up in the past few weeks but they should be ready to perform against Phoenix.

    Lidstrom continues to be the leader of this great team and a playoff superstar going for Cup No. 5.

Phoenix Coyotes: Keith Yandle

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    Yandle enjoyed a breakout year after Phoenix's playoff loss to Detroit last spring.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Keith Yandle really came along this year with 59 points this year and showed how gifted an offensive defenseman he is for Phoenix. He managed to put up five points against the Red Wings in last year's seven-game first-round series.

    On a team where balance is a key component of its offensive attack (10 double-digit goal scorers, with the leader having 20), Yandle is going to need to create opportunities from the back end for the Coyotes to be successful.

    Yandle has a nice complement of players that include Derek Morris, Michal Rozsival, Ed Jovanoski and Adrian Aucoin. While this defense corps isn't discussed as one of the best in the league, it's still solid. But Yandle's offensive skill is only going to be more important considering that the Coyotes had to deal Wojtek Wolski in order to get Rozsival from the Rangers.

    There's no doubt that Yandle and the Coyotes are looking forward to another crack at the Red Wings.

Anaheim Ducks: Lubomir Visnovsky

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    Largely under the radar, Lubomir Visnovsky and Cam Fowler were one of the most prolific D-pairs this year.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Lubomir Visnovsky is heading into the playoffs after arguably his best regular season as a pro. Highlighted by a hat trick on March 4, Visnovsky cruised to a 68-point campaign while clicking with fellow D-man Cam Fowler. The pair collectively scored 108 points this year while often playing with one of the best lines in hockey this year in the Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan grouping.

    Visnovsky is one of the great offensive defensemen of this year's playoff crop. He finished with 50 assists that put him at ninth in the NHL and was plus-18 on the year.

    While Anaheim has been questioned about what more it has beyond its top line, the Ducks are a veteran group that are lucky to have a player like Visnovsky in all areas of the ice.

Nashville Predators: Shea Weber

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    Weber and the Predators are no longer content with just getting into the playoffs, they want to go further.Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    The Predators broke into the playoffs for the first time a few years ago and have consistently been able to get a spot in the Western Conference every year since. Like Phoenix, they have found success with great balance and great coaching, with Barry Trotz being the only bench boss the Predators have ever had.

    As Nashville tries to get past the Ducks and win a playoff series for the first time, Shea Weber is going to be not only their most important defenseman, but their most important player.

    Weber is one of the great, big defensemen in the league right now along with Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger. He can shut down great forwards with his size and range on the ice, and packs a deadly shot from the point. His capability to defend against Anaheim's top line in the first round will probably make or break the Predators in this series considering how talented that group is.

    Weber, along with goalie Pekka Rinne, will have the greatest impact on how far the Predators go this spring.

Washington Capitals: Mike Green

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    Green's healthy return in the postseason can help put the Capitals over the top.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The Capitals have been a resilient bunch in Mike Green's absence in the last 20 games, so much so that they were able to overtake the Flyers for the top spot in the East. The Caps would obviously welcome their skilled D-man back to the lineup, which looks like it is going to be Game 1 against the Rangers.

    The Capitals have had great momentum down the stretch without Green, and his return could give Washington a great edge in one of the tougher East playoff fields in recent years.

    Green's time on the power play will be a welcome addition for a Caps' playoff run. He's been a dark horse Norris Trophy candidate since the Capitals have had their run atop the Southeast. Unfortunately for Washington they are going to be without Dennis Wideman with a leg injury for at least the first round as Green comes back.

    The Capitals' rise to No. 1 in the East has been scary, and the return of Mike Green is only going to add to that reputation.

New York Rangers: Marc Staal

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    A New York upset would give Marc Staal a chance to grow out of the shadow of his brothers this postseason.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Marc Staal has had a solid year on Broadway and he has done it playing big minutes for the Rangers this year. He ended up averaging 25 minutes of ice time per game, and that number only has potential to rise come playoff time.

    When you look at the Rangers' defensive unit as a whole, the most experienced players include Bryan McCabe, Dan Girardi and then Staal. While McCabe has been used as a middle-pair D-man and gone out on the power play, Staal has held down the blue line the most. Take away Staal from the group and the Blueshirts would have to fill his minutes with a handful of young, inexperienced college players for the most part.

    If the Rangers find a way to pull off the upset against the Capitals in the first round, there's no doubt that Staal will have a big impact on a great team effort. His older brothers have both won Cups, so he has to be ready to start his playoff résumé. If he has a good series, the Rangers can make things interesting.

Philadelphia Flyers: Chris Pronger

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    Pronger played a ton of minutes during the Flyers run to the Finals last year. His return could solidify a great unit in Philly.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Chris Pronger played a huge role in the Flyers advancing to the Cup final last year, and his return to health is something that Philadelphia should really be looking for considering the way they have played heading into these playoffs.

    Pronger was praised for playing so much against great competition in the 2010 postseason. While he should not have to be on the ice as much with a deeper group of defensemen this year, his health and timely return should be the first concern as the Flyers open against the Sabres Thursday.

    If Pronger comes back completely healthy, the Flyers will have one of the most complete teams in the playoffs like they had most of the year. But if his return is slowed or if he ends up going out again, it's hard to predict how the Flyers will end up.

    Philadelphia did great during his first injured stint but its recent play without him has been far below .500 in the last quarter of the season. The way the Flyers rebound from their late slump and Pronger's contributions will determine their performance this spring.

Buffalo Sabres: Tyler Myers

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    Myers hopes to follow up his Calder Trophy with a successful playoff run in 2011.Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Tyler Myers could not match his rookie-year numbers in his sophomore season, but his role on the Sabres is only going to continue to be more important.

    In Myers the Sabres have a young player that is in the mold of the big defenders like Chara, Pronger and Weber. He is continuing to develop into this classic big D-man role and is already well on his way to becoming one of the better ones in the league.

    Myers is a big presence on an otherwise small and quick Buffalo roster. While the Sabres can be high-flying in all ends of the ice, sometimes they can be broken down with physical play. Myers gives opponents a physical style right back and is able to hang when fending off an odd-man rush. His presence in the lineup gives Buffalo's D a formidable edge.

    The Sabres will be looking to upset the Flyers and they'll have a chance if Myers and the rest of the squad play well.

Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara

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    Chara brings it with the fastest shot in the NHL and intimidating size.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    It seems that the East is where a lot of the valuable big defensemen in the playoffs are. Zdeno Chara brings his big slap shot that has reached 105.9 mph and broke Ryan Callahan's leg onto the Boston blue line and has the longest range on the ice of anyone in the NHL.

    He and the rest of the Bruins will be extremely motivated after last year's collapse against the Flyers, when they blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7—but of course all of the hockey world already knows that.

    Chara's value is only going to be higher this season since the Bruins have brought Tomas Kaberle into the fold at the trade deadline. Kaberle hasn't seen playoff action in years and is more than ready to have an impact in the spring. Having both of them has really solidified who Boston has on D. But obviously there is no way you can replace Zdeno Chara.

Montreal Canadiens: Hal Gill

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    Hal and the Habs will look to make another deep playoff run this spring.Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

    P.K. Subban may get the most attention of all the Habs blueliners, but Hal Gill will prove to be the most valuable on the back end for Montreal.

    Gill is probably the most strictly defensive defensemen on this list, but he proves to be the most enforcing one. He may seem like a different selection when considering the other names here, but he is the most valuable defenseman for Montreal this spring, as the Canadiens are again without Andrei Markov.

    Gill isn't the kind of defenseman that is going to have stats that jump off the page, but he can shut down forwards with his great size. His presence on the pairing with Subban allows the rookie to take chances as a trailer on a quick rush.

    If it's tougher to find evidence to his value, just look at the great players that the Canadiens beat in last year's playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang

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    Kris Letang was the top defenseman on a resilient Penguins team this year.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Kris Letang started off the year as a contender for the Norris Trophy, and his value has not diminished for the Penguins all year long.

    He finished with 50 points, including 42 assists that proved to be important as the Penguins competed for the Atlantic Division all year. When the Penguins have been without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the year, Letang's ability to create plays offensively have helped to partially fill the void.

    Not only has Letang been great in the attacking end, but he has continually been given the most responsibility by Coach of the Year candidate Dave Bylsma. He logged 24 minutes per game and helped the Penguin blue line as the unit suffered several injuries and had Alex Goligoski traded to the Stars for James Neal and infrequently used Matt Niskanen.

    Letang's large role in Pittsburgh will only continue in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Victor Hedman

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    Hedman and the Bolts are looking to make a splash in this year's playoffs.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Victor Hedman is beginning to live up to his draft status this year, being near the top of Lightning defenders in most major categories. He, along with a handful of other young Bolts, is hoping to make some noise this spring along with veterans Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.

    Tampa's production from the blue line has been very much by committee for the most part, with Brett Clark actually having more points than Hedman, but Hedman's greater ice time and skill set is what the Lightning should be looking for to help boost them to critical wins in the postseason.

    They'll have a good first-round test in Pittsburgh to show what they're made of.