The NHL blue line is defined by players at the top. Teams who rely on those players most are the ones that succeed.
Of the 16 playoff teams last season, only Anaheim did not have a defenceman lead its team in minutes per game. Even though the forward they put on the ice more than any defenceman was Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, they went 2-4.
Half of the playoff teams had only one or two defenceman on the ice in each game more than their top forward. Their combined record was 44-47 (.484) overall and 7-9 (.438) in series. Those that had at least three defencemen at the top went 43-38 (.606) overall and 8-5 (.615), including both Stanley Cup finalists.
Thus in last season's playoffs, a team that leaned on three defencemen more than any other player won their series 20 percent more often than those that did not. But was this a one-year anomaly?
Since the lockout, teams with defencemen who play over 25 minutes a game in the playoffs have a 94-79 series record (.543), while those who did not went 19-27 (.413), winning 13 percent less often. Nine of the 12 conference champions, and seven of the last eight, have had a player they leaned on that heavily.
In other words, no one has more time to affect a game than an elite player on the blue line, and without one, no blue line is elite. Unless a player is good enough to be an asset on both the power play and penalty kill, they are not an elite player.
Based on their performances last season, their age and supporting cast, I project the following defencemen to be the 20 best in the league in 2011-12...