Cam Fowler will be among the top-20 NHL defencemen soon, but not in 2011-12
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...
P.K. Subban should continue to mature as a person and as a player over the season. This will allow him to improve over his already impressive 2010-11 numbers (77 GP, 14 G, 24 A, -8, 124 PIM, 22:16 TOI) that show he is already a two-way force.
Kris Letang already has a Stanley Cup and is just 24 years old. Yet he has had three seasons in a row with fewer than 10 games missed and at least 27 points. Last season, he had 50 points, a plus-15 rating and over 24 minutes per game.
Niklas Kronwall's physical style of play has taken its toll on the 30-year-old in recent years, as he has missed 72 games over the last five seasons. However, two of his last three seasons were at least 77 games long, so I am projecting relative health.
Kronwall balances his physicality with discipline and offensive productions, scoring nearly a point per two games over his career. Last season, he played in 77 games, registered 37 points, had a plus-five rating and just 36 PIM. He knows how to win big games, earning a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal and two conference championships.
Tyler Myers is set to begin just his third year in the league, and already the former Calder Trophy winner is an elite two-way player. Missing just two games over his first two years, he has scored over a point per two games, finished in the plus both seasons and registered just 72 PIM.
As he develops his game and his body, he will be a regular Norris Trophy Finalist. This year, he already has a good chance at making the All-Star Game.
Alexander Edler missed over a third of the season last year, and he might have been already considered among the league's elite had he not been injured. The 25-year-old has never finished in the negative for plus-minus rating, and shows discipline to stay out of the box as well, with just 64 PIM to 75 points in 127 games over the past two seasons.
Dion Phaneuf is still one of the more physical players in the league, yet has missed just 22 games in six seasons. He has also never failed to score 30 points, and at just 26 years old, he should bounce back from his worst season (66 GP, 30 pts., -2, 88 PIM).
Mike Green is known mostly for his offence, but is just big enough and skates well so as not to be a defensive liability. He will turn 26 at the start of the season, so his best days should remain ahead.
His biggest problem is injuries, as he missed 33 games last season and 21 more in the two years prior. With upgrades to the team's defence, he should be able to see his 25:11 TOI decrease, as he is used less in his own end and more on the attack. Expect a return to closer to the point per game days of the previous two years than last year's rate of half that.
Keith Yandle had a breakthrough season in 2010-11. This season, he will have less team support, putting him in for more situations but also drawing the attention of the opposition more. Because of the amount they will go through him offensively, he should improve on last year's five points per seven games and over 25 minutes of ice time, but his plus-12 rating will take a hit.
Jack Johnson's 42 points were a mild improvement over the previous season offensively, but I expect this 24-year-old to focus his attention on the defensive end. He has the physique and skill-set to be a shut-down defender, but has never finished a season in the plus. His minus-21 last season was due in large part to facing the other team's top line, but he is also on the ice in scoring situations and should see a new career high for points and plus-minus.
At 35 years old, Dan Boyle's best days are supposed to be behind him. However, last season he played the second-most minutes in the league and registered 50 points in 76 games. His skating ability is crucial to San Jose's puck possession, as he is often left to get the puck out of his own end.
While Boyle's skating, knowledge and hustle makes him a good defender, his lack of size and proclivity to join the rush necessitate being paired up with a stay-at-home defender like Douglas Murray to avoid assignment break-downs. With the addition of Brent Burns, Boyle will likely play fewer minutes in his own end and do what he does best, which is quarterbacking the power play and other offensive zone sets, keeping his scoring near last year's levels.
One of Dustin Byfuglien's best assets is his versatility. He can play forward and is among the best in the league at crowding the net. He can play on the blue line and be responsible and physical defensively.
Either way, he scores points. Last season, Byfuglien scored 53 in 81 games with just a minus-two rating on a struggling team. While the excessive travel of Winnipeg will hurt all players on the team, the energy from the city getting a team back should make up for it at home. Expect him to perform at least equal to last year in almost every statistical category.
Chris Pronger is beginning to wear down. His heavy workload showed in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, where he was owned by Chicago's forwards. Last season, he missed 32 games and his minutes were reduced.
However, Pronger defends the real estate in front of the net as well as anyone in the league outside of Zdeno Chara. He is still an intimidating presence, and still a great passer, allowing him to put up a point per two games for 12 consecutive seasons. He may fall short of that mark next season, but not by much.
Ryan Suter is half of the one-two punch that earned Nashville its first playoff series win. And at 26, he should continue to grow as a player.
Over the last three seasons, Suter has scored more than a point per two games (39 in 70 games last season) but he is an asset on both ends of the ice. Not only can he advance the puck out of his zone, but he can protect it without spending too much time in the penalty box (54 PIM last season).
There is little reason to think Nicklas Lidstrom's days are numbered by anything more than his own decision to retire soon. The 41-year-old has only once missed more than six games in a season, and won his seventh Norris Trophy last season, all after the age of 30.
However, he probably should not have won it. He finished below even for the first time in his 19-year career, and played fewer minutes than 39 other defencemen around the league. While he was third among NHL defencemen in points per game, his 62 points in 82 games were 13 more than the previous season. That represents a more likely result in 2011-12.
Brent Seabrook shouldered much of the load with the mass exodus of the Stanley Cup champion roster of 2010. He played over 24 minutes on average in every game and finished even against other teams' best forwards for a team that finished 15th in record and spent only 47 minutes in the penalty box all season.
He also is developing his offensive game, scoring 48 points last season. With the loss of Brian Campbell, he will need to play more minutes and do more scoring in 2011-12.
Drew Doughty is in a contract dispute. There are questions about his satisfaction and commitment with the Los Angeles Kings. But I expect him to miss minimal time, and by the time he turns 22 mid-season, he will be no worse than the fifth best defenceman playing on any given night.
In three seasons, Doughty has missed only seven games and has scored 126 points. He averaged the fifth-most minutes in the league last season and put up 40 points and a plus-13 rating playing for a defensive-minded team. With more offensive support this season, everything but his time on ice (25:38) should go up.
Brent Burns is the total package. He has skating ability, skill, size and toughness. At just 26 years old, he will only get better.
Burns managed 46 points in a bounce back season after missing 23 and 35 games the previous two years. He also has 133 points in his last 268 games playing for one of the worst scoring teams in the league. Expect him to break out now that he is with one of the most high-powered offences in the NHL under coach Todd McLellan.
Duncan Keith is one of only three active players with a Norris Trophy to his name in this millennium. Like Seabrook, he took on a heavy burden in 2010-11 with the loss of so many players, leading the league in minutes at just under 27 per game while playing in every game.
His offensive production suffered, but he still put up 45 points while finishing minus-one with just 22 PIM. Just like Seabrook, he will continue to have to carry big minutes with the departure of Campbell, but should be able to handle it while seeing his scoring increase by about a third.
A record-setting contract for a defenceman his age might be too much for many players to handle. But while Weber is barely old enough to legally drink in the United States, he is the team captain and has handled heavier pressure just being asked to carry that franchise.
With Ryan Suter to help carry the load, the defenceman should be able to handle the loss of more talent as he does every year. An absolute beast on both ends of the ice, he played the eighth most minutes in the NHL last season and tabulated 16 goals, 32 assists, a plus-seven rating and just 56 PIM. While his time on ice may not increase, his best days are ahead of him and he should produce at least as much offensively in 2011-12.
Zdeno Chara was the most dominant defenceman over the entire ice last season, finishing 19th in scoring and best in the league in plus-minus. For a hulking and intimidating defender out there against the league's best on a defensive-minded team, finishing top-20 in either is an accomplishment.
At 34 years old, Chara still has mileage left on his skates. He has missed just 12 games in five seasons in Boston and played more minutes than all but five players last season. He has been a model of consistency, scoring at least 44 points in each of his last four seasons while keeping penalty minutes below 100 in each of the last three.
With the Bruins blue line being among the deepest in the league, he may have minutes reduced slightly and he may well fall just short of his 44-point mark, but there will still be no better all-purpose defenceman.