For any pair of NHL defensemen, toughness is a mandate. These pairings do it better than any other.
Toughness is a difficult concept to quantify. For these rankings, I considered statistical measures such as fighting, shot blocking, penalty minutes, hitting and ice time in addition to more qualitative factors, like a players’ ability to play through pain or strike fear into the hearts of his opponents.
With that, here are my picks for the toughest defensive pairings in the NHL. It was tough to whittle this list down to a manageable size, but that leaves plenty of room for debate in the comments.
Nicklas Lidstrom isn’t a big hitter. He doesn’t fight. He doesn’t take penalties. His toughness is a different sort, defined by his unflinching consistency in the face of whatever adversity stands in his way.
Lidstrom is arguably the best defenseman in NHL history, but he doesn’t do a lot of the things that many NHL fans would consider “tough.”
Niklas Kronwall has no problem picking up the slack in that department.
Lidstrom’s reliable omnipresence on the back end gives Kronwall the ability to freely patrol rest of the ice. There, Kronwall turns open-ice hitting into an art form. His jaw-jostling hit on Martin Havlat remains his most recognizable work, but Kronwall’s portfolio deserves its own YouTube channel.
Any pairing that leaves that kind of destruction in their wake has to be considered among the toughest in hockey.
While most of the attention on the Tampa Bay Lightning is focused around offensive superstars Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, the Bolts have plenty of toughness along the back line.
The young Victor Hedman and his mentor, Mattias Ohlund, have quickly become one of the toughest pairings in the NHL. They’ve combined to make the Tampa Bay defensive zone rather inhospitable for opposing attackers. In 2010/11, Hedman and Ohlund totaled for more minor penalties than any other pair in the hockey.
At only 20 years old, Victor Hedman is still finding his way, but he has already developed a mean streak that will keep him on lists like this one for years to come.
Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are the definition of iron men. The Nashville Predators' top defensive pairing has racked up more combined ice time than any other pair in hockey. As impressive as that fact is, it becomes even more baffling considering that the Preds reside in the same division as offensive powerhouses in Detroit and Chicago, with Weber and Suter almost always drawing a matchup with the opponent's top line.
Weber and Suter are a responsible pair, but they still play with an edge. Weber clears the crease with authority, racking up six cross-checking penalties last season, good for second among all NHL defensemen.
Johnny Boychuk is a pretty big guy. Generally, teams won’t make it a point to go after a defenseman who stands 6’2” and weighs 225 pounds. That’ll happen when his partner is Zdeno Chara.
At 6’9” and 255 pounds, Chara is the most imposing physical force in the NHL. He complements his size with substantial skill and an attitude that toes the line between aggressive and dirty.
Chara is one of the NHL’s best intimidators, but in the Eastern Conference final against the Philadelphia Flyers, Boychuk showed that he can the lay the lumber as well.
Kris Letang blew up offensively in 2010/11, but his toughness hasn’t waned. Playing alongside Brooks Orpik, Letang took some offensive freedoms last season. However, neither has let up on their responsibilities on the back end.
Letang delivered 167 hits, while Orpik leveled an even more impressive 194. Their combined total of 361 is tops among all NHL defensive pairings.
Beyond just hitting, playing alongside a player like Sidney Crosby requires an extra bit of toughness. Letang and Orpik were responsible for dishing out countless shoves, facewashes and bear hugs to any opposing players that even breathed on the Penguins uber-star.
The tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook has come to define the latest version of the Chicago Blackhawks. The two Canadians seem ubiquitous on Chicago’s back line.
Statistically, they nearly are. Keith and Seabrook took the ice for nearly 5,000 shifts last season, more than any other defensive pairing in the NHL. When it comes to answering the bell each and every time, no pair is tougher.
Even taken separately, these two remain impressive. Keith led the NHL in ice time, logging nearly 27 minutes per game. Seabrook finished third in the league in hits, delivering 227 blows over the course of the season.
Together, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook form a nearly impenetrable wall. They’ve already combined to win a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal and at the ages of just 28 and 26, respectively, I have a hunch they might want to leave some more room in the trophy case.
Hal Gill and P.K. Subban clashed early on in their time together in Montreal, but since then, they’ve developed into a dominant physical pairing.
At 6’7” Gill cuts an imposing figure on the back line. He’s not a gifted skater, but he's a responsible player who recognizes his weakness. Instead of trying to skate with quicker forwards, he simply uses his size to envelop smaller players. He knows that his size is his biggest asset, and he uses it in every way he can. Last season, Gill threw his body in front over over 150 shots.
Subban’s combination of aggression and athleticism makes him a perfect foil alongside Gill. Subban is raw, but even early in his career, he’s shown a mean streak to match his talent. Last season, Subban led all NHL defensemen in minor penalties with 42, including eight for roughing.
ProHockeyTalk reports that the Canadiens are bringing Gill back for the upcoming season to serve as a tutor for Subban. When class is in session, opposing forwards had better keep their heads up.
Theo Peckham and Tom Gilbert blossomed last season as the No. 2 defense pairing for the Edmonton Oilers. Though neither is a star on his own, they worked well together to neutralize some of the top offensive lines in the Western Conference.
In terms of toughness, Peckham is unrivaled. He racked up 198 penalty minutes in the 2010/11 season, tops in the NHL among defensemen and 62 more than his closest challenger. Much of that gap was made up the penalty minutes resulting for the 10 fights that Peckham was involved in.
His partner is no slouch either, though he demonstrates his toughness in other ways. In 2010/11, Gilbert took the ice for over 31 shifts per game and blocked a team-high 172 shots.
This is certainly not the most talented pairing in the NHL, but you won’t find a tougher tandem anywhere.